Deprivation, anger and fear behind loyalist riots in northern Ireland

Poor protestants are responding to a sense of alienation and being left behind. The question they will need to answer is: to what and to whom are they ’loyal’?

Lalkar writers

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Lalkar writers

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Industrial decline in northern Ireland has left the loyalist communities that once worked its mills and shipyards plagued by unemployment, educational underachievement, debt, drugs and suicide.

They remain perennially disaffected with – and yet perennially dependent on – a ruling class that continues to cynically exploit their existential insecurity with every word it speaks. Shattering the peace of the unionist ruling class and disturbing the political compromise imposed by the Good Friday Agreement, however, has been a new imposition – the northern Ireland protocol.

Timeline of the April riots

On Friday 2 April, violence broke out between loyalist protestors and the police (PSNI) at a protest in the Sandy Row area of inner south Belfast. This was the first eruption in Belfast of a spell of rioting which had begun in the Waterside area of Derry at the end of March.

On Wednesday 7 April, a similar protest on the Shankill Road in inner west Belfast ended up in further violence between loyalist protestors and the PSNI, resulting in images which reached the outside world: a burning Translink bus, and the spread of rioting to the nearby flashpoint at the peace wall on Lanark Way.

On Friday 9 April, the pattern repeated at another flashpoint in the north of Belfast, when rioting took place in the Tiger’s Bay area. (‘Flashpoint’ here refers to an interface between protestant and catholic working-class residential areas – in west Belfast between the loyalist Shankill Road and the nationalist Springfield Road that lies to the south, and in north Belfast between the loyalist Tiger’s Bay and the nationalist New Lodge). At least 88 police officers were injured, and for the first time in six years water cannon were deployed against rioters – the majority of whom were teenagers.

The statistical divisions of Belfast that these areas belong to – Shankill, Woodvale, Shaftesbury, Duncairn – are amongst the most deprived in northern Ireland, according to the multiple deprivation measures of 2017. All the aforementioned areas – Derry’s Waterside, and Sandy Row, the Shankill and Tiger’s Bay in Belfast – are loyalist areas, and these are loyalist rioters. They have been in conflict first with the police and later with nationalist youth in nearby areas.

What is loyalism?

Whilst ‘republicanism’ as a concept is relatively easy to grasp, ‘loyalism’ is somewhat more nebulous. The term as it is used in northern Ireland was discussed by the late David Ervine, former leader of the Progressive Unionist party, in relation to the manipulation of protestant workers by the unionist ruling class.

He argued that “the resurrection of the concept of loyalism in the late 60s, early 70s [was] … about distancing unionism … from the excesses of the working class”.

He further indicated the variable and conditional nature of the ‘loyalism’ of the protestant working class:

“What is a loyalist? A loyalist, is it someone who comes from the unionist movement? Yes. Is it someone who’s wealthy? No. Is it someone who’s got usually a decent job and bought their own house and have a great stake in life? No. Is that briefly the protestant working class? Well, that’s what loyalism is, it’s protestant working class. Loyal to what? I don’t know. I think it’s an amalgam of things and sometimes nothing depending on the atmosphere and the mood at the time.”

In the same interview Ervine described the class division within unionism:

“It was a ruling elite … who went to election every time with banner headlines in the Belfast Telegraph ‘IRA to bomb cabinet’ … What a load of crap – there virtually was no IRA. But – keep people afraid, keep them afraid, give them the crumbs off the table … A wee touch of patronage, a wee pat on the head.

“Big house unionism and wee house unionism and we’re all together, we’re all in the same boat. Meanwhile, you go back to your wee house and I go back to my big house and it’s been massively detrimental to the protestant working class.” (Interview with Gareth Mulvenna, 2006)

The dereliction of the protestant working class, their homes, their schools, is the direct consequence of their mistreatment (a repetitive pattern of neglect, manipulation, and subsequent disavowal) by the parties – originally the UUP, now the DUP – that presume to represent them.

It is therefore older than the European Union referendum. It is older than the Good Friday Agreement.

