Riots for ‘recognition’

The clashes in Northern Ireland expose the dangerous side to the politics of identity.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

What was behind the fierce rioting among disaffected loyalist communities in Belfast over the weekend and into this week? Following the re-routing of an Orange Order parade from a Catholic area, loyalists clashed with the Police Service of Northern Ireland in sustained street battles in which petrol bombs, paint bombs and apparently even a pipe bomb were lobbed, and live bullets were reportedly fired at police officers.

They have been called ‘the worst riots in 10 years’, which have ‘rattled the peace process’. Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain now says the British government no longer recognises the ceasefires of two loyalist paramilitary groups – the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Red Hand Commando – following suspicions that they may have had a hand in ‘orchestrating the riots’ (1).

The done thing is to blame loyalists hardliners or the Orange Order. One report reckons that ‘loyalist paramilitaries have cynically taken advantage of the genuine deep-seated disillusionment in wider Protestant communities’, and transformed it into ‘an orgy of violence’ (2). Others claim that sash-wearing Orangemen, some of whom were apparently seen squaring up to police officers, rocks in hand, started the riots. Under the headline ‘Orangemen: why they suck’, Times columnist Libby Purves – not previously known for taking a stand against ‘Orange politics’ – argued that ‘the religiosity of the [Orange] Lodge is tied up with filth and firebombs, burnt flesh and bullets’ (3).

Of course, UVF associates and renegade Orangemen may have joined in the riots, and the riots may look like Northern Irish history repeating itself. Angry crowds clashing with a paramilitary police force while surrounded by burnt-out buses and shattered glass are familiar scenes in Northern Ireland. But there is also something new going on here. These riots were not the result of old ‘tribal’ loyalist urges rising up and threatening the peace process. They were a product of the peace process itself.

In the past 10 years, political and public life in Northern Ireland have been entirely reorganised around the ‘politics of identity’, around the idea that it’s the state’s responsibility to recognise, respect and protect the ‘cultural identities’ of Northern Ireland’s two communities. Politics in Northern Ireland is no longer concerned with grand visions about who should run society and how they should do it. Rather it is obsessed – from the very top, down through every public institution – with striking a careful balance between two apparently volatile communities, to ensure that both are accorded ‘equal worth’ and both have ample opportunities to air their grievances.

Such a political process can end up nurturing a sense of grievance among disaffected communities, and can easily give rise to violent outbursts if one community feels it is being disrespected in favour of the other. In effect, the recent riots were riots for recognition.

It is striking that the main complaint made by the loyalist rioters was that the authorities are doing too many favours