Recognising Unionist rights?

14 April 2021

A Belfast bus burning on the Shankill Road

This blog post originally appeared on Irish Marxism


The recent riots in the North of Ireland have been described as the worst for some years. It is not that they are particularly large or violent. In fact, they have been localised and rather small, many rioters being not much more than children. Some have arisen from loyalist groups more involved in criminality than politics and kicking back at policing too effective for their liking.


So why the concern? The first is that they might get out of control and gather momentum. The summer is the traditional unionist marching season so there will be plenty of opportunities for disturbances. This is especially the case now that the state is going to have to relax the Covid lockdown. A second is concern that the Boris Johnson Government is not considered to have the skills to pacify the situation, or may even have reasons to keep the pot boiling.


It is his betrayal of the unionists in his ‘fantastic’ – ‘oven-ready’ – Brexit deal that has been the main reason for the eruption of unionist anger. If the definition of stupidity is believing anything he says then the Democratic Unionist Party has shown itself to be the dumbest of the dumb. Yet even now their leaders call on him to do the right thing and scrap the Northern Ireland Protocol to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the European Union; something with much bigger ramifications for the British state than riots in Ireland.


The placing down the Irish Sea of the inevitable trade border arising from Northern Ireland staying in the EU Single Market is, as unionists claim, a clear separation of it from Great Britain, even if nationalists and others claim it has no constitutional significance. Its maintenance would be a reverse for unionism and cause for demoralisation. While the same barriers are in place between Britain and the Irish State, the effect is to encourage further North-South economic integration. This, however, is of most significance from a longer term perspective and the Brexit deal excludes services, where it might be expected that the British and EU economies might diverge, with possible similar effects between the two states in Ireland.


The leader of the DUP Arlene Foster started off the year more or less accepting the NI Protocol and pointing out that Northern Ireland membership of both the UK and EU markets gave it certain advantages in terms of trade and foreign investment. The more bitter DUP MPs, such as Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley, nevertheless continued to denounce the betrayal, perhaps all the more so because they had been personally associated with being taken for fools. Leaked minutes of a DUP meeting appeared to indicate that at least some DUP members had about as much respect for these figures as many of us outside.


Which brings us to one of the more immediate causes of unionist agitation. As pointed out in a previous post the main cause for the swift change of direction by the whole DUP and its titular leader was an opinion poll showing significant loss of support to the even more rabidly militant Traditional Unionist Voice. When the NI Director of Prosecutions recommended no prosecution of Sinn Fein members following their attendance en masse at an IRA leader’s funeral, and their apparent breach of Covid-19 restrictions, it proved to be the spark that lit the fire.


But this too, while causing understandable unionist anger, is largely a confection. Unionists condemned the DPP decision but blamed the police when it was the police who had recommended prosecution. Unionists have lighted upon liaison between the police and Sinn Fein before the funeral as a reason given by the DPP for likely inability to prosecute, but such liaison is not unusual.


The other reason given by the DPP was the Covid regulations themselves and their unfitness for the purpose of successful prosecution. But it was the DUP (and Sinn Fein) who were responsible for drafting these regulations and if they could not be prosecuted it is yet another example of their incompetence. Much of the consequences of Brexit and of the fall-out from the Bobby Storey funeral can therefore be laid at the door of the DUP. Far better for someone else to be the target of loyalist anger than themselves.


Arlene Foster called for the head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to resign and refused to meet him, although then did so since she had previously met the loyalist paramilitaries; while the leader of the rival Ulster Unionist Party joined in calling for his resignation but could not explain in a radio interview what he had done wrong. Meanwhile, the first loyalist riot in Belfast against this failure to prosecute lack of social distancing at the republican funeral took place in the same area in which a loyalist funeral in September had failed to do exactly the same thing.


In a sense none of this incoherence matters, reactionary causes don’t have to be coherent, they just have to be reactionary. The charge levied by unionism is that everyone else doesn’t understand them, doesn’t appreciate their anger, and doesn’t acknowledge that their ‘British identity’ is being undermined. Since this amorphous charge is without any clear definition it becomes whatever unionism says it is. What is being claimed is that anything unionism doesn’t like is undemocratic, and the more it is upset the more undemocratic it is, and the less everyone else understands.


So what unionism wants is what it wants and deserves to get. The Northern State was set up for them and it should fulfil its role of satisfying the majority whose existence it is for.


Since its position has historically been one of sectarian privilege and supremacy this should continue to be bolstered, and any attempt to undermine it is undemocratic and sectarian itself. The nationalist demands for respect, tolerance and equality apply to unionism in equal measure, which means respect for its reactionary culture, tolerance of its sectarian practices and obeisance to its supremacist demands. The current political arrangements in the North of Ireland are supposedly based on these values, to be shared by nationalists and unionists alike, making it obvious why they aren’t working.


We who live here however are expected to bow down before unionist demands and recognise the failure to offer unionism what is its due, so that we must sympathise with its turmoil and incoherence. We are supposed to accept the democratic rights of bigots on the basis that there are a lot of them. Fortunately, the world is a much bigger place and it is possible to imagine that the limits of political change are not defined by sectarian reactionaries, no matter how locally numerous they may be.


While forecasts of an imminent border poll and of a potential united Ireland are premature, the already existing growth of the non-unionist defining section of the population no longer allows unionism to constrain all political development and change. Even the attempt to share out resources, privileges and rights along sectarian lines has proven unstable, although without yet the maturation of forces to make it fall over.


Socialists should acknowledge that the death of sectarianism, and the forces that defend it and promote it, will not be painless and will not be entirely peaceful. In the next post I will look at renewed proposals to conciliate this sectarianism. In the meantime we should not support compromise with sectarian reaction, if only on the grounds that it does not work.


What progress there has been even within Northern Ireland, has come from denying unionist demands and opposing its demonstrations and threats. Socialism or any sort of democratic settlement will not come without the defeat of unionism, the more demoralised it is the easier and less violent its demise will be.