Created: Friday, 15 February 2013 16:47
Written by Paul Mallon
Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 231 February-March 2013
On 3 December Belfast City Council voted to fly the union flag on just 18 designated days rather than all year round. Since then, protests and street disturbances have engulfed the north of Ireland and Belfast in particular, and sectarian attacks on the nationalist minority have captured international news headlines. The Confederation of British Industry complained that the riots have cost the Belfast economy £15m in lost trade and warned of the impact on future foreign investment. Images of burning cars and daily rioting had supposedly been consigned to history. It is not something Prime Minister David Cameron wants to see in the run up to June’s G8 summit in Enniskillen. What lies behind these latest developments?
Although the protests started over flag flying they are sustained by a variety of grievances. Chief among them are loyalist community fears about the erosion of their privileges. The sectarian statelet of Northern Ireland was established in 1920 by British imperialism in order to dominate all of Ireland. Discrimination against the Catholic nationalist minority was the Stormont government’s policy for 50 years prior to its collapse in 1972 in the face of the revolutionary national struggle led by the Provisional IRA. This collapse was a defeat for the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) which had ruled since the inception of the state, and started a process whereby Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) replaced it as the dominant loyalist party.
The DUP has been central to whipping up sectarian anger over the flag flying, seizing the opportunity to attack the Alliance Party which made significant electoral inroads in DUP heartlands, notably ousting DUP leader and former First Minister Peter Robinson from his East Belfast Westminster seat in 2010. Death threats against Alliance Party representatives have accompanied attacks on its offices in Belfast, Bangor and Carrickfergus. As protests escalated, loyalist paramilitaries – the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) – used the opportunity to reaffirm their positions. They are facing their own crisis with the re-emergence of supergrass trials, particularly of leading UVF member, Gary Haggarty, who is prepared to testify against his former associates in exchange for a lighter sentence.
Since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, there have been persistent disagreements between the loyalist parties as they have been forced to share power with nationalists. The Unionist community benefited from decades of discrimination against the Catholic minority and finds any move towards equality hard to take; notions of ‘losing out’ persist. However, despite successive employment and equality legislation, anti-Catholic discrimination remains.
The Northern Ireland Multiple Deprivation Measure 2010 records that 14 of the 20 most deprived wards are predominantly nationalist; including eight of the ten most deprived wards. The Peace Monitoring Report 2012 stated that ‘the proportion of people who are in low-income households is much higher among Catholics (26%) than among Protestants (16%)’. Poverty and deprivation indicators show that working class Protestant communities are not losing out to Catholics.1
A key factor upsetting the loyalists is peace funding. The political process in the north of Ireland has been underwritten by huge subsidies from Britain, the European Union and the US. The European Council created Peace I (1995-1999) giving the Six Counties €667m with a further €500m from the EU. Peace II (2000-2004) allocated €995m. In June 2005, following political unrest, €160m was added for 2005-06. Peace III (2007-2013) saw funding reduced to €330m. There are very low expectations of Peace IV (2014-2020), under discussion. This money has been crucial for the community organisations which are the bedrock of loyalist groups.
The peace money has been central to shoring up the statelet. The Six County state’s economy has been transformed. Once dominated by industries such as shipbuilding, textiles and heavy engineering, between 1920 and 1945 unemployment grew as industry stagnated. After the war, public sector employment was inflated to offset losses in manufacture. Between 1950 and 1994 manufacturing employment declined by 50.4%, while service and public sector employment grew by 22.8%. Health and social services increased by 27.8% between 1974 and 1992, education employment by 26.3% and the security sector by 54.3%. Catholics benefited from these employment opportunities; a basis was laid for the emergence of a Catholic middle class which supported moves towards the 1998 peace settlement. Today total British subsidies to the north are £5bn, 20% of its annual economic output, while the Office for National Statistics reports the north of Ireland having the highest concentration of public sector employment at 27.7%, compared to Wales (25.7%), Scotland (23.5%) and the North East (22.2%).
Speaking in 2006 the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Hain said, ‘There is no prospect of the status quo prevailing – millions of pounds being paid out for people not to do their jobs…I don’t think people have woken up to the fact that the economy is not sustainable in its present form in the long term. We have got to become more competitive, less dependent upon a bloated public sector with huge state subsidies’ (Sunday Times, 15 January 2006). The British Treasury endorses this, suggesting special exemption for a lower corporation tax to attract foreign direct investment.2
The protests in the north reflect uncertainty over future funding in a context of deepening world crisis. The loyalists are determined to hang on to their privileges come what may. The flag protests are collective bargaining by rioting.
2 HM Treasury, March 2011, Rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy, available online www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/consult_rebalancing_ni_economy.htm