Billy Hutchinson, current leader of the PUP, says of his imprisonment in the 1970s: “My father reminded me that while my friends and I were spending our twenties and thirties in Long Kesh, the children of those politicians who had been crying blood and thunder would be going to university and getting well-paid professional jobs.” (Billy Hutchinson with Gareth Mulvenna, My Life in Loyalism, 2020)

Reasons being given for the riots

From their own mouths, the ‘wee house’ loyalists would have us believe that the Police Service of Northern Ireland is in cahoots with the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The ‘big house’ unionists, for their part, would shift our attention from the rioters to the ‘real law breakers’ in Sinn Féin. Both these responses are patently absurd.

Outsiders, including the entire mainstream media, have settled largely on three explanations: (1) the riots were a response to the northern Ireland protocol (NIP) imposed as part of Britain’s Brexit deal with the EU; (2) the riots were political fallout from the funeral of Bobby Storey, a senior republican figure; (3) the riots were orchestrated by loyalist paramilitaries in retaliation for recent PSNI drug seizures and arrests.

Dealing with each of these explanations in reverse order:

Paramilitary orchestration

There was early speculation from many corners that the riots were being orchestrated by the loyalist paramilitaries. Politicians of all stripes pointed their fingers in this direction.

On Friday 2 April, as violence broke out in Sandy Row, the SDLP’s Claire Hanna tweeted: “Sad to see disorder in Sandy Row. Usual suspects with no vision whip up tension for electoral gain, which they never use to improve life for those they pretend to represent.” (Hanna is the MP representing Belfast South, which includes the Sandy Row area.)

In the wake of the trouble on the Shankill on 8 April, Colum Eastwood, leader of the SDLP and MP for the Foyle constituency that covers the city of Derry, likewise said:

“There are paramilitary organisations there, ready and willing to whip up this tension and to use young people … it is the people standing around the corner directing operations. They are not the people getting lifted by the police or hit with water cannon or hit with rubber bullets.”

The big house unionists, quick to condemn the rioters and disavow the violence, also made similar statements. Arlene Foster herself named one of the paramilitary groups in question on Tuesday 6 April.

The following day she tweeted: “These actions … are an embarrassment to Northern Ireland and only serve to take the focus off the real law breakers in Sinn Fein.” Read: Loyalists are preventing us from blaming Sinn Fein for all the world’s ills.

(This word ‘embarrassment’ is a common utterance when violence breaks out in the working-class areas of northern Ireland, from politicians on either side of the divide as well as from the hand-wringing commentariat and twitterati. There is, of course, something deeply shameful at the bottom of all this. But it isn’t the kids with petrol bombs and fireworks.)

More fuel was provided by pronouncements from Jonathan Roberts, assistant chief constable of the PSNI, on Thursday 8 April that there was “a clear degree of organisation” behind the riots and that the involvement of paramilitaries was “a likely situation”.

All of this speculation amounted to naught, however, when the following day the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) – an umbrella organisation representing the three main loyalist paramilitary groups – themselves disavowed the use of violence during the protests, stating that “any actions taken by the loyalist community should be entirely peaceful … and we urge our people not to get drawn into violent confrontations”.

That same day, Jonathan Roberts backtracked on his previous statements and concluded:

“It’s our overall assessment that the violence that has taken place over the last few nights is not orchestrated by a group, in the name of that group. There are certainly people who have been engaged in violence who are nothing to do with any illegal organisation. There are young people who have gotten involved and for whatever reason that they’ve decided to do so.”

For many, however, seeing the conspiratorial hand of the paramilitaries behind the riots is less unnerving than the alternative – that the teenagers fighting pitched battles with the police, armed with bricks, fireworks and petrol bombs, were operating under the pressure of no-one in particular.

The South East Antrim UDA may see in the kids rioting in Rathcoole and Carrickfergus (areas under their ‘jurisdiction’) a way to strike back at the police who’ve been hounding them. Several steps removed, from behind the safety of their keyboards, English remainers have been on their own ‘I told you so’ rampage.

