James Fearon has sent the following article to Socialist Democracy (Ireland). We are reposting it here as a follow- up to our other articles covering the Belfast flag riots. These riots have exposed the continuing sectarian nature of the Northern Ireland statelet, and the UK state’s role in maintaining Loyalism as a back-up defence for British rule.

Happier days for Loyalists - Union Jack flies over Belfast City Chambers
Happier days for Loyalists – Union Jack flies over Belfast City Chambers

While northern middle class Nationalism stamps its feet in chagrin at the unwillingness of their Unionist counterparts to call Loyalist protests to heel it is forced to ignore an increasing body of evidence that contradicts its view of Unionism. Widespread among the chattering classes is the view that the issue of the Irish relationship with British imperialism has been put on a stable footing.

In this perspective the North of Ireland, despite some anomalies, is now a place in which the Catholic middle class, increasingly happy with a ‘Northern Irish’ identity, has a considerable stake, and the relationship with comfortable middle class Unionism, based on ‘parity of esteem’, is at the beginning of a long period of steady, prosperous evolution.

What a shock the flag issue has been for them. Nationalist spokespeople react with genuine surprise and abhorrence at the destabilising effects of the protests but it is not so much the display of plebeian bigotry that upsets them but the fact that that bigotry, and more especially the reaction to it, represents the reality of the Northern state, a reality that the Catholic middle class felt that they had the capacity to move beyond.

What helps keep this illusion alive is the fact that there is a section of the Unionist middle class that has been hurt by the protests (trade is down at least 20% in Belfast) and who also agree that the street activities should stop. This consensus however is based on the opinion that the protests should be formalised, that there should be some form of “bread and circuses” provided for the Loyalist paramilitaries and that while the flying of the imperialist flag every day may be negotiable the existence of the colonial state is not.

None of this would unduly trouble the Catholic middle class if outward manifestations of bigoted Loyalist mobilisation could be curtailed and the police would act as something more than unhelpful bystanders. But that is the nub of the matter.

At the base of the conundrum, and the central cause of Nationalist chagrin, is social class. Connolly’s prediction, 100 years ago, of a carnival reaction has proved correct  -repeatedly. The primary object of partition for the British Empire was to maintain a territorial foothold in Ireland and to do this they exploited the defeat of working class solidarity, and the sectarian mobilisation that had helped defeat it which supported Imperialist objectives. The very formation of the Northern Irish state depended upon this cross class sectarian mobilisation and it is the maintenance of this reactionary sectarian cross class alliance that we now see in action.

Nationalist middle class desires for a workable relationship with the Unionist middle class, a desire reciprocated to some extent on the basis that the union with Britain is not threatened, comes up against a simple reality. In the eyes of the State, plebeian Loyalists come first! These Loyalists must be placated at all costs, even at the expense of bourgeois unity, this is the basic form of social organisation upon which the sectarian state stands.

The vague aspirations of the Nationalist middle class count for nothing against this essential prerequisite of partition and imperialist rule. Bourgeois Nationalist rapprochement with ‘Liberal’ Unionism, fuelled by petit bourgeois class interests and ‘funding opportunities’, can only go so far before it comes up against this contradiction. Plebeian Loyalists made nervous by any such rapprochement must be reassured that the sectarian State exists to defend their interests.

Any ‘understandable’ discontent or ‘justifiable’ disturbance as a result of that nervousness is a ‘misunderstanding’ on the Loyalists part and must be tolerated and this extends as far as playing down death threats against Alliance Party members while their offices are attacked and burned.

The state will not alienate these bigoted protesters or move decisively against Loyalist political control mechanisms within the

The PSNI escorts Loyalist protest to Belfast city centre
The PSNI escorts Loyalist protest to Belfast city centre

Protestant working class. Their removal could allow class resentments to become ‘disloyal’. This cycle of rapprochement and alienation means the natural state of existence for the northern colony is an oscillating but perpetual state of conflict, sometimes muted, sometimes aggressive and violent.

British Imperialism’s grip on Ireland is based on this unstable and contradictory, but essential, relationship. The most transparent lies are told to justify that grip and to maintain that relationship.

The Bloody Sunday inquiry told us what we already knew, but did not extend its investigations up the chain of command to the centre of the Empire. Pat Finucane was murdered by Loyalist agents of the British state with no meaningful investigation at all; the Loughinisland massacre remains a ‘mystery’, South African arms were shipped in to Loyalist paramilitaries, and myriad other murders in which the British state is implicated through its connection with its illegal Loyalist arm are all swept deftly under the carpet.

Accept the various whitewashes of these crimes. Accept that the State will not move against Loyalist paramilitaries. Accept that the paramilitary RUC has morphed in to the paramilitary PSNI, with no changes except incredibly generous golden handshakes and new jobs for the old boys in the new apparatus and accept the reintroduction of selective internment for republicans opposed to Sinn Fein’s political line. Accept that MI5, unaccountable and all powerful, is continuing with widespread covert activities and is unanswerable to anyone. Accept all this and we’ll get along just fine. Unless of course the Loyalists find that they consider their position weakened by illusory outward signs of rapprochement and again must be accommodated, and then again their demands must be accepted as understandable and ‘justified’.

In the Northern sectarian prison-house Protestant workers are to be convinced that only through remaining loyal to the Empire’s ruling class can concessions be gleaned, and Loyalist organisations using ‘traditional methods’, and with the aid of ‘community’ funding, attempt to ensure that no other view gains ground.

Catholic workers are to be convinced that the present political settlement promises a ‘fair’ distribution, of resources and Sinn Fein and the SDLP attempt to convince Catholic workers that this is possible by their handling of their ministerial positions, and their shrinking budgets, handed to them by the colonial State.

The problem is that austerity measures are biting, the block grant is inadequate, and working class communities are faced with, at best, a ‘fair’ distribution of poverty, at worst, and this is what the flag issue signifies, the sectarian State’s default setting, a sectarian fight over diminishing resources.

Workers are encouraged not to upset this pernicious sectarian apple cart by fighting the austerity imposed by the imperialist economic crisis. Layer upon layer of control mechanisms exist to smother any such initiative, a conservative trade union leadership, institutionalised sectarian political power and the constantly reiterated proof that government repression whether legal or illegal will always be an option for the State.

But despite the carefully constructed control mechanisms the Northern State is more unstable than ever and the working class faces a choice; fight austerity and the capitalist system that causes it, fight the imperialist carve up of Ireland, and of the Irish working class, fight alongside the workers of Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain and the world and set our sights on a new revolutionary era. Alternatively, if we set our sights any lower, we seek only to reform the system that already exists and, perhaps despite honest intentions, we contribute to that system which will continue its inevitable slide back to the “good” old days.

10 January 2013

This article was first posted at:- Recent Correspondence The Carnival Continues

Also see earlier articles at:- The Belfast flag riots and the Scottish dimension and Belfast flag riots