In the second part of a series, Jim Larmour and Hannah Kenny assess how the permanent crisis of unionism has failed communities, arguing that workers’ unity, rather than division is the way forward.
Part one can be read here.
Riots earlier this month showed us where stoking tensions and sectarian divisions invariably leads – inflammatory rhetoric from political unionism and loyalist paramilitaries fuelled disturbances in working class loyalist communities. With MP Sammy Wilson making statements about the need for “guerrilla warfare” against the Irish Sea Border, it’s not surprising that guerrilla warfare found its expression in riots at interfaces.
Before she ceeded to pressure and agreed to step down as First Minister, Arlene Foster gave political cover to those pushing the unevidenced narrative that there is a two-tier policing system against loyalism. Foster called for PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne to resign over the decision not to prosecute anyone who gathered for Bobby Storey’s funeral, despite remaining silent when Byrne sent his officers to disproportionately target BLM protesters; and she tweeted amidst sectarian riots that Sinn Féin were the ‘real lawbreakers’, not the rioters.
When the rioting is over, impoverished communities will be left to pick up the pieces after tensions were stoked from on high, and the practical possibility of breaking the cycle of sectarian division will have suffered a setback.
A Separate Identity?
Without downplaying or ignoring the very real pull of sectarianism in these communities, especially given recent events, we should challenge the false premise that most people in unionist communities are reactionary or sectarian, and want divisions to remain.
Generalisations like this are patronising and insulting, as well as patently untrue. And it’s equally frustrating to see establishment commentators relate to loyalist communities by assuming paramilitary leaders are their natural representatives.
There has even been the temptation within republican circles, the mainstream left, and liberalism, to write off northern Protestants as some sort of reactionary mass when contemplating any real chance of radical, transformative change in Ireland. In a state where we’re often required to identify as Unionist or Nationalist, we can point to a growing group who reject this forced identification, perceiving themselves instead as ‘other’.
Indeed, many young working-class Protestants see the politics of division and reaction as something representing a bygone age, out of touch with their day-to-day experiences. And they are no less affected by issues like the climate crisis and equality for women, workers, and the LGBTQ+ community, which are relegated by political unionism.
Despite what parties like the DUP and TUV like to portray, it is incorrect to identify all working class protestants as having separate interests, overwhelmingly conservative traditions, and therefore, the need for loyalism to represent those interests.
In a world where roughly 800 million to 1 billion people are classed as belonging to some form of protestant religion, why would there be a singularly distinct protestant culture in one part of a tiny island on the edge of Europe?
Socialists emphasise what unites working class people, not what further divides them. Against the notion of a protestant ‘Orange’ culture, distinct from working class Catholics, we should be clear that ‘Orangeism’ is an ideology which is neither innate nor beyond reproach.
Indeed, Orangeism’s very inception was as an all-class alliance to counter nationalists and peasants revolting against landlords and British colonial rule. It had a supremacist ideology at its core which remains today.
There have been attempts to rebrand the July 12th period as ‘Orangefest’, marketing it to tourists as a harmless cultural pageant. However, an organisation such as the Orange Order which admits only protestants, opposes mixed marriage, refuses to let its members enter a Catholic church, and seeks to march in areas where it is not wanted, can never be defended as an expression of culture or identity, protestant or otherwise.
Sectarianism and Despair
Unionism and Loyalism have always had an ambiguous and arguably insecure nature. It owes its loyalty to what, exactly? A crumbling empire that no longer exists? An outdated monarchy when a growing number within the UK identify as republicans? A British establishment who frequently sells them out?
That insecurity is fuelled further by the steady decline of unionism’s power since the 1960’s. A state set up in 1921, referred to as a “Protestant state for a Protestant people” by the first Prime Minister James Craig, no longer holds the same relevance it once did.
Membership of the Orange Order peaked at 70,000 in 1965 and stands now at half that amount, falling steadily all the while.
The north has suffered the same neoliberal fate as the rest of the UK, even more so in fact, further undermining Unionism’s grip. A century on, a working-class protestant is more likely to be earning minimum wage in a call centre or serving coffee for yet another American multinational than to be working for a member of the Unionist ruling class in a shipyard, engineering plant, or mill.
In a race to the bottom, loyalists now portray themselves as a people losing out economically to the ‘other side’ as opposed to the ideological superiority of old.
Some working-class loyalists have at times articulated how they lost out to the all-class alliance of ‘Big-house Unionism’ and how the working class was left with a few crumbs from the masters table. For example, the late David Ervine’s words that the DUP “are not to be trusted, their interest does not lie in Northern Ireland, their interest is self-interest” seems apt in current times.
However, although his party, the PUP, and others before them, seemed to present an alternative to the DUP and voice concerns of the working class, it has been on the basis of allegiance to the union first, not the class interests at play.
The logical conclusion of this is a party with representatives on the one hand who refuse to break with communal politics and become embroiled in sectarian tensions (the most recent example being the 2012 flag protests), and those on the other hand who embrace neoliberal politics despite the devastation in working class communities.
On the whole, and despite more radical individuals, loyalism has failed to produce any kind of class politics, while continuing to generate and benefit from sectarianism.
In circumstances of despair, sectarian ideas can grow. Faced with little prospect of a decent job or housing, alienation can drive young working-class protestants to accept the ideas put forward by paramilitaries and politicians that their loss is the other side’s gain. Their material conditions can be used to evidence this, even if statistics prove otherwise.