Whether or not paramilitaries are orchestrating these events, and even if they are ‘piggybacking’ on the community’s anger, then they are only one more party who are more than happy to shoe-horn these kids onto whatever axe it is they have to grind.

Bobby Storey’s funeral

The second timeline at work was that of the PSNI investigation into the funeral of Bobby Storey. Storey was a senior figure in Sinn Féin who played key roles in both the Maze prison escape in 1983 and in securing republican support for the Good Friday Agreement.

He died on 21 June 2021, and his funeral procession in west Belfast was met – during a period of strict lockdown – by over a thousand mourners, and attended by Michelle O’Neill, Mary Lou McDonald, Gerry Adams, Gerry Kelly and other senior members of Sinn Féin.

The PSNI investigation into possible breaches of Covid restrictions at the funeral was completed in December, and on the 30 March this year the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) decided that there were insufficient grounds to prosecute.

The PPS itself cited “lack of clarity and coherence within the regulations and the prior engagement between organisers and police” as the reasons they could not proceed. Michelle O’Neill said she would “never apologise” for attending the funeral of a friend, although she later stated that public health messaging had been “undermined” by what had occurred.

Claims of ‘two-tier’ policing in northern Ireland – that there’s “one for the rest of the citizens, and another for republicans” – voiced by Arlene Foster and her fellow unionists are a bit rich, however, given the very real history of police collusion with loyalist paramilitaries in the six counties.

This is the immediate context of suspicion and hostility – from the loyalist community towards the PSNI – within which the violence broke out on 2 April.

It should be seen that, beneath the grotesque sectarian distortions, these are highly deprived communities – whom Covid and the lockdown have hit the hardest – in righteous uproar at the sight of politicians getting off scot-free after very publicly flouting Covid restrictions. If the reaction to less blatant incidents elsewhere in the UK is anything to go by, hell would have been raised anywhere.

Much like the former explanation – in which the riots are simply being whipped up by frustrated paramilitaries – something is lost by seeing them as a merely sectarian response to a republican funeral; as part of some ongoing ‘tit-for-tat’ culture war in the north of Ireland.

Both explanations have been enthusiastically promoted by unionist leaders and the media. As all sides engage in this self-serving distortion, what is lost is that economic injustice and police violence are directed towards the working class on both sides, whilst the same police service enables the politicians and paramilitaries of all colours to operate with relative impunity.

That is the real two-tiered policing of a two-tiered society.

The background hum of discontent

There have, of course, been numerous attempts from sections of the press and across social media to pin this on their own personal bugbear – what Stephen Donnan-Dalzell in a fantastic turn of phrase calls “an all-you-can eat buffet of ill-informed opinions from commentators and politicians alike confidently declaring that this all dates back to Brexit”. (The Belfast violence shows young working-class people have been failed again, The Guardian, 13 April 2020)

The fact is that there’s an awful long list of grievances – real, perceived, and somewhere in between – for the working class of northern Ireland, on either side of the peace line, to riot over. On top of their own desperate immiseration, there is a grievance literally built into the calendar, pre-packaged and ready to be enjoyed every summer.

In July 2001, 113 police officers were injured when a Belfast parade was not re-routed. In May 2002, 28 officers were injured in clashes after the Old Firm derby. In September 2005, 81 officers were injured when a Belfast parade was re-routed. That rioting was described as the “worst in a decade”.

In July 2010, 83 officers were injured in republican-instigated riots described by the PSNI as “among the worst in a decade”. In July 2011, over 300 people in total were injured in loyalist-instigated violence described by local politicians as “the worst of its kind in the area for a decade”.

In the summer of 2012, 92 officers were injured in riots in north Belfast. In the summer of 2013, 88 officers were injured.

The PSNI has complained about being used as a political football. As Donnan-Dalzell put it: “At different stages during the pandemic, lockdown restrictions have placed the Police Service of Northern Ireland at odds with republicans, loyalists and civil rights activists who have each been accused of breaking Covid-19 regulations for varying purposes.”

