Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Rioting is awful. Ignorant, superior condemnation almost as bad.

Or: 'if you trivialise issues that matter to people and ignore their continued disenfranchisement, you should maybe not be surprised when the inevitable happens and legitimate protests provide cover for extreme elements to manipulate the situation'.

Is there anyone who didn't expect violence to break out at Belfast City Hall last night? It was entirely predictable to all, with the apparent exception of the DUP who had no earthly idea that their rhetoric would have any effect on the mood of working class unionist communities. But I think it's safe to say that we all knew what was coming and no one was surprised. That would explain the lightening quick condemnation, from all political quarters, of those who were rioting as little more than violent scum, only interested in destruction and causing trouble. They were nothing but thugs, hoods, little shits and loyalist arseholes.

Hmm. I don't buy it. You see: to agree with that kind of thinking means I have to accept that a significant section of society just enjoys violence and doesn't really care about the issues at hand. No, you can't write the violence off to a few bad apples or isolated criminal elements. If that were true, we wouldn't be using the term riot. By it's nature, a riot needs a critical mass for it to exist and I don't really think you can use the words 'critical mass' and 'isolated elements' together without sounding like an idiot.

The extremists within the protest last night felt that they had the implicit support of the majority of the protest. Disagree if you like, but can you honestly say they would have been as violent if that weren't the case?

You can't just prattle off the insipid 'there's no justification for violence' line and expect people to suddenly agree. The reality is that people do justify violence (in fact, most people justify it to some degree) and if you want them to stop being violent you have to address the issues that they are using to justify it and not dismiss them as irrelevant and not linked.

This was never just about a flag and it was not even just about what the flag represented. It was about the abject failure of the ruling political parties to come up with a strategy to move on from the peace process. instead of working out how to integrate communities, both Sinn Fein and the DUP have focused on shoring up their core support and every time an election rolls around, they run to their base.

The disenfranchisement has been helped by the continued demonisation of the working classes so that these communities, already feeling left behind by a process that they were never really a part of, also have very little stake in society. It's no wonder that people cling to their national identity when there's little else to cling to. This wasn't Unionists rioting about a flag. This was the working classes rioting about being constantly ignored and patronised by politicians.

When the working classes rioted in England last year, we had the usual right wing reactionary types condemning them as scum but at least that was countered by many on the left who recognised that these things happen for a reason and if we didn't address the reasons it would happen again. We don't seem to get that balance in Northern Ireland. Apparently we only care about the reasons behind the violence if we happen to agree with you.

I may have missed it, but I've yet to see Owen Jones pay any attention to Northern Ireland's working class issues, and, whilst I didn't want to single him out (as I really like his work) that wilful blindness is symptomatic of the attitude that Northern Ireland's problems aren't about class issues but religious and cultural issues. In truth, it's a combination. But if we start addressing the class issue, dealing with the religious and cultural issues will be a damn sight easier.

There is a problem in Northern Ireland and it isn't going away. At least, it won't go away just by condemning it.

EDIT: I've been rather unfair on Owen Jones. I make it sound like he should have been paying as much attention to NI as the rest of the UK but my wider point is actually that we need people with his profile making his kind of arguments in Northern Ireland.


  1. Agree with the underlying argument, think its wrong to dismiss violence out of hand without looking to the root causes.

    In this instance though, how do you feel this could have been avoided? Obviously tensions were increased, with the example of those DUP leaflets. Do you think there is anyway in which the flag could have been removed without hostility? Or are you saying that the removal of flags is an issue which is best left unaddressed until wider issues of cohesion are looked at?

  2. Yeah, my argument is that, whilst Sinn Fein and the SDLP may think of this as some sort of victory for equality - and it could be argued that it is - I think that it's actually just made their long term goal (a united Ireland) even more unlikely than it already was.

    It's the difference between tactics and strategy. This particular tactic (the restriction of a British symbol) doesn't advance their strategy (UI) at all.

  3. One of the most important national symbols and institutions, the NHS, is being dismantled. Welfare is being eroded. Education is being cut and unemployment is staggeringly high. The prospects for young people are bleak. And yet not a stone has been thrown in anger about those things in Northern Ireland.

    No riot is mindless, so what are loyalists thinking at the moment? The flag flying over Belfast city hall will make no material improvement to the lives of the people demonstrating for it. It's a consultation prize. All the institutions that stood to Britain's credit are being wasted but here's a flag instead.

    Working class Protestants (and I speak as one from that background) need a long hard discussion about their political priorities.

    My hunch is that northern Protestants (and Catholics for that matter) lack recourse to an effective language of class politics. That means whatever their grievance, whatever the nature of their exclusion or impoverishment, they can only speak to it with through the political discourse of narrow communalism. It's the only one they know. It's depressing.