The fallout from Belfast City Council’s vote on the flying of the union flag brought to the surface the profound sectarian division which remains in our society. Sickeningly, the very politicians who cynically whipped up tensions around this question – such as the First and Deputy First Ministers – now bemoan the damage which has been done to Northern Ireland’s ‘image’. They attacked protesters for undermining the local economy, conveniently forgetting the impact of their own £4.3 billion cuts programme.
Sectarian tensions in society are now at a higher pitch than they have been for a whole period. When protests continued after the Christmas break, the chorus came from politicians on all sides – clearly taken aback that the situation they created had got beyond their control – that those on the streets were simply an unrepresentative rabble. While the vast majority of ordinary people remain opposed to any return to sectarian conflict, a Spotlight poll in early February demonstrated how polarised opinions are – 45% of Protestants supported ongoing flags protests, despite the weeks of disruption.
While the protest movement has lost much of its momentum, potential explosions of conflict lie around the corner in various guises. The recent flag protest outside Seaview football ground in North Belfast – which caused a fixture between Crusaders and Cliftonville to be cancelled – gave a glimpse of the dangers which exist. Tensions already existed around this fixture, with large numbers of Catholic football fans making their way to the stadium through a Protestant residential area. A spark – such as heavy-handed actions by police – could have seen violence erupt. Fans from both clubs are to be congratulated though for walking to and from Seaview together to try to prevent such a development.
The coming marching season threatens to be more turbulent than in recent years. With tensions already heightened, the annual conflicts – such as around the Orange march past Ardoyne – could be more explosive. New battle-lines are being drawn across the North. The suggestion from the Orange Order’s Mervyn Gibson that the institution may follow the example of flag protesters and not give formal notification of parades – bypassing the Parades Commission – has added fuel to the fire. On top of this, the potential for dissident republicans to stir up tensions is constant.
As always, it will be working class people from both communities who will suffer the consequences of sectarian conflict – at the hands of both paramilitaries and the state forces. Recent weeks have seen a spate of sectarian attacks on people’s homes and threats made to workers. These sinister developments must be challenged. With its mass membership and base in both Protestant and Catholic working class communities, the trade union movement has a unique role to play.
At key junctures throughout the Troubles, trade union activists mobilised working class people across the divide – through actions such as demonstrations and walk-outs – to isolate the paramilitaries, curb the rise of sectarianism and defend everyone’s right to live and work free from threats and intimidation. It is essential that these examples are again followed today. The decision by the General Council of public sector union NIPSA to reaffirm its commitment to this approach is very positive. Union members should campaign to ensure that the movement as a whole is prepared to take on the threat of sectarianism. At the same time, the trade union movement must defend the right of all to engage in peaceful protest and oppose repressive measure by the police and the state, which only serves to stoke up tensions.
While the unionist and nationalist parties play off sectarian division, they are united in decimating the living standards of ordinary people. If the trade union movement took a fighting approach in challenging their cuts to public services, this would help to expose these right-wing parties and unite working class people around their common interests. Unfortunately, most union leaders have shirked this responsibility and instead seek a one-sided ‘partnership’ with the Stormont parties. There is an urgent need now for workers to prepare to address sectarian tensions in workplaces and build support for action to oppose sectarians from escalating conflict.