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Unionism in crisis as Loyalists lash out

21 April 2021

For over a week now Loyalists have attacked the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in riots in Belfast, Derry, and other parts of the North. Despite fairly small numbers of protesters, they succeeded in injuring over 70 police. In a new turn they have also attempted incursions into nationalist areas with the Lanark Way/Springfield Road interface in Belfast breached by Loyalists on April 7 but several hundred nationalist youth repelled them.

The following night larger nationalist crowds gathered and the police used water cannons, plastic bullets and dogs to disperse them in stark contrast to the police’s kid gloves approach to loyalist protests earlier in the week. This suddenly turned the media narrative into the usual ‘sectarian conflict’. There was also a loyalist burning of a Translink bus which prompted a strike and protest by bus workers in Belfast the following day.

It is ironic that in the year that marks the centenary ‘celebrations’ of the creation of the Northern Ireland state, its most partisan supporters are lashing out at the defenders of that same state. The Loyalist pro Brexit narrative justifies this as a response to the Northern Ireland Protocol, the agreement with the EU to have the economic border down the Irish Sea, and their perception that this brings a united Ireland ever closer.  

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) as the main Unionist player in the north, and also pro Brexit, would not dispute the Loyalist fears. But the DUP are seen by the rising star of Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) and the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) as being responsible for this ‘sell out’. Along with its leader, Arlene Foster, the DUP is widely regarded as having being shafted by Boris Johnson, who famously said last August ‘there will be no border down the Irish Sea – over my dead body’!

The LCC includes the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando paramilitary groups, all with a notorious history of murdering Catholics and feuding drug gangs. This did not stop the DUP meeting them recently and using them to advance their agenda. As in 2012 the DUP orchestrated a campaign to stop Belfast City Council from reducing the flying of the Union flag from every day to 18 days a year. The campaign whipped up loyalists in the streets and inevitably ended up with major riots.

The LCC/DUP meeting plotted the campaign against the NI Protocol. So the closure of port offices was organised by the DUP, its Agriculture Minister Gordon Lyons halted work on new permanent border control posts. Sammy Wilson, DUP MP, said he will oppose the Protocol ‘with every means we have’ and that included ‘guerilla warfare’. He later blathered that this was metaphorical but it highlighted the coded messages they typically send out for working class loyalists to act on. This didn’t stop Sammy Wilson’s office being daubed with ‘Traitors’ and it was one amongst a couple of hundred incidents of criminal damage and graffiti since January against the Protocol including attacks on Sinn Fein and Alliance offices.   

So the DUP is being squeezed from the loyalist right in particular but also by the pro EU liberal unionists of the Alliance Party. The LCC in its meeting with the DUP claimed that they would collapse the Assembly, effectively pulling out of the Good Friday Agreement if the Protocol is not scrapped. The DUP subsequently denied discussing this but it is of course an option they will have considered if all else fails.

The next DUP gamble to restore its credibility involved calling for the resignation of PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne. This was because the PSNI had not prosecuted Sinn Fein leaders over attending the large funeral of Bobby Storey despite Covid restrictions. This really was the spark which lit the fuse for the loyalist riots with the police. The DUP as always will distance themselves from the actual violence and even condemn it but their grubby hands are all over last week’s riots.


Despite the storm of condemnation for loyalist attacks on the police, even the LCC hilariously denied involvement, the prospect is for more street action. Loyalists had already given notice that more protests would take place at several interfaces in a move that is intended to provoke sectarian clashes with nationalists. If this transpires then it is obviously desirable not to fall into the loyalist trap of provoking nationalist youth.

However it should be spelt out quite clearly that the logic of Loyalist mobilisations has always been to target nationalist areas. So the question of defence is critical. These areas have had long and bitter experiences of Loyalist pogroms as well as being subject to police and army attacks. They have learned to defend themselves before and not rely on the state for protection. As the marching season approaches, traditionally a period when nationalists and Catholics fear the most, the loyalists have given notice that they will not abide by rulings from the Parades Commission.

One community group which has had previous experience of defending their area from loyalist marches is the Greater Ardoyne Residents Collective (GARC). They have been alerted to plans for loyalist confrontations in the days ahead. Their advice focussed on parents to be aware of where their children are and stay away from flashpoint areas but they were quite clear about the need for defence. ‘As always, residents retain the right to defend their homes from attack and GARC fully supports this defensive action should it be necessary’.

It is reported that community workers, political activists, and youth organisations have played a proactive role in ’defusing’ confrontations with loyalists. This may well have helped reduce tensions in some areas. But this in itself is no substitute for organised defence squads that can primarily repel incursions and that can harness the militancy of youth in a disciplined way. Some of those political activists on the ground like Sinn Fein and SDLP are pro PSNI and would thwart any form of self defence, not too dissimilar is the People before Profit group who would prefer to clear the streets rather than organise any meaningful defence.

The response of nationalist youth to the Lanark Way incursion was commendable and not a sectarian response. Very suspiciously no police were in the immediate vicinity or stopped the ramming of the interface at the time despite trouble in the area previously. The question of defence could well become more pressing in the months ahead. The resurrection of Citizen’s Defence Committees, organised against loyalist pogroms in the late 60’s, would be a welcome development and such defence bodies should be democratic and politically independent from the state.


Boris Johnson once compared the border in Ireland with the borders of London’s traffic congestion charge zone. This merely demonstrated the wilful ignorance and contempt that the Irish have come to expect from British politicians. But the so-called ‘Irish border’ is in fact a problem the British gave to Ireland. It is a British border. It never had any democratic legitimacy from the Irish people as a whole. The overwhelming Sinn Fein victory in the General Election of 1918 demanded an Irish Republic.

