Northern Ireland - Politicking, gang war and social dereliction

Jul/Aug 2001

The resignation of Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble as Northern Ireland First Minister, on July 1st, was a well-rehearsed, long- awaited non-event. This kind of ritual gesture, always under the same virtuous pretext - the decommissioning of IRA weapons - has been a feature of the "peace process" ever since its inception. Such gestures are part of the weaponry used by unionist politicians to enforce their political veto, just as much as their ritual show of bigoted strength throughout the marching season, now reaching its high point.

By now, there is even a certain degree of complicity between the various protagonists with regard to this ritual.

Last time Trimble threatened to resign, in February last year, the then Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Mandelson, pre-empted his move by suspending the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, only 72 days after they had come into operation. This caused a huge furore and all parties made a big show of refusing any further talks (although they were quietly resumed only a few weeks later).

This time round, however, there was not even any question of suspension. Having declared that he was confident that Trimble would be back soon, Blair decided that the devolved institutions would go on operating regardless. Trimble took great care not to leave a vacuum by personally appointing the UUP Enterprise minister, Reg Empey, as acting First Minister. And both the SDLP and Sinn Fein remained very polite and low-key in their protest. To all intents and purposes, therefore, it is business as usual in Stormont.

Why all the fuss then? Primarily, it is politicking and overbidding within the unionist camp.

Under the pressure of the anti-agreement demagogy of Paisley's Democratic Unionists, the UUP has split into a pro and anti- agreement wing. Not that there is that much distance between the two wings. Both wings have their full complement of raving anti-Republicans - Trimble himself, a former prominent member of Ulster Resistance, being a good example. On the other hand, the figureheads of the anti-agreement wing, like Martin Smyth, are not in a hurry to jump the gun by joining what would seem to be their logical home - Paisley's DUP. On the contrary, they prove to be very keen to enjoy the perks of representing the largest unionist party in the devolved institutions, while at the same time ranting and raving against the agreement which created these institutions. To all intents and purposes, there is an agreed division of labour between the pro- and anti-agreement wings of the UUP, which allows the UUP to get the best of both worlds. By retaining a section of the anti-agreement vote, it can remain the leading unionist party and be at the helm of the devolved institutions.

The trade-off for this, of course, is that from time to time, the UUP leadership has to make some demagogic gestures - like Trimble's resignation. But this is part of the game. And as long as these gestures guarantee the UUP's involvement in the "peace process" and its continuation, they remain acceptable for all the other protagonists.

How long this game can go on is another question. It depends entirely on the UUP's ability to retain its leading position on the unionist side. Should it fail to do so, this could lead to a "realignment" of the UUP, putting into question the whole artificial set-up of the "peace process". And as the recent general and local elections showed, this is not an abstract possibility.

But whether or not the "peace process" framework survives, there are many factors at work which keep alive sectarian divisions and occasionally set alight the powder keg. Among them are the politicking over the "peace process" exemplified by Trimble's resignation and the overbidding of rival loyalist paramilitary groups fighting for territories. But the most important factor of all remains the policy of the British state acting on behalf of capitalist interests, which constantly provides fuel to those whose vested interest is to set up one section of the working class against the other.

Increased polarisation

Over the past three years, the UUP has been losing votes steadily to Paisley's DUP. In this year's Westminster election, the DUP gained 3 seats while the UUP lost 4. Likewise, in the local election the DUP gained 40 seats while the UUP lost 31. This still leaves the UUP ahead of the DUP both in Westminster (by one seat) and in local government (by 23 seats) - but with a much reduced lead.

Admittedly the DUP's gains may seem more impressive than they really are. In the case of the Westminster election, for instance, the DUP lost votes to the UUP in 4 of the nine constituencies where it stood both in 1997 and 2001 while its overall average score increased by only 1.2%, from 27.5% to 28.7% - 3% ahead of the UUP on average in the constituencies where they were both standing. But these averages conceal large differences. In the more affluent areas the DUP generally lost votes to the UUP, but in the poor ones, it made significant gains. In particular, the DUP candidate literally smashed the UUP vote in North Belfast. This means that the two Belfast constituencies where the majority of the Belfast Protestant-working class lives (North and East Belfast) are now in the hands of the DUP.

But this electoral shift from the UUP to the DUP cannot be reduced to a strengthening of sectarian prejudices among the Protestant electorate. Indeed there has been a parallel shift among the Catholic electorate, from the SDLP, the traditional party of the Catholic middle class, to Sinn Fein.

This year, for the first time in an election, the SDLP won fewer overall votes than Sinn Fein, both in the Westminster and local elections. In the Westminster election, Sinn Fein increased its score by 4.9% to 21.7%, as opposed to a 3% loss for the SDLP, down to 21%. This allowed Sinn Fein to take 4 seats compared with the SDLP's 3. Likewise in the local election, in which Sinn Fein gained 34 seats while the SDLP lost 3. This still leaves the SDLP ahead of Sinn Fein with a total 117 seats to 108, but the gap between the two parties has now been reduced from 46 to 9 seats. In Belfast, however, Sinn Fein is now by far the largest party in terms of votes, with 28%, while the UUP comes second with 20% and the SDLP lags far behind with 16%.