And this year’s April riots: 88 officers were injured in (obviously) “some of the worst violence in decades”. Even the delightful Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian, in attempting to hammer the Brexit point home, ultimately conceded that there must be deeper underlying reasons for what was going on:

“Some of the areas now in flames are among the most deprived in the UK, with levels of educational attainment especially low. Loyalist communities have long felt left behind and, since the early death of the much-respected David Ervine, lack heavyweight political representation.”

Furthermore, he hinted at the more significant overarching narrative at work: “Jonathan Powell, the former Downing Street chief of staff who was a key broker of the 1998 accord, says that the Democratic Unionist party ‘may use [the loyalists], but they don’t really care about them’.” (The consequences of Boris Johnson’s careless Brexit are playing out in Belfast, 9 April 2021)

So newspapers like Le Monde have led with talk of the ‘betrayal’ of unionists over Brexit, and this will be what international spectators will learn, if they spectate at all. But unionists always feel betrayed, and the protestant working class – kept at arm’s length with the tag ‘loyalists’ – doubly so.

They see themselves as an embattled tribe under siege from catholic Ireland, neglected or abandoned by a Westminster that cares nothing for their loyalty, and repeatedly sold out by their own self-serving unionist representatives. This is the perennial narrative of the loyalist community.

That the most apt encapsulation of the loyalist mentality in 2021 remains a piece of 1914 anti-Home Rule propaganda: Ulster depicted as a lone protestant farming woman armed in defence of her homestead is a telling reminder that there are much longer timelines at work than the fallout over Boris Johnson’s Brexit debacle.

The GFA and the NIP: between a rock and a hard place

In 2018, Arlene Foster had warned that an Irish Sea border was a “blood-red line” that could not be crossed. In August 2019, Boris Johnson promised that such a thing would happen “over [his] dead body”.

Yet it did happen, and to say the atmosphere in loyalist communities has been febrile would be an understatement.

The northern Ireland protocol seeks to guarantee frictionless trade over the border between northern Ireland and the Republic by checking goods travelling between the north of Ireland and the rest of the UK.

It means that the six counties of northern Ireland must comply, like the other 26, with EU rules and regulations, and is the way in which Brexit has been implemented in an attempt to preserve the frictionless border that existed when both Ireland and Britain were EU members.

This obviates the need for checkpoints and related security aparatus on the Irish border, at the expense of northern Ireland being treated as if it were ‘outside’ the UK. But it has led to new difficulties surrounding the import of chilled meats – like sausages – from the UK into northern Ireland, as well as a furore over a wedge being driving between ‘Ulster’ and the rest of the UK.

The loyalists maybe had too little foresight into the consequences of Brexit, and too much faith in the pronouncements of a British prime minister (and their own representatives). But that in itself is an attitude that can be traced back at least to the liberals’ sacred cow, the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), and how loyalists were brought on board in 1998.

As Mo Mowlam put it: “Fortunately, the agreement had space built in for each side to argue its merits in their own way. So for Trimble it ‘secured the union’ while for Adams it ‘severely weakened’ it. Both could point to different bits in the text to justify their views.

“That the Good Friday Agreement was open to multiple interpretations proved to be both a strength and a weakness – but it was the only way to get an agreement between all the different parties.” (Mo Mowlam: Momentum, 2002)

The notion of the EU guaranteeing a borderless Ireland, still partitioned, while the GFA – believed by one side to be a guarantee of the union and by the other to be a stepping-stone to unity – hard-codes a political stalemate into the six northeastern counties, but was not the hand of history on anyone’s shoulder. It was a device to get the guns out of the hands of the paramilitaries.

The details weren’t sweated, and the “multiple interpretations” Mo Mowlam et al relied upon to get the GFA through very quickly began to manifest as low-level disorder.

The disruption Brexit was inevitably going to cause – whether it was an Irish land border or an Irish Sea border – exposed that fragility once again. The fact that it was the sea border chosen by Boris Johnson and the Conservative and Unionist party has inevitably put the spark to an already-volatile atmosphere throughout loyalist communities in the north, who now find themselves at odds with the police, their mainstream parties, and with the British ruling class itself.

