Brick Walls, Sectarianism and Citizenship

Political, social and economic life here has come to an almost complete stop.

Twenty-five years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and its overwhelming endorsement by the vast majority of people on this island we are left facing a brick wall with little, if any, prospect of progress.

The Agreement offered new hope and optimism, but the vicious and deadly battles between British and Irish nationalism, played out on our streets for thirty years, is now being replicated in Stormont and the Assembly, characterised by the all too familiar debasements of negativity, tribal confrontation and, sectarianism.

Perhaps now is the time to review our relationships and seek a way out of the political cul-de-sac we have been forced down by Sinn Fein and the DUP.

More than fifty years ago thousands of people in Northern Ireland took to the streets campaigning for a better, more equitable, society. Their demands were not devalued by issues of cultural identity, community background or tribal loyalties.


Perhaps now is the time to review our relationships and seek a way out of the political cul-de-sac we have been forced down by Sinn Fein and the DUP.

If there is no way through the wall then we must go around it. Not as Catholics, or Protestants, not as unionists or nationalists. Not as British, Irish, Northern Irish or any other origin. Those of us who believe that better is possible and who refuse to sit and wallow in the sectarian status quo need a basis, a platform, on which to progress and to move society forward.

The concept of socialist citizenship, based on class politics, working class unity and solidarity, would help to re-define our relationships and responsibilities to each other and to the institutions of government through clear and guaranteed relationships underpinned by a Bill of Rights.

Tribal positions

Of course, there will be those who will not want to avail of such an opportunity. There will be those who will actively oppose it in an attempt to tie the rest of us into their tribal positions. But the choice is there for those of us who want to explore the possibilities offered on the other side of the political brick wall that we have been facing for the last twenty-five years. Citizenship offers a way forward.

Unless we re-calibrate our relationships and understanding of each other we, and our children, will be facing this same brick wall in twenty-five and fifty-years time.

The Sinn Fein / DUP strategy has been to manipulate and manage sectarianism, rather than seeking to eradicate it. The failure to tackle sectarianism therefore has nullified much of the good intent contained within the God Friday Agreement.

Tackling sectarianism

We cannot afford to do nothing and hope that time alone will resolve this issue. Unless, and until, the issue of sectarianism is comprehensively tackled, we will never realise the vision of a new society which leaves behind the out-dated attitudes and prejudices which have been the cause of so much misery and despair.

Those of us who oppose sectarianism must organise as strongly and as stubbornly as those who promote and profit from it. The concept of socialist citizenship gives us that commonality and base camp from which to progress

Socialist citizenship is not a silver bullet. It is not a quick fix panacea.

However, it could form the basis for a constructive, respectful and forward looking society, as an alternative to backward, parochial ethnocentricity. Neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP can hold out that hope

Socialists Must Stand Up

Workers Party President, Cllr Ted Tynan has called for ‘socialists, trade unionists and anti-sectarian forces’ to challenge and oppose what he described as the “on going and ill-conceived clamour for a Border Poll”.

His remarks come ahead of this weekend’s ‘Ireland’s Future’ conference in Dublin.

“It is important” he said, “that the nature and intent of this campaign is exposed for the shallow, sectarian scam that it is, and that Ireland’s progressive forces continue to build the basis of working-class unity as the only secure foundation for the people of this island and beyond”

Mood music and rhetoric

Cllr Tynan said, “the mood music and the rhetoric about ‘historic destinies’ and a ‘new Ireland’ belie the character, track record and intentions of the key players. History repeats itself.  We’ve been here before and so have many other countries. We’re not as special as some would have us believe. The nationalist middle classes, north and south, are wrapped confidently in the green flag and have their sights sets on a bespoke future, that holds little for working people and their families”.

“Calls for a Border Poll are divisive and unnecessary. Increasingly, almost every issue in this country is viewed myopically through sectarian glasses with orange and green lenses.

Manufactured urgency

“So it is with the growing clamour for a Border Poll, driven largely by Sinn Fein, and now supported by a number of new organisations, some academics, a variety of media commentators and other nationalist parties, north and south, desperate not to be left behind this wave of manufactured urgency.

“The Ireland’s Future’ camp is no place for socialists or for those claiming to be on the left. Some, however, attempt to justify their involvement. Whatever the political contortions required to clear their consciences some basic and distasteful realities remain. 

Cultural identity politics

The campaign for a Border Poll is premised on little more than a religious headcount with the implicit assumption that ‘catholic equals united Ireland’ and ‘protestant equals union with Britain’.

This is the worst form of cultural identity politics and ultimately it is built on foundations of sand. Worse still, the dangers of pressing a divisive nationalist agenda in a community which is already deeply divided risks being characterised as a sectarian crusade.”, said Cllr Tynan

“Ireland is not Scotland”, Cllr. Tynan said. “In the absence of working-class unity there is a real risk and potential for sectarian violence in the lead up to and in the aftermath of a Border Poll – irrespective of the outcome”.

Working class unity

“The Workers Party has always pursued and remains committed to the objective of a unitary socialist state on this island. We have long recognised that is a long term and onerous project and it can only be built on working class unity rather than the territorial unity of a united capitalist Ireland which offers no solution to the urgent problems facing working people, north and south.