Of course, their fates are not improved by involvement with paramilitaries, and those at the top are quick to disown and denigrate them when they act on orders, despite fuelling the very division and deprivation which creates fertile conditions for paramilitaries to exert control.
What is desperately needed is an alternative for these communities based on class politics that offers hope, not further division, and which seeks to genuinely unite workers across the divide in a movement for better material conditions for all.
The Dissenter Tradition and a Socialist Alternative
There is a significant history of protestants breaking with unionism, from the United Irish rebellion of Tone and McCracken in 1798, to the dockers strikes of 1907 led by Connolly and Larkin, the outdoor relief riots of 1932, the civil rights struggle of the 1960’s.
On many occasions, they were a small but significant minority, facing violence and workplace and community expulsion, and subsequently labelled “rotten prods”.
Undeterred, they played leading roles in trade unions, in the Civil Rights and socialist movements: a proud unbroken thread that stood against the establishment and fought for workers unity.
The Belfast Dockers strike of 1907 saw working people from both traditions united to form an effective labour movement calling for better wages and working conditions.
Describing the situation at the time, businessman Fred Crawford lamented:
“we have lost a lot of staunch Unionist workmen in Belfast. They consider themselves betrayed by their leader….and have gone for the labour and socialist programmes.”
There was a political labour tradition which, at its best, offered a working-class alternative but with an uneven record and confined to reform within the northern state. The NILP (1924-1987) was well supported within working-class Protestant areas, polling 25.4% of the vote at its peak in 1965.
It is also worth remembering that much of the civil rights activity at Queen’s University from 1968 was organised by radicalised students who were Catholic in the minority. In an institution that was predominantly Protestant, three quarters of the students supported the civil rights campaign. An estimated 6000 Protestant workers and farmers voted in support of Bernadette Devlin in the parliamentary by-election in Mid-Ulster in April 1969.
Amongst the political upheaval, a socialist program that could win both Catholics and Protestants by addressing political discrimination and economic inequality alike looked possible in the latter years of the 1960s.
The full potential of this approach was unfortunately never tested, with the Civil Rights movement instead coming to be dominated by an emerging Catholic middle class and socialist demands dropped. No meaningful unity between Catholic and Protestant against Unionist hierarchy was achieved and an opportunity for a socialist transformation was lost.
Today, with the joint crises of capitalism and Unionism, it is certainly possible to win working class protestants to socialist organisation. A call for united working-class action, stepping outside of the legacy of divisional politics to fight on issues we share can begin to unite the working class across our society.
But our lives are about more than just bread and butter, and socialists today must also learn the lessons of the past decades by not ducking the big political and social questions that arise for fear of alienating any one ‘side’.
People Before Profit has made modest but important gains with the working-class in traditionally unionist areas, but mass numbers of protestants, like any other group, will not be won over to socialism in the abstract. It will require a mass fightback, of workplace struggles and movements on the streets. It is through engaging in such common activity that people can begin to break from all the old reactionary ideas.
The example of the successful healthcare workers strikes of winter 2019/20 in the north, where thousands of NHS workers fought and won pay parity with the UK shows a small glimpse of what is possible in a united fightback. Six weeks of strike action achieved something more positive than 20 years of a dysfunctional Stormont assembly, and the gains are shared by workers on both sides.
The recent example of the rank-and-file strike of Translink bus workers in response to a bus hijacking during the riots gives a shining example of the power of organised workers to pose an alternative to sectarianism. The trade union movement as a whole must not be afraid to call out those who are stoking sectarianism without feeling the need to hide behind the “both sides” narrative.
The Nationalist Offer
With unionism in the midst of an historic crisis and unlikely to go quietly given the prospect of a united Ireland looming large, one of the ‘big questions’ which socialists cannot shirk is that of a border poll.
Socialists should be for such a democratic poll but it is vital that we go further than calling for a yes vote. The more pertinent discussion is around the type of Ireland we would like to see. We have to flesh out the demand for a new, socialist Ireland if we hope to win a majority north and south, and across the communal divide.
And the demand must be better than what’s currently on offer through the narrow confines of nationalism. When pressed on what future a United Ireland would look like, the Sinn Féin blueprint doesn’t exactly inspire.
Mary Lou McDonald has pointed to some sort of transitional federal solution, with Stormont representing the north; she’s said that the idea of Ireland rejoining the Commonwealth needs to be discussed; and within their strategy is an acceptance that support for Orangeism, the British Monarchy and its armed forces will/should remain.
One claim from a Sinn Féin document for a united Ireland was that jobs will be lost in a rationalisation process between the public sectors and civil services on either side of the border. Reunification based on the welding together of two neoliberal states as they presently stand is unlikely to appeal to a majority in the north.
Faced with this choice between a state run by the British Tories on one side, and Irish Tories on the other, it would be no surprise to see a majority in protestant communities and the north as a whole, choose the “better the devil you know” option, as described by James Connolly when faced with the same potential scenario a century ago.
If there was ever a misguided doubt that the SDLP might have something better envisioned for communities across the North, just look at the record of their chosen partners in Dáil Éireann – Fianna Fáil.
The socialist argument around reunification must start with the premise that the working-class must be better off. This means raising demands for an all-Ireland NHS including nationalising all private care on the island, taxing the rich and big corporations, and a living wage and proper investment in a green economy as key basic demands.
We must also totally reject the elevation of the “two traditions” that has only served to further entrench sectarian division. A new Ireland for all should seek to integrate communities, including those beyond the traditional camps. Therefore, as with the fight to overcome sectarianism in the north and present a radical alternative to unionism, a clear vision of workers unity must be at its core.