With their sense of agency at a nadir, the eruption of riots in the most impoverished communities is hardly surprising. This is not the moment to wish Brexit away, but to use the opportunity it provides – in breaking the political stalemate, in redrawing that landscape – to harness that disaffection, and to articulate a working-class politics and a vision of socialism in Ireland (and in Britain) which takes their beleaguered existence into account.

Educational underachievement in loyalist communities

One consequence of the two trends emphasised here from the start – industrial decline and unionist ruling-class manipulation – is significant underachievement in education on the part of working-class protestants when compared to their catholic peers.

This was noted by the Equality Commission (ECNI) in 2017 in a report which stated that protestants “continue to have lower levels of attainment than catholics at GCSE and A-level. Fewer protestant school leavers enter higher education than do catholics. There is persistent underachievement and lack of progression to further and higher education of school leavers entitled to free school meals, particularly protestants, notably protestant males,” (Statement on key inequalities in education, October 2017)

David Ervine explained the ‘educational apathy’ felt by working-class protestants, in contrast to the achievements made by working-class catholics from equally or more deprived backgrounds:

“The mindset once upon a time was that wee Jimmy would come out of school, he’d go into the shipyard … he’d actually not end his education … because of the apprenticeship process he would get a day release to tech and there were many thousands of men went through that process over many, many years and it was good for this community …

“So the protestant working-class parent wasn’t as imbued with the importance of education for their children … I think probably if we went to the pits in Wales or in Derbyshire … and went back 50 years we’d find a similar thing. So the collapse of heavy industry then and the diminishment of that continuum of education has seriously affected the protestant working class …

“What did our leaders do about it? … I’ve never heard them identify the failures of the education system, ever.” (Interview with Gareth Mulvenna, 2006)

This same sentiment has been expressed by other loyalists as well:

“There’s an us and them thing … I would say that the last thing unionism wants is educated loyalists. People say to me, that’s the way it has been for 40 years, and more … It gave them control …

“So many worked in the shipyard, [paraphrasing unionist leaders] ‘there’s plenty for them to be doing anyway, we don’t need them; we’ve got all the education and all the people we need in the higher echelons, we don’t need these other people’. There was no connection with the grassroots. That has got worse over the years.” (Unnamed Loyalist, quoted in Bound in darkness and idolatry? by C McManus, Irish Studies Review, 23(1), 2015)

The loyalty of protestant workers to their ruling class is therefore not something fixed, unchanging and immovable. Nor has the class-consciousness of protestant workers – their understanding of their real relationship with the unionist ascendancy and the six-county state apparatus – always been something buried under jingoism and religious sectarianism.

This is evident in the swell of support the PUP enjoyed in the mid-nineties, and, before that, in the proroguing of the devolved government in 1972, at which time several of the PUP’s leaders cut their political teeth:

“Direct rule was probably one of the best things that ever happened to loyalists. It broke the chain of always having to accept whatever the ruling protestant ascendancy dished out.” (Billy Hutchinson, present PUP leader, quoted in Tony Novosel, Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity, 2013)

Sarah Nelson in her book Ulster’s Uncertain Defenders supported this, arguing that one of the “most visible effects of direct rule was that it stirred a new class-consciousness, both among members of the protestant paramilitary and workers’ groups, and among residents of loyalist areas …

“Six months before direct rule, anyone who whispered certain phrases was liable to be branded socialistic or republican by their neighbours. After Stormont was suspended the same phrases became cliches.” (1984)

So while there is a kernel of truth in David Ervine’s assessment that “nationalism, to be fair and honest about it, is looking at the hills and unionism is looking at its boots, and the fundamental difference is leadership”, there is obviously more to it than that.

The political consequences of the GFA have done much to make the present situation seem eternal; an intractable impasse. Brexit, and its local manifestation as the northern Ireland protocol, however, are opening fault-lines between protestant workers and the unionist ruling class (as well as within that ruling class itself) that will be impossible to repair.