Following June 7th, the DUP leaders were quick to claim that while their gains were showing an increasing opposition to the "peace process", those made by the Republicans showed that the agreement was on the brink of collapse anyway - as they had "always predicted would happen sooner or later."

That a large section of the population is disillusioned with the "peace process" - on both sides of the sectarian divide - is, of course, nothing new. And there is no doubt that this disillusion is whipping up sectarian tensions across the Six Counties and resulting in an increasing electoral polarisation, pushing Protestant voters towards demagogues such as Paisley, because of their opposition to the process, and Catholic voters towards Sinn Fein, because of its on-going (if symbolic) protest against the process' failure to deliver. But that this means, as the DUP claims, that the former want to go back to the old Orange state and the latter aspire to a resumption of the "Troubles", is merely sectarian nonsense.

If the UUP and the SDLP are deserted by disaffected voters, it is primarily because they appear as the pillars of the Northern Ireland Executive - with the UUP's David Trimble as First Minister and the SDLP's Seamus Mallon as his deputy. As such, they are held responsible for the fact that the devolved institutions have done nothing to stop the living conditions of the working population from going further down the pan, while all their preoccupations and energy seemed to be absorbed in enjoying the perks of power and indulging in continuous politicking.

This discontent against the devolved institutions could unite the ranks of the working population. But instead, due to the sectarian political set-up in Northern Ireland and to the fact that no one among the existing political currents has shown any determination to challenge it, this discontent is used to divide the working class further and to prime the sectarian powder keg.

Sectarianism and the housing crisis

This situation was illustrated by the riots which broke out in North Belfast, on June 19th, resulting in three nights of street fighting between the RUC and several hundred locals and the deployment of the British army along one of the area's main road.

The spark which set the powder keg alight was, we were told, an attempt by residents of the Protestant Glenbryn Park area to prevent children from the Catholic Ardoyne to go through "Protestant territory" while walking to their primary school. The main entrance of the school was blocked by pickets while UFF flags were put on display. Parents were then forced by the presence of the pickets (and ordered by the RUC) to take their children into the school through a back entrance in order to avoid going through the disputed area. It appeared, therefore, as a boundary dispute of a kind which is all too frequent in Belfast, motivated by sectarian attitudes.

But was this all that it was about? This Catholic girls' school is more than thirty years old, built at a time when Glenbryn was still a mixed area. For over two decades, after Glenbryn became an overwhelmingly Protestant area, Catholic children from Ardoyne walked to that school using the same route along Glenbryn without this causing any fracas. Of course, the school was the target of a number of arson attacks, but neither more nor less than most Catholic schools (or Protestant for that matter) in North Belfast.

So what has changed all of a sudden and produced this crazy ban against small girls walking up one street rather than another? And why has this issue flared up to the point of bringing on to the street hundreds of people from both sides, who ended up throwing petrol bombs, not at each other, but at the RUC?

There are two reasons for this. First, a drive by one loyalist paramilitary group, the UDA/UFF, to establish itself in an area which has been traditionally dominated by its rival, the UVF. And second, the fact that the housing policy of the Northern Ireland Executive has provided the UDA/UFF with enough material to inflame local residents' feelings against their neighbours in Ardoyne and revive old fears and hatreds.

The situation goes as follows. On one side, in Ardoyne, overcrowding is the rule and there is a long waiting list for both families and single adults, many of whom are classified as urgent cases by social services. However, there is no space to build and the turnover of tenants and house-owners is negligible. So, many Ardoyne residents have been waiting for years in difficult conditions for the Housing Executive to do something - and they are still waiting.

On the other side, in Glenbryn, there is a significant number of empty flats but housing is generally in bad condition and often legally unfit. And residents keep being told that there is no money for grants to improve their homes. However, in and around Glenbryn, there are car parks belonging to the Department of Environment and other unused space which could be used to build new houses.

It is not hard to see that residents from both sides have very solid common ground to join forces in order to put pressure on the authorities to find the money needed to sort out the problems they face.

But in Ardoyne, where community groups are most active, there has never been any policy to try to join forces with those from Glenbryn, or even to talk to them. Prejudices are one part of the problem. But the Republicans, who due to their strong influence in Ardoyne, could have initiated such a move, have never shown any interest. On the contrary, they have always insisted that Ardoyne should "fend" for itself.

So, when the UDA/UFF started to circulate rumours in Glenbryn that not only would residents have to carry on living in unfit houses, but that, in addition, Sinn Fein councillors had managed to manoeuvre the Housing Executive into making plans to expand Ardoyne into Glenbryn without any consultation, many people turned their frustration against their neighbours in Ardoyne. And when the RUC intervened to remove the UFF picket outside the girls school they went to help them out.

Whether the UDA/UFF succeeds in taking over Glenbryn or not, thanks to the London's turn of the screw via the Housing Executive, it will leave a mark that will take time to wash away.