The British would not concede. A War of Independence ensued which ended in the signing of a Treaty in 1921 which split Republicans and opened up a civil war. The ‘agreement’ fell far short of an independent 32 county Republic. Partition resulted in the creation of a six county colonial ‘Northern Ireland’ with an artificially contrived Protestant/Unionist majority and a 26 county Irish Free State with dominion status and an oath to the Crown. They were both reactionary and confessional states beholden to the British Empire.

The border disrupted and stunted the economic life of the island as a whole. Communities in the border areas had families and farms split up and still remain some of the most impoverished parts of Ireland. The Orange state nurtured systematic discrimination against Catholics across employment, housing, education, even voting rights and operated a Special Powers Act, the envy of apartheid South Africa. It reduced Catholic citizens to second class status resulting in a thirty year war of resistance to the sectarian state and its British military backers opened up by the Civil Rights Movement in 1968.

Thus British imperialism was able to divide and rule the northern working class on the basis of marginal privileges for Protestant workers and a supremacist ideology that was both anti Catholic and anti Irish. The insistence today that Orange marches should be able to go through Catholic areas is a direct consequence of this reactionary and triumphalist pro imperialism. No less does it explain the latest UVF ethnic cleansing outrage in ordering the removal of Catholic families from a Carrickfergus estate.


When the outbreak of peace was declared by the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998, to some it seemed that the Orange state was disappearing. The power sharing project between all the major parties was in itself a reform quite different to the historic running of the north by the Unionists. Many in the DUP were never sold on the idea. Some of the more blatant forms of discrimination had been whittled down since 1968. Some Orange marches had even been rerouted.

This was not down to the peace deal though but to the mass struggles of Catholics over thirty years including the armed struggle. The Orange state had not been smashed and  crucially the GFA acknowledged the northern state’s right to exist for as long as the majority wanted it. This consigns the minority and its political representatives to a permanent subordinate role. It has copper fastened the Unionist veto over a united Ireland and denies the right of the people of Ireland as a whole to determine the future of the six counties.

The resulting power sharing Executive rested on an elected and devolved Assembly at Stormont, based on a sectarian headcount and a sectarian hand out of resources that benefited the political supporters of the GFA in both communities. In line with its anti working class nature it has faithfully implemented British government austerity measures as dictated by the hand that feeds it at Westminster. Sectarianism has not diminished since the GFA, the sectarian state and the ‘peace walls’ remain and there has been no ‘peace dividend’ for the working class.

But everyone swears blind to the GFA. From Biden to Blair, from Sinn Fein to the Tories, from the DUP (grudgingly) to the EU it is heralded as the deal that must not be tampered with in any new arrangement with the EU post Brexit. Since the Good Friday Agreement, with the Unionist veto over a united Ireland assured, British and Irish capitalism, with the aid of the EU, has ensured an ‘invisible’ border for the purposes of smooth and profitable business. Brexit was always going to disrupt this frictionless trade  but then Brexit was not conceived with Ireland in mind.

The fact remains that membership of the EU has demonstrated how futile a border is on the island of Ireland. It follows from this that Brexit has quite unintentionally put the border right back into Irish politics with a vengeance. It is ironic that this renewed interest in a united Ireland was not what the rabid pro Brexiteers of the DUP and their Tory/UKIP pals expected when propelling their Brexit campaign.

The conundrum for the Tories is you either have a Brexit with an Irish sea border or else you have a Brexit with a hard land border. The former will antagonise the loyalists, the latter would antagonise Biden, EU and the Irish government. So far Johnson has gambled on the former plan and the response to that is now playing out in the streets. No doubt the UK and the EU will try to cobble together a cosmetic deal to smooth over the implementation of the Protocol since any return of a hard land border would be even more damaging.

The Tories would then have to sell their new plan to the DUP, and the DUP would need to sell it to the loyalists. So an uncertain future lies ahead and the next casualty may well be the GFA, with the collapse of its Assembly/Executive, having only recently been reconvened in 2020 after 3 years suspension. Loyalists have already withdrawn their support from the GFA. 


After a century of oppression and repression, Britain’s prison house Orange state continues to teeter from one crisis to another. British imperialism is responsible for this little monster as it is for dividing the working class in the north. Alongside the impending economic devastation from Brexit and the pandemic, the working class on both sides of the ‘peace walls’ face a future of hardship and unemployment.

It is of course crucial that working class unity around a militant action programme is forged to defend living standards and jobs. There is a lot more that unites workers than should divide them. Every job and every cut must be resisted with solidarity action and trade unions must be shaken up by the rank and file so that its leaders are held to account within the union and by democratic assemblies at the workplace. Working class action is key to resisting the attacks that will come from any DUP/Sinn Fein Executive on orders from Westminster.

British Imperialism’s legacy in Ireland shows that working class unity cannot be fostered by common economic interests alone. Class consciousness does not spontaneously or automatically spring from economic struggle. It is disingenuous to believe that ignoring the politics of discrimination and national oppression will make it easier to unite workers. The pro imperialist ideology of Protestant workers is a barrier to prosecuting the class struggle against capitalism and a weapon in the hands of reactionary loyalists.

There is deep unease within the Protestant and unionist community as they see their majority slipping away, a perception that they are being demonised and the possibility that they will lose their British identity in a united Ireland. We must point out to them that if the British government so chooses it will ignore your concerns and hammer you down as they did the nationalist community. If your so-called best allies care little for you, time to think afresh about your real class interests.

Indeed if you fight like hell to protect your economic interests you can expect the same response from capitalist governments north and south. That is why we need unity across the sectarian divide, the better to organise a more powerful fight against the bosses. Better to throw in your lot with workers across Ireland and Britain and fight for a society owned and controlled by the working class, a Workers’ Republic in Ireland as part of a socialist united states of Europe.

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