Apart from a few skirmishes when loyalists came within yards of the Sinn Fein march there was little trouble on the day. Nonetheless the weeks of tension in the build up, and the crowds that did turn out on both sides, were a clear reminder that, a decade and a half on from the paramilitary ceasefires, not a great deal has changed in Northern Ireland.
Despite the claims of some of the organisers, the one thing these protests were not about was the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Opposition to these wars, most especially to the war for oil in Iraq, cuts across the sectarian divide. The big anti war demonstrations have drawn support from both communities. There is also opposition to these wars among the soldiers and the families of the soldiers who have served there.
The 2 November protests and counter protests were not about these wars – they were about whipping up sectarian division at home. When unionist politicians on Belfast City Council made the original proposal to have a march and civic reception for the returning troops, they were well aware of the backlash this would provoke.
Sinn Fein, in calling a counter demonstration – initially to be along the same route and at the same time as the RIR parade – made sure from the outset that this would be a sectarian mobilisation. While condemning the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan their main complaint was that allowing the RIR to parade was an “affront to nationalists” given the sectarian history of that regiment during the Troubles.
That the RIR and its forerunner, the UDR, operated in a sectarian manner is beyond question. Sections – at the very least – of these regiments actively colluded with loyalist paramilitaries in the assassination of Catholics.
But so did the RUC or – again at the very least – sections of the RUC. Yet Sinn Fein are now signed up to co-operate with the PSNI, which is little more than the RUC under a new badge and title.
If there is one thing that the sectarian forces on both sides are adept at doing, it is taking genuinely felt grievances and emotions on such issues and giving them a sectarian twist.
We were given an example of this at the start of October; on this occasion by the actions of dissident republican groups. They were the main organisers of a protest march from North Belfast to the city centre on the issue of housing. Rather than take this up in a non sectarian way that could appeal to working class people in both communities, this march was called in a completely one sided manner. It was not a protest about the overall housing problem but only about the lack of houses for Catholics and the fact that most of those on housing waiting lists in the area are Catholic.
It was timed, supposedly, to coincide with the fortieth anniversary of the first civil rights protests; in order, according to the organisers, to make the point that, for Catholics, nothing has changed in this time. But in doing so they have forgotten – or have chosen to forget – the central lesson of the civil rights movement: that because the so-called “moderate” civil rights leaders like John Hume failed to link the call for equal rights for Catholics with demands for jobs and decent houses for all, they ensured that the active support for the civil rights campaign was confined to Catholics and, in doing so, contributed to the start of the Troubles proper.
As with the October housing march, the build up to 2 November was likewise conducted in a blatantly sectarian manner- by unionists and nationalists alike. As far as the major political parties were concerned this was a crude exercise in “divide and rule”, aimed at diverting attention away from what their ministers are doing – or not doing – in the Assembly.
The Northern Ireland Executive has now been in a state of suspended animation for over four months, unable to meet since June. Meanwhile working class people are being hit by the effects of the credit crunch and recession on the one side and the cuts being carried out by the Assembly on the other. There is a growing mood of disillusionment and anger at the failure of the power sharing administration to deliver on anything.
In using the RIR parade to switch the focus of attention away from all this and onto their sectarian political home ground, the main parties have shown us all why a peace process with them in charge will never succeed.
The DUP and Sinn Fein may eventually overcome their present differences and re-establish the Executive. If and when they do they will face the ongoing problem of how to hold onto a working class support base that is increasingly alienated by their right wing policies.
Their most likely response, as in the last few weeks, will be to whip up sectarianism, especially whenever elections approach. This time there were just going through the motions; doing enough to keep people divided but, at the same time, trying to make sure that the situation did not get out of hand and scupper the ongoing negotiations between them. So they marched their forces to the top of the hill and then marched them back down again.
But stoking up sectarian tensions in this way is a dangerous game. There is always the risk that they will be outflanked by the very sectarian forces they have helped unleash. For Sinn Fein there is the constant threat that dissident republicans groups like Eirigi will emerge as a challenge. Sinn Fein went ahead with their 2 November protest in part to prevent republicans attending a rival protest organised by Eirigi.
The DUP also have to look over their shoulders. If they move too far to accommodate Sinn Fein they run the risk of the TUV or some similar groups eating into their electoral base. The loyalist paramilitaries may not be the force they once were but they clearly attempted to mobilise for a confrontation on 2 November.
These events have exposed the contradiction inherent in a “peace process” that is based on uniting rival sectarian politicians on the premise and on the understanding that the community must remain divided.
The parties have to maintain and, from time to time, whip up sectarianism in order to hold onto the support that puts them in power. This in turn reduces their political wriggle room and narrows the ground for agreement between them. It also creates the conditions in which rival sectarian forces can emerge or re-emerge, further limiting their room to manoeuvre. This contradiction is likely to be the rock on which any agreement on power sharing is eventually likely to founder.
What happened in the lead up to, and on, 2 November was a warning to the working class movement. On the one hand, the economic crisis, alongside the right wing social and economic programme being jointly pursued by Sinn Fein and the DUP, creates an opportunity to build a united class movement of Catholic and Protestant workers. But, on the other hand, if such a movement is not built, it also provides an opportunity for sectarian forces to emerge and fill the vacuum that will open in working class areas.
The tensions stirred up by the RIR parade should serve as a wake up call to the trade union and working class movement. Instead of responding to the challenge, the trade union leaders have repeated the mistake they made through most of the Troubles and taken a position of complete silence on these events. Their only intervention in the ongoing sectarian political stalemate has been to plead with Sinn Fein and the DUP to get the Executive up and running.
The left within the trade union movement need to take an initiative, alongside genuine community activists and socialists, to break with this approach and to start to build a mass party that can represent the united interests of working class communities.