 “It is a project constantly frustrated by those who see their privileged positions threatened by that outcome, but it is also thwarted by those who happily and arrogantly dismiss and disregard the million people on this island who don’t want to be forced into a “united” Ireland against their wishes”, Cllr. Tynan said.

Absolute and non-negotiable

The unity of the working class and a fundamental transformation of our social, political and economic system remain an absolute and non-negotiable prelude to the creation of a single unitary state. Simply, hoisting the green flag will not end the misery, exploitation and oppression of workers and their families in Dublin or in Belfast”, Cllr Tynan concluded.

Unacceptable Levels

In 1971, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Reggie Maudling talked about “an acceptable level of violence”. Fifty years later we are wallowing in what could be justifiably described as ‘an acceptable level of sectarianism’.

Recent events have once again highlighted the depths to which this society has sunk.

We have witnessed young people inanely chanting about and glorifying three decades of murder, sectarianism and terror, that they fortunately did not have to live through, yet more bonfires burning images and symbols designed to heighten community divisions, the grossly insensitive and provocative display of Parachute regiment flags in Derry and, perhaps the most telling of all, the vitriolic, unapologetic and tribal reactions on social media, radio phone in programmes and from elected representatives and commentators.

Offensive and sectarian acts are not only being justified, they are being normalised through a narrative which argues that ‘they do this and we do that – so that’s alright’.

All sorts of cover is offered as justification for the vilest and most divisive behaviour. It is defended as ‘culture’, it is minimalised in an attempt to make it insignificant, it is boasted as a ‘right’.  It is shamelessly and brazenly defended without apology or concern. These are the depths to which we have sunk.

Such is the polarisation and division in this society that it now seems impossible to call out one sectarian act without reference to another, often unrelated, incident by way of justification. 

The levels of vitriol and invective, particularly on social media, evidences the arrogance, the confidence and the assuredness of the perpetrators, in what amounts to tribal warfare.

Arguably, we have reached what many view as ‘an acceptable level of sectarianism’, as any pretence at uniting the community is swept aside and battle lines are drawn between competing nationalisms, British and Irish.

All the while, the major political parties happily reap what they have sown, retaining their positions of power and privilege at the expense of working-class people including, ironically, those who act out the sectarian script on their behalf.

That this is happening during one of the worst a cost-of-living crisis in recent memory makes it all the more frustrating for those on the political left who seek unity amongst workers, an end to sectarianism and a radical change in the structure of society.

History will not look favourably on our condemnations alone if we do not seek ways to build a bulwark against the tribalism of our times.

Bad moon rising?

The warning signs are already clear, the well-rehearsed arguments are converging and the battle lines have been drawn. We are facing a very difficult, and potentially very dangerous 12 month period.

Politics in Northern Ireland are dominated and divided by nationalism: pro-British and pro-Irish versions: both are toxic and both are destructive

In recent days we have seen protocols, polls and policing, used to fuel claim and counter claim, building on existing division and further polarising and dividing the community.

The pro-British nationalism of the DUP, and others, using ill thought out, but confrontational, strategies to hype up the threat to the union, and the appalling, unapologetic arrogance and contempt of Sinn Fein, have set the ground rules for the coming months and for the run in to next year’s Assembly elections.

We are now beginning to see the outworking of those strategies taking shape in the form of  riots and street violence. The fear must be that worse is yet to come.

In the face of the basest forms of tribal politics, and the potential threat they pose, the need for a united, coherent and focussed working class response has never been more urgent.

In a little over twelve months’ time there will be an Assembly election. Much of the recent tribalism, political posturing and grandstanding is aimed at laying the groundwork for that election campaign. When that spills over into the streets in the form of riots, disturbances and attacks, as we are already witnessing, it will not be by accident but by deliberate design.

The nationalism of the DUP, Sinn Fein and others demands that the tribal stakes are constantly raised and raised again. If that means some teenagers and young people from working class communities end up in prison, injured or worse then so be it. Of course, both parties will be the first to condemn the violence, the bloodshed and the community strife, while in the same breath calculating how much they had gained from it and how much further they need to go.

The only response to this deadly and downward nationalist spiral is the collective voice and action of a united working class, committed to and focused on a political and social agenda which will drive a progressive wedge into the heart of political life here.

That measure must involve trade unionists, working people, progressive and anti-sectarian elements, principled parties of the left and, importantly, forward thinking members of the media and other professions. It is not too late to openly reject the politics and consequences of nationalism. Nor is it too late to call them out. However, the day for howling at the moon has long gone.

Tunnel Vision

It’s been said before, but it bears repeating. Almost all of public life in Northern Ireland is assessed and evaluated in terms of Orange or Green. Or is that an exaggeration and an unfair generalisation? – asks Workers Party South Belfast representative, Patrick Lynn

It’s certainly true of education. We maintain and sustain two entirely separate systems from primary through to secondary level. It’s also true of housing: 90% plus of public housing developments are exclusively either catholic or protestant.  Community development projects are designed and funded on the “two communities” model.

