Thursday, 8 April 2021

Loyalism's Tortured Decline

"Policing is a devolved matter for Northern Ireland", said Matt Hancock after getting quizzed about another night of loyalist violence. The non-too-subtle subtext being this is nothing to do with the government nor its grandstanding and reckless approach to Brexit. For his vanity and the electoral interests of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson at first courted and then betrayed the Democratic Unionist Party and its wish to keep the UK internal market together. And what do you know, since Brexit happened we've seen supermarket shortages and the perception the government in Westminster have washed their hands of all responsibility for the province. The Tories have also made the DUP look like a right bunch of mugs.

This is the background, and knowing there is trouble at the mill Arlene Foster has tried her damnedest to ride the wave of disaffection rippling through unionist communities. Making a big deal of Sinn Fein ministers' attendance at a funeral last year, she made it clear on Wednesday evening how this was more objectionable than torching a bus. Ham fisted and equivocal by the standards of Westminster boilerplate, Foster is actually in a great deal of political trouble. Not only is the Brexit the DUP campaigned for proving damaging to their raison d'etre and making a united Ireland more likely, the most pressing concern are the threats gnawing at Foster's position as First Minister and the DUP's standing.

The latest poll from January reports the surreal result that Sinn Fein is the most popular party in Northern Ireland. The DUP however are now scraping second place with 19%, down nine points on the 2017 elections and one point ahead of the third placed Alliance. They are proving especially threatening as the party emerged from and bites deeply into moderate unionism, despite punting itself as a non-sectarian party. And to the DUP's right, Traditional Unionist Voice has been egging on street opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol and, by extension, the Executive Foster leads. Boxed in and seemingly giving up on tacking toward the moderates, she has decided to ramp up the rhetoric against SF and virtually giving loyalist riots a free pass to bring back the extremists. Unfortunately for her, the DUP's doey-eyed participation in Brexit and having led unionism into the current impasse doesn't bode well for the party's political future.

Yet the predicament the DUP find themselves in isn't entirely their own doing. As per conservatism and Tory Britain generally, loyalism itself is in long-term decline. This year 42% polled in the north said would back a united Ireland, declining slightly from 45% when asked last year. In all, by far the most popular party among the under-44s is Sinn Fein, and by a very healthy majority Northern Ireland voted to Remain. The unionist community split 57/43 to leave, but like elsewhere younger people were most likely to support remaining with the EU. As we also saw recently, the DUP were on the wrong side of Northern Ireland's abortion debate, leaving them saddled with a sectarian social conservatism increasingly at odds not just with younger people's values, but their everyday experience. As the most vocal champions for the union and the UK, the British state could do with better cheerleaders.

Unionism's decline is more than value change and the recomposition of the working class, but an erosion of the sectarian character of the Ulster statelet itself. Active discrimination in housing, jobs, particularly public sector jobs, and policing had been in decline prior to the Good Friday Agreement and has continued since. Politics has a tendency to lag behind economics, and as the material basis for a particular cultural location evaporates so clinging to its identities and rituals can become stronger and, in some instances, extreme among a significant minority, Even as, especially as its wider influence diminishes. Given the alacrity with which the DUP opposed the decriminalisation of abortion, here we have a particular case of trying to uphold the social conservatism unionism identifies with. This is also the root of their embrace of Brexit too. There is no loyalism without the Irish border, and so withdrawing from the European Union, they calculated, would remphasise their difference and distinction from the rapidly secularising republic and secure their continued political relevance. What they weren't expecting was Boris Johnson hanging them out to dry by moving the border into the Irish Sea and, if anything, accelerating their appointment with marginalisation.

The problem is what happens next. If a group feels under threat, thanks to Northern Ireland's history this could step up from property damage and play itself out as attacks and murders. And given loyalism's record of butchery during the Troubles, this everywhere and always means political opponents and ordinary civilians. There is no popular appetite for a return to violence, but this is unlikely to stay the hands of would-be terror gangs. As Ulster unionism comes apart, there's every chance its final chapter could be blood-soaked and violent.

