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Belfast: Short Strand – part of the world crisis

The UVF attacks on the Short Strand area of Belfast over the last days and the clashes between Catholic and Protestant youth demonstrate that despite the claims of the various ministers at Stormont, the underlying tensions and conflicts in the North have neither been resolved nor overcome.

The Short Strand area has often been the site of conflict passing periodically from a state of psychological siege to a physical and sometimes bloody siege, not just recently but going back to the 1920’s. Reports on the recent events indicate that shots were fired from both sides.

The trigger for the recent events seems to have been the rerouting of an Orange march that was planned to pass through Ardoyne prompting a loyalist riot. But there has been low level sectarian activity over the past period also. The Short Strand is an easy target surrounded by overwhelmingly Protestant areas in what used to be the industrial heart of the city.

The loyalists claim that Protestant rights have been denied, but the truth is that it isn’t the Catholic workers and youth to blame. It is the crisis of capitalism that has eaten away at East Belfast over decades. Shorts Bombardier has shrunken away, Sirocco has gone. The whole area has been deindustrialised and now the Protestant workers are in the same situation as the unskilled Catholic workers who were historically excluded from many of the skilled jobs in the area. In some ways the situation is worse, as the loss of the industry and the jobs that went with it has been felt more in the Protestant areas.

The Good Friday and St Andrews agreements resulted in the carve up of political power in the North between two main camps, neither of which offer any way out of the blind alley. Existing tensions have been fuelled by the economic crisis, while many workers on either side see no tangible benefit from the debates and posturing at Stormont.

Tensions have risen during the economic crisis and in the absence of a clear political alternative, many are pulled towards sectarian groups egged on by some politicians or towards the so called dissident republicans. Loyalist attacks such as these give the still armed republican groups the opportunity to point to the decommissioning of weapons as evidence that Catholic communities have no means of self defence.

In the Short Strand, that argument can gain ground. At the end of June 1970 the Short Strand was attacked by overwhelming numbers of loyalists. The defence of the area, which was led by Billy McKee a founder of the Provos, was instrumental in developing the position of the Provisionals in Belfast. The defence of St Matthew's Church has acquired an important place in the history of the Provisionals. However, Billy McKee himself who is now 89 was recently interviewed in the Irish News where he distanced himself from Sinn Féin (SF), while coming over as a devout mass-going Catholic with no regrets regarding the armed campaign and the bombing campaign of the early 1970’s. This must be very worrying for the leadership of SF, as it indicates that there is fertile ground for the “dissidents”. Billy himself would probably have been out last night if it wasn't for infirmity.

At the same time, yesterday's reports claimed that while the UVF attacks have been linked to the march through Ardoyne, there are tensions within the leadership of the UVF which may also have contributed to the events. The run up to July 12th is likely to see further conflict. Once again last night gun shots were reported.

Unemployment, low wages, poor housing and lack of opportunity for the youth saps the life out of communities. While we can point out the reasons why tensions between Catholic and Protestant can be exacerbated because of the impasse in society, we can’t leave it at that. There are no solutions to the problems of workers and youth from either side on the basis of capitalism and within the narrow boundaries of the North of Ireland.

The crisis of capitalism – which is particularly severe in Ireland – has produced mass, united, working class struggles across Europe. In the South we have seen unprecedented mass mobilisations in the recent period. In Britain the workers are beginning to flex their muscles, as the March 26 demonstration and the coming June 30 strike action confirm. The same issues that affect workers in England, Wales and Scotland, from the raising of the age of retirement, to cuts in education and healthcare, also affect workers in the North of Ireland.

It is because of this that the present resurgence of sectarianism can be cut across by united working class struggle. But there is no guarantee that this will be the only perspective. The latest sectarian conflict in the Short Strand area of Belfast confirms what the Marxists have always maintained: that so long as capitalism survives in Ireland it will bring recurring crises, with growing unemployment and social degradation, the breeding ground for sectarian strife.

As James Connolly wrote in 1914:

“Such a scheme as that agreed to by Redmond and Devlin, the betrayal of the national democracy of industrial Ulster, would mean a carnival of reaction both North and South, would set back the wheels of progress, would destroy the oncoming unity of the Irish Labour movement and paralyse all advanced movements whilst it endured.

“To it Labour should give the bitterest opposition, against it Labour in Ulster should fight even to the death, if necessary, as our fathers fought before us.”

Connolly’s prediction is very clear and given the history of the last 40 or so years is very accurate. Connolly fought for a United Socialist Ireland which he saw as the only guarantee for the rights of the Protestant minority in the North at the time. He understood that only in a socialist Ireland could the rights of both Catholics and Protestants be respected. That remains as true today as it was then. There is a huge political vacuum in the North that needs to be filled by a mass socialist alternative. There are no short cuts to building such an alternative. The impasse of world capitalism, however, has shown the potential power of working people in the Middle East, North Africa, Greece and Spain, every night on prime time television. The North of Ireland is not excluded from that process.

Source: Fightback (Ireland)

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