Social deprivation in loyalist communities

The decline in the industries that were traditionally manned by the protestant working class in northern Ireland has left a vacuum at the heart of those communities.

Around 4,000 people live in Sandy Row. The tobacco factory on its northern edge opened in 1810 and closed in 2005. Linfield Mill to the south opened in 1833 and is now long gone. ‘Regeneration’ has been spoken about for over a decade – as an assembly discussion of 29 April 2008 published under the title ‘Regeneration of the Sandy Row area in South Belfast’, for example, shows, and yet property developers are squatting on derelict business spaces or putting up luxury apartments on the area’s outskirts.

The Shaftesbury ward that Sandy Row belongs to is one of the 10 percent most deprived in northern Ireland. Child poverty is 48.7 percent, more than twice the average for the north. (Ronan Smyth, Poverty, Social Exclusion, and the Northern Ireland Conflict (PhD thesis), 2020)

Meanwhile, the ward recorded the second-highest number of suicides between 2004 and 2010. (Brendan Bunting (PI), Colette Corry, Siobhan O’Neill, Adrian Moore, Tony Benson and Danielle McFeeter, Death by Suicide: A Report Based on the Northern Ireland Coroner’s Database, 2016)

These problems have not gone unnoticed by some politicians. Deirdre Hargey, Sinn Féin MLA for South Belfast, made the point in the assembly on 8 April:

“We have similar housing, we suffer from poverty, we have the same health inequalities, that see people in our communities die younger than the average by almost ten years … Communities facing the pressure of development without their interests being considered. High levels of unemployment, communities that have borne the brunt of conflict … communities like Sandy Row, like the Shankill Road, the Springfield Road, the Waterside, the Bogside.”

Brian Smyth, a councillor for the Green party, also made a similar point: “How can you tell young people who believe they have nothing, no future, poor educational outcomes, unemployed and can’t afford a bus into the city centre and you’re telling them they can’t travel to America [if they get a criminal record]? … There’s no investment, no hope.” (Reaction to another night of violence in NI, BBC News, 8 April 2021)

Fine sentiments, but they are words that will have difficulty reaching the ears of the protestant working class of the Shankill and Sandy Row – in particular the teenagers who make up a significant amount of the rioters. The only people who can successfully take this message to the protestant working class are their own protestant working-class leaders, such has been the poisonous effect of sectarianism over a period of 100 years.

Loyalist voices of reason are in the wilderness – for now

The Progressive Unionist party has persevered as a voice of reason within loyalism and an important critic of ‘big house’ unionism. William Ennis of the PUP tweeted on 5 April to the rioters:

“Teenage Loyalists … If you want to strike a blow for your community then wear your Loyalist badge on the day of your graduation, or when you launch your first business. If you think such things are beyond you, consider who made you think that. Perhaps they’re your enemy?”

But the influence of the PUP has waned in recent years. Working-class protestants are now likely to vote DUP even when they are aware it is against their class interests.

“There has never been a specific working-class political party that has managed to bridge the divisions within loyalism. As a result, a significant number of loyalists vote DUP, even though they don’t identify with the party and what it stands for.” (Lisa Faulkner-Byrne, quoted in Abandoning DUP might be step too far for most in Tiger’s Bay by by Peter Geoghegan, Irish Times, 2 March 2017)

All this might paint a dispiriting picture, in which the manipulation of the loyalist community by the unionist ruling class – a pattern that David Ervine and the PUP understood but have not been able break – extends into the foreseeable future. But the imposition of the NIP is set to bring into stark relief the contradictions between the British ruling class and the ‘British’ of the north of Ireland.

The working class of Ireland must take advantage of these contradictions in the ruling class to fight the injustices to which they are all subject, and to do so effectively they have no choice but to strive for unity by respecting each other’s grievances and placing the blame fairly and squarely where it belongs – ie, on the ruling class.

As long as workers allow themselves to be divided along communal lines, they will be helpless in their struggle for better conditions, let alone in the struggle for socialism.