Austerity all round

Since the "peace agreement", the poor areas of Belfast have been confronted with an increasing housing crisis. It is due, on the one hand, to a policy that was started on paper before the "peace agreement" but really took off the ground afterwards, under Blair and, on the other hand, to a vicious twist of the so-called "peace dividend" which, according to all politicians at the time, was supposed to pull Northern Ireland out of poverty.

Northern Ireland has been subjected to the policy of selling off social housing to tenants, just as has Britain (under the pretext of encouraging house-ownership) and then of ditching what remained onto non-profit housing associations, thereby pushing rents up. But in Northern Ireland this policy was only really implemented recently and within a short period of time, in a context of poverty and low-income, which turned the scheme into a catastrophe for many families.

90,000 houses previously owned by the Housing Executive were sold to their tenants at a price linked to, but lower than their market value. However, many of those homes have since been repossessed, because their owners just could not afford the mortgages. But instead of using these repossessed homes for affordable renting, they have been put on the market again, this time at their full market value - so that they are totally beyond the means of most working-class families. Meanwhile the dispossessed families have joined all the others on the homeless list - which means an average waiting time of two years in cramped hostel accommodation.

One of the features of the period since the "peace agreement" - and part of the "peace dividend" - has been rocketing housing prices. Land was still cheap in Belfast around the time of the agreement. There was a lot of disused industrial and barren land which was even cheaper. Real estate speculators moved in and bought what they could - including a lot of land from government agencies and the Housing Executive itself. They only started to build later, once they decided that it was safe to bet on the Agreement. The houses they built were aimed at middle to high-earners. As a result all housing prices went sky-high. In the past five years, they have been multiplied by 2 or more, depending on the area, in any case to a level unaffordable to ordinary working families, let alone those on benefits.

Even the wasteland between the town centre and East Belfast, next to the shipyards, where there used to be cheap housing, is being transformed into a "yuppie land" of luxury homes. As the sales manager of the Carvill Group, which is behind one of these developments, explained in the Irish News: "We are a private construction development company. Our responsibility is not to provide social housing." The truth is that Carvill got that land from the state for next to nothing, without any provision being made for using some of it for social housing. As far as London, Dublin and the protagonists of the "peace agreement" are concerned, "free market forces" are meant to bring about the "peace dividend" in due time. But this dividend is obviously not for the working population!

A recent study showed that just to address new needs (without tackling the shortfall already built up) 2,100 social lodgings would need to be built each year. But whereas even in the mid-1980s, during the Thatcher years, 3,200 new homes were built each year, this figure has now fallen to less than a third. There is no plan either to deal with the scandal of the 25,000 public-sector houses which are vacant due to lack of repairs, nor with the even worse scandal of the equal number of perfectly suitable private houses which are vacant while being declared available for rent in order to allow their owners to enjoy the associated tax break.

As to the acute housing crisis in North Belfast, the Housing Executive has produced one of those fashionable glossy plans full of managerial jargon. Entitled the "North Belfast Housing Strategy", it provides for the building of 1,750 new homes over 7 years, when there are currently over 1,800 families on the waiting list! It also promises grants for repairs. But the sums are so small (less than £20m/year) that very little of that will ever get done.

If only the issue was to build one of these so-called "technology factories" - some of which are already lying empty in and around Belfast - to entice companies to come over, then money would not be a problem!

A framework for the exploiters

The housing crisis is only one example - although probably one of the most dramatic - of the consequences of Blair's austerity policies when implemented in Northern Ireland. There are many others and for each turn of the screw another gallon of oil is poured on the flames, helping loyalist gangs to consolidate their grip - or even expand their territories, sometimes forcing hundreds of families out of their homes - and the Republicans to isolate the Catholic section of the working class from its Protestant section.

And all the parties involved in the "peace process" and its institutions are accomplices to this. The unionists and SDLP, of course, because of the social interests they represent, but also the Republicans who, although their social base is predominantly to be found among the poorer layers of the working class, nevertheless defend the social interests of an aspiring petty- bourgeoisie.

It is not for nothing that Bairbre de Brun, the Sinn Fein Northern Ireland Health minister, is now intending to implement cuts in hospital acute services which the British government had dropped under direct rule, for fear of a backlash. And yet the consequences of these cuts, apart from endangering the lives of patients, will be inevitably to inflame the feelings of one section of the population against the other section - unionist politicians and paramilitaries can be trusted to see to it - whether or not all are affected alike. And likewise, it is not for nothing that the Sinn Fein education minister Martin MacGuinness has still to indicate any intention of moving to loosen the control of churches over schools - which he is entitled to do within the law. But it would seem that Sinn Fein's determination to control the Catholic population by blindfolding it with the help of religious bigotry and nationalist short-sightedness, is stronger than its theoretical reference to Wolfe Tone's United Irishmen.

The framework of the "peace process" was never designed to benefit the working population of Northern Ireland. It was conceived to entrench the sectarian gap in the population, not to bridge it. But above all it was designed to serve the interests of capital - Irish and British. And it is only in the fight against capital, using the methods of the class struggle, rooted in the capacity for collective action that only the exploited have, that the Northern Ireland working class will eventually get rid of the gangs, the demagogues and the exploiters, and rebuild its unity.

1st July 2001