Even what should be strategic infrastructure developments are plagued by the perceptions that “they” might be getting more out of it that “us”. Factor in sport and culture as further examples and its almost a full house

The hysterical reactions to the announcement of a feasibility study into a permanent link with Scotland is further proof of how ingrained and accepted sectarianism has become. Whether a bridge or other form of link across the Irish Sea is a good thing or not is irrelevant in the face of the reaction it has generated.   

The source of both the support and of the objections is largely predictable, and almost guaranteed. Probably the largest, and certainly the most expensive, proposal since the HS2 rail link and by far the biggest construction project effecting both Northern Ireland and the Republic has been reduced to an argument over whether it is being used to strengthen the Union or a device to fend off a united Ireland. It is tunnel vision at its worst.

Had the proposal come from Dublin the arguments would simply have been reversed. Much of the opposition is based on a growing and emboldened anti-British sentiment on this island. Much of the support is an almost knee jerk reaction to the opposition.

It is of course easy to point the finger exclusively at the man and woman in the street and blame then for all our ills, but that would be to let the architects of tunnel vision off the hook.

Sectarianism is the life blood of the main political parties here. They would deny that, but it’s hard to refute. Their electoral appeal is fashioned on it, their votes are headcounts based on it and their politics are tribal tirades designed to sustain it. They are not alone. They are joined and legitimised by media commentators many of whom extend influence without responsibility. Many of them find regular outlets in our newspapers, television and radio programmes.

Collectively they fulfil a number of important tasks in Northern Ireland life. They articulate and sustain division. They would deny it but, again, it is hard to refute. They perpetuate fear of the ‘other’ and they divert our attention away from reality.  Most importantly of all they provide a smokescreen – in orange and green – behind which lies the real class nature of this society.

The economic and social system we live under is based on the accumulation of capital, relentless production and the unending pursuit of profit.  The main political parties here, in the UK and in the Republic of Ireland support and manage that system to the detriment of ordinary working people.  Its not really that complicated. That’s how it works.

One of the many devices used to make that process easier is to create and sustain division. Sometimes it’s based on ethnicity, sometimes it’s based on gender and sometimes it’s based on cultural differences – but always it’s based on class. In Northern Ireland our local variation is religion and community background – but the purpose and the effects are the same.

“While the political parties and the tribal spokespeople continue to deride or admire the latest project through sectarian lenses, they dig this society deeper into the mire than any tunnel could and they build no bridges, but they successfully keep the spotlight off the class nature of our society and the misery, deprivation and dead-end despair that it brings”, Patrick concluded

Sectarianism: condemnation alone not enough

Sectarianism: condemnation alone is not enough

“Condemnation of sectarianism and sectarian hate crimes is, by itself, not enough to overcome the cancer that blights this society”, Workers Party spokesperson Lily Kerr has said.

Her comments come after  sectarian graffiti was daubed on a house and car in the Kilcoole area of north Belfast.

“Of course we must condemn these kinds of outrages”. Lily said, “but unless we address the underlying factors we are doomed to pass the sectarian gene onto another generation”. 

How can we ignore the fact that our children are the product of a segregated education system, that our system of government is based on the myth of “two communities” and that almost every public and political initiative in Northern Ireland has to be counterbalanced to accommodate  ‘nationalists’ and ‘unionists’ – and then assume that automated condemnation of the inevitable outcomes of that segregation will be sufficient to end it?”, asked Lily.

“Furthermore, these incidents highlight the political hypocrisy of those who condemn on one hand and casually stoke sectarian tensions with the other”. said Lily

“We must never forget that there is a deeply traumatised family at the centre of this latest attack. They need the swift support of all the relevant statutory bodies to meet their immediate needs but most of all they need the unequivocal support of the entire community and the reassurance of a public commitment to remove the frameworks which enable sectarianism as well as the  political parties which peddle in and profit from it”, she said

Anyone with any information about this or any other sectarian incident should report it to the PSNI” Lily concluded

Noah Donohoe

Noah: our thoughts are with his mum, friends and extended family

The death of Noah Donohoe has come as a terrible shock to the entire North Belfast community and all our sympathies must be with his mum, friends and extended family” Workers Party spokesperson Lily Kerr has said.

But she has condemned those who attempted to use Noah’s tragic disappearance to heighten community tensions with “stupid, hurtful and sectarian comments on social media”.

“I am appalled”, Lily said, “ at the way in which some individuals have attempted to hijack these tragic circumstances to further their own petty sectarian agendas and divert attention away from the efforts of the PSNl, the Community Search and Rescue Teams and the many, many  local people who, through their efforts, demonstrated the true nature of community co-operation.”

“It is unforgivable that, as a young and talented teenager loses his life in these heart-breaking circumstances, there are people in this community who want to view everything through sectarian glasses, attempt to create division and as a result devalue human life in favour of their tribalism”. Lily said.

“As our thoughts are with Noah’s family let them also be focussed on those who would bring yet further despair and suffering on this community through their blind sectarian bigotry. Neither should be forgotten” Lily concluded