The Orange violence has stopped. What about the unending bigotry?
Much was brought to bear by the British government in the run-up to the 2013 Orange demonstrations to ensure that there would be no violence. To the combined momentum of nearly two decades of bribes, background talks and persuasion was added the political offensive around the location of the G8 Summit, the intervention of the US president, the direct pleas of local business and government and the mobilization of substantial state forces from Britain. Over £22 million had been spent wining and dining Orange leaders and paramilitaries at a secret conference in Cardiff earlier in the year to hammer out a deal that would keep the Orange marches peaceful.
It should not be said that the British got nothing for their efforts. It is quite clear that, in contrast to previous mobilisations, both the Orange leadership and Loyalist paramilitary leaders had agreed to earn the millions poured into their pockets by abstaining from any generalised disruption.
Plan nor control
However what the Orange promise in secret talks and what they deliver in public are always different things. In this case abstention meant bringing the most lumpen elements of their membership up to police lines and leaving them there.
In some of his most direct remarks ever to the Orange police chief Matt Baggot complained bitterly that there was neither "plan nor control" of the protests. Clearly he had been told to expect something more measured than the rabid onslaught that took place, nor did he expect that the initial riots would be followed by Orange attacks in other areas nor that elements of the paramilitary organizations would join in.
A week later the Orange Order met the expectations of the police and the state. They filed for another march, led their members to the police lines, had a political demonstration and dispersed peacefully. The issue of violence, universally condemned, has now been resolved. But what of the substantial issue? What of the Orange assertion of sectarian supremacy? How is it to be dealt with?
The first Orange riot took us back to the territory of the flag protests which began last year. The unionist “poor whites” had taken to the streets. As with the flag protests, there was universal condemnation of the violence. As with the flag protests, the British strategy was to smother the riots by sheer numbers of police and pick up and charge ringleaders later in an attempt at gradual containment and dispersal.
As with the flag protests, the underlying political problem is that the unionist parties, while making formal condemnations of violence, are united in their support for "Orange culture" and blame the British, through their parades commission, for the violence. At a special sitting of the Stormont Assembly Peter Robinson made great show of denouncing violence but the motion passed was a call for the disbandment of the Parades Commission. It is worth noting that a week earlier the DUP had blocked a vote calling on their minister, Nelson McCausland, to step down in the face of corruption charges. A similar veto was available to Sinn Fein on the issue of parades but they chose not to operate it. This is hardly surprising as in earlier negotiations Sinn Fein had agreed to the dismantling of the Parades Commission and a new arrangement that would have banned all trade union, democratic and social demonstrations while allowing the Orange to march – the deal fell through because of the intransigence of the Orange. (That is not to say that anyone should support the Parades Commission, a clearly undemocratic body. We should however oppose the establishment of an even more sectarian and reactionary regime).
The Orange culture that all are anxious to defend is a culture of supremacy and impunity. A tour of the 11th night bonfires says it all. The bonfires themselves are illegal due to their size and proximity to housing. The burning of the car tyres that many are built from is illegal on environmental grounds. A transnational firm complained that colour-coded wooden pallets that made up many of the structures had been stolen from them.
On top of this superstructure is a substructure of hatred: Irish flags, Polish flags, an effigy of a local priest who committed suicide suspended from a gallows, Catholic religious statues incorporated for burning. The demand to march past Catholic areas should be seen in this supremacist light. The Queen's highway belongs to the Queen's people and not to the underpeople who object.
The heart-warming tale that contradicted this analysis was of a Catholic statue stolen from a church that appeared on a Shankill Road bonfire. After the statute was shown on local TV it was returned by a community worker.
On further investigation it turned out that in fact the Catholic church had negotiated the return through contact with loyalist paramilitaries. Such is the pervasiveness of Orange impunity that it never occurred to anyone that the police would secure the openly displayed stolen property and return it to its owners. A similar indifference was exhibited when the Electricity Board announced that they were cutting off the electricity to a small village because of the risk from a bonfire. No one suggested that the bonfire be dismantled or moved.
Sinn Fein have a solution to the Orange crisis. Martin McGuinness called it "a tale of two cities," and points to the Orange march in Derry where not only did the Orange march through the centre of the nationalist town, but they were given pride of place as a central element of the UK City of Culture. This, McGuinness explains, is the result of dialogue between nationalists and unionists. In case anyone misses the significance of this, a local Ardoyne Sinn Fein spokesman complained that the Orange were using the wrong game plan and explained that he thought that local dialogue would lead to continued Orange marches, a position that has led to the displacement of Sinn Fein as the political leadership in Ardoyne.
The first ever meeting between the Orange order and local nationalists took place a few days before. It included a Sinn Fein controlled residents group, Catholic church representatives and the Social Democratic and Labour Party. It excluded GARC, the group that actually represents Ardoyne residents.
"let them have their flags."
Dialogue is of course a method, not a goal. So what is the outcome of "a tale of two cities?" It is true that the Orange march in Derry was peaceful, but they were, after all, marching through a major nationalist city where they were vastly outnumbered. The overall expression of Orangeism at the bonfires and interfaces was no different. It was in Derry that a new loyalist flag was erected - the flag of the first parachute regiment. The symbolism is simple enough. In loyalist eyes the British were right to kill civil rights demonstrators. They should have killed more. In their eyes it is not too late to return to a policy of military repression of nationalists.
In fact "a tale of two cities" is simply dressing up the overall strategy of the Irish bourgeoisie, summed up by poet Seamus Heaney as: "let them have their flags." If the Orange can be persuaded to talk, then the Catholic middle class are perfectly happy with a society that includes routine displays of sectarian hatred. The middle class will still have access to kick-backs and political patronage.
Everyone tut-tuts at violence. The unionists are united in demanding the cultural rights of sectarian and pro-imperialist populist street movements. Sinn Fein respect the call for cultural rights – it is, after all, the meaning of “equality of the two traditions” on which the peace process is based. They demand dialogue in the hope that they may be able to moderate the direct sectarian provocation, but mainly so that they can justify their own role as policing any nationalist working class response. It should be clear that if this policy were to overcome its many internal contradictions it would leave a sectarian wasteland where working class unity, democracy and socialism would all be impossible.
The central weakness of the current settlement is that the unionists can be persuaded and bribed to make background deals about flags and marches. What they will not do is politically support any restriction on sectarian privilege or find themselves in political conflict with the semi-fascist elements at their base. This has led to endless collapses, to gridlock of the local administration and to a cyclical process that pushes the original Good Friday Agreement to the right as it is replaced by modified versions. Instability has increased to the point where sizable contingents of state force are having to be imported from Britain – the situation that a political settlement was meant to prevent.
US imperialism, in the shape of Richard Haass, is now being asked to press the reset button yet again and come up with a new revision of the political settlement, which, in the nature of things, will move further to the right. The challenge to socialists and democrats is to produce a convincing alternative to a future of sectarian reaction.