10 comments:

Jim Denham said...

Yet another example of the wonderful benefits of Brexit.

David Lindsay said...

These are the only people who regularly display the Union Flag, an essentially alien practice that the Government wishes to introduce in imitation of the those who tonight are again throwing firebombs on the streets of Belfast.

Also seen only feet away last night, on the Lanark Way side of the gates, was Spike Murray, who was a decidedly non-teenage pallbearer for Bobby Storey as a fellow member of the Provisional Army Council. Storey's funeral was arranged and staged in active coordination with the Police, so the idea of prosecutions was always fanciful. And everyone knows that if Michelle O'Neill called for a Chief Constable to resign, then he would be finished. The youths through the gates on the Shankill Road know, and the paramilitaries directing them know in detail, that you can make anyone you like First Minister, but the institutions of the State are errand boys for Sinn Féin, who are errand girls for the Army Council, which is a body of totally unreconstructed IRA hard men from back in the day.

Moreover, it is an almost entirely Northern body, on the cusp of taking control of a 26 County State in which few of its members have ever lived and where almost none of them grew up. It is already running the Six County State where most of its members did grow up and do live. Dissent may be expressed only by taking to the streets. But even there, it is entirely impotent, since it faces the full wrath of the Police, soon to be joined by the Army, on its own side of the gates, and since it would face the full wrath of Spike Murray and Company Limited should it break through to the other side.

Boffy said...

The Loyalist riots, show that the answer is increasingly a United Ireland so as to lance the boil. The Unionist violence is based upon the idea that they might be able to pressure Johnson into scrapping the border down the Irish Sea. He won't and can't. Its the inevitable consequence of the Brexit that the British separatists sought.

A United Ireland will put an end to those vain hopes.

Boffy said...

The Loyalist riots, show that the answer is increasingly a United Ireland so as to lance the boil. The Unionist violence is based upon the idea that they might be able to pressure Johnson into scrapping the border down the Irish Sea. He won't and can't. Its the inevitable consequence of the Brexit that the British separatists sought.

A United Ireland will put an end to those vain hopes.

Sraid Marx said...

The idea that Michelle O'Neill can sack the PSNI Chief Constable is risible. The idea that the IRA can employ the institutions of the state as errand boys is delusional. Catholic membership of the police is falling and it recently arrested the victim of loyalist death squads at a commemoration of a killing in which the police are suspected of collusion with the killers and have been conspicuously slow to provide evidence to a subsequent investigation. Even with this provocation Sinn Fein was unable to call for the resignation of the Chief Constable because they knew better than to expose themselves to ridicule and obvious impotence to achieve this demand.

Spike Murray would have been at the other end of Lanark Way from loyalist rioters in order to ensure that there were no clashes or to minimise those that might occur. It is not at all in Sinn Fein's interest for the latest loyalist violence to spill over into sectarian conflict. The police chose to use water cannon for the first time on Catholic youth while loyalists have been rioting for a number of days.

The immediate cause of the loyalist protests is the failure to prosecute republicans attending the funeral of an IRA leader but the role of the police in facilitating the funeral is not the main reason for this failure. Such facilitation is normal practice with loyalist and republican marches etc. so prosecution was not prejudiced, although this would undoubtedly have been a defence employed by those attending. The major reason appears to have been the Covid regulations themselves, which would not sustain a prosecution because they were not fit for purpose. Ironically it was tSinn Fein and DUP who were responsible for their introduction, yet another example of their sheer incompetence.

The loyalist riots are a sign of weakness and are going nowhere. The British Government cannot accede to their demands without endangering the credibility of the police and encouraging demands for the end of the NI Protocol with the EU. This would antagonise nationalists, the Irish Government and the EU and threaten the devolved arrangements; all to assuage unionist who are themselves responsible for the Protocol's existence through support for Brexit. I don't think the price that would be paid by the British Government would be compensated by keeping loyalism sweet and avoiding a few riots.

