The three nights of heavy rioting which took place in Ardoyne in North Belfast over the Twelfth showed how the main parties in the Assembly are being challenged by more hard-line sectarian forces on the ground. The decision of Sinn Fein to organise a token protest against the Orange Order marching past the Ardoyne shops effectively gave the green light to the PSNI to ‘deal’ with dissident republican groups who had prepared in advance attacks on the Orange Order and the PSNI.
Sinn Fein attacked the dissident groups for bussing people into the area and adding to sectarian tensions which residents would have to endure. However, the dissidents are continuing the same tactics and strategy to parades which Sinn Fein initiated in the 1990’s. Sinn Fein have used parades in the past not to build a united opposition of Catholic and Protestant communities against sectarianism, but as part of a strategy to ‘green’ areas as Catholic communities and reinforce sectarian division. Likewise, unionist politicians and loyalists have mirrored this approach, demanding the Orange Order can march wherever it likes.
The riots organised by dissident republican groups in reality is part of a strategy to provoke confrontation with the state, intending to undermine Sinn Fein as supporters of PSNI repression. The dissident republican groups are playing a completely reactionary role in stirring up sectarian tensions. After Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly urged the Orange Order to talk with residents groups to negotiate six outstanding contentious parades, Breandan MacCionnaith, general secretary of Eirigi and spokesperson for the Garvaghy Road residents group replied by claiming that there were 21 contentious parades. The reason dissident groups are gaining support from a layer of alienated youth and some former Sinn Fein supporters lays in the failure of the peace process and the Assembly to deliver any real change or improvements for working class Catholics. Despite decommissioning, the ‘standing down’ of the IRA and supporting the PSNI, Sinn Fein has failed to deliver any real change for Catholic working class communities.
A similar process is underway in Protestant areas. The vote for the anti-power sharing Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) in the recent European elections reflects a rejection of the DUP sharing power with Sinn Fein. But it is also in a distorted way a reflection of the anger at the DUP’s right-wing economic policies. There is also discontent and disillusionment with the leaders of the loyalist paramilitaries who are seen by many young working class Protestants as being out of touch and, unlike them, financially benefiting from the peace process.
At this current time, there is no support for a return to full scale sectarian conflict. The working class have at different times throughout the peace process responded to efforts of sectarian forces to drag society back into the dark days of the ‘Troubles’ with major demonstrations and strikes. But the lack of a mass political party which can unite the working class, Catholic and Protestant, and offer a real alternative to the right-wing agenda of the parties in Stormont can mean sectarian forces can grow in the future and fill the political vacuum. Such a development would have serious repercussions for the working class in Ireland, North and South. There is a major responsibility on socialists in the labour movement to campaign for the trade union movement to stop propping up the parties in Stormont and instead support steps to form a new mass party which can fight for a socialist solution to sectarian division and poverty.