Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland have been gripped by an explosion of protests, riots and roadblocks at the hands of Loyalist paramilitaries.
It began with 1,000 Loyalist protesters gathering outside Belfast city hall singing “God Save the Queen” and shouting “No surrender”.
They were opposing a cut in the number of days the British flag is to be flown over the building. This was quickly followed by riots and protests across the city. Protests have spilled over into the Catholic Short Strand area, with homes and the local church attacked.
The liberal Unionists of the Alliance Party have seen several of their offices burnt out and smashed up. There have also been attacks on its councillors’ homes and death threats issued against its East Belfast MP Naomi Long.
Most people in the North do not want to see a return to this kind of activity. They don’t want paramilitary organisations to bring the place to a complete halt and leave many people living in fear.
So what’s causing all this? On the face of it, the trouble seems to just be about flying a flag. But it is in fact about something much deeper.
Ever since the peace process began in Northern Ireland, Loyalists have put forward a sectarian argument that their “community” is being left behind. By “community” they mean Protestants who vote for Unionist parties and are loyal to Britain’s flag and queen.
Of course, working class Protestants have been left behind by the Stormont assembly. They have gained nothing from supporting the Unionist parties who claim to represent them. But so have working class Catholics, unemployed people, students and most other people.
Loyalism claims Protestants are losing out because Catholics are doing better. It uses the real anger in working class areas over unemployment, poverty and an uncertain future to try to point the blame at Catholics. It uses bigotry to mobilise people on the streets.
This is what was done around the Ulster Covenant centenary commemoration, and the rioting this September in North Belfast around St Patrick’s Church. Words like “identity” and “culture” are used to whip up fear to defend a flag that never gave a damn about working class people.
The mainstream Unionist parties are trying to present themselves as mediators between Republican politicians and the Loyalist mob on the streets.
Yet the Unionist parties, the DUP and UUP, are directly responsible for what has happened over the past few weeks. Not only are they leading an executive that is failing working class people, they also distributed 40,000 leaflets around East Belfast about the flag issue.
The DUP is deeply unpopular in many areas across Belfast. In particular it is trying to claw back support in the parliamentary constituency where its leader Peter Robinson lost his seat three years ago. Long, the Alliance Party MP who won the seat, has been targeted by the protesters.
The way the debate exploded in the city council is a direct product of the Good Friday Agreement. At its heart it is about the idea of respecting the “two traditions” of Loyalism and Republicanism.
But over the following 14 years it has re-cemented segregation and division into life and politics in the North. It assumes that people should want to be divided and follow whichever “tradition” they grew up in.
The task for socialists is to take a principled and unequivocal stand against the sectarian riots. We should argue for the trade unions to stand up and speak out. They should organise a march against sectarianism to get people on the streets to show opposition to recent events.
Huge cuts are about to be implemented, with a devastating effect on young people, poor people, pensioners and workers. We need politics which unites people and fights over these issues.
If we don’t fight for that agenda, we will have an even greater increase in sectarianism—and more brutal cuts pushed through. Sectarianism can only be challenged when people stand up and fight together.