David Lindsay said...

Unionists have been claiming to have been betrayed by the British Government since even before Home Rule and Partition. They are now boys, and in this case literally boys, who cried wolf. This time, they really have been betrayed by the British Government. But no one wants to know.

Hey, ho. The purpose of politics is to acquire and exercise power. Therefore, one can only have a sneaking regard for the fact the Provisional Army Council, in the old age of its members, has become the de facto sovereign body of the Six County State, and even stands on the cusp of becoming the de facto sovereign body of the 26 County State, to which most of those members have little or no connection. Like the arrival of the Revolutionary Communist Party at the very heart of a Conservative Government, one cannot help feeling that there might be hope for us all yet.

Martin Davis said...

How the various interested parties are going to avoid anything but a dog's dinner over Ulster, again, will be a wonder to behold. The UK found it difficult to reach the GFA, with loads of cash and a still significant military presence. Both will be found wanting in a transition to a United Ireland. The Republic has but a fraction fo the resources, and an insignificant military. Any relinquishing of control from London will cut the subsidies, and certainly involve avoidance of any military commitment. A hot potato indeed. Maybe the paramilitaries can be bought off, but belief in the promises of politicians probably expired many moons ago.

Boffy said...

A United Ireland will have the full economic and military weight of the EU behind it, which is many, many times greater than the UK could ever muster. It will also have support from the US, which is already heavily invested in Ireland, and under Biden looking to grow closer to the EU against the UK, due to Brexit and Johnson and the Tories cosying up to Trump, and the reactionary nationalists.

A United Ireland will jot face the paramilitary operations of PIRA, which always found resources from outside Ireland, and an isolated Protestant community with its paramilitaries is not going to be in any way comparable. For one thing, a significant proportion of Protestants will see a secular United Ireland inside the EU, as a far more attractive option than a rapidly declining NI statelet, still in the grip of religious bigotry and backwardness, and declining even faster than a rapidly declining Brexit Britain.

You can see why the Scots, and increasingly the Welsh want to escape that rapidly sinking Brexit ship, too, so as to rejoin the EU, even though, in their cases, they would be wrong to see that nationalism as the solution to their problems, because unlike NI, a border between Scotland and England, or Wales an England, would have immediate reactionary consequences, whereas removing the border completely in Ireland would have immediate progressive results.

Its ironic that Brexit, far from bringing the break up of the EU that reactionary nationalists of Right and Left hoped for, is instead leading to the break-up of Britain that some of us predicted would be the consequence. The solution to this fracturing of the working-class, is to scrap Brexit and rejoin the EU at the soonest opportunity.

Whinanoadmaheed Hittit said...

I must say that I think it's very brave of the DUP to sabotage the unionist position so comprehensively. Most parties would step back from obvious suicide, but the DUP ignored the negative possibilities, put on their blinkers, and shoulders to the wheel - ran right over the cliff. Lemmings all over the world are taking lessons.

It was obvious that a) the UK government only put up with the DUP as long as they had to, b) when they didn't need them any more, the DUP were designed for a close up view of the chassis of a bus, and c) the UK government gives no one flying (insert intercourse verb here) for NI and its welfare or otherwise, despite the odd (and I mean odd) unionist yelp here and there.

All in all, a very instructive playlet on political values and procedures, and entertaining and amusing too. Well done, chaps! Up with the bowlers and swing yer sashes!

Anonymous said...

Boffey. The EU is going to fix Northern Ireland?
That would be great, but I wouldn't put my mortgage on it.
Actually given the riot control skills of the French police I wouldn't put anybody's mortgage on it.

You are wrong to think the Loyalists couldn't create mayhem. They could and don't have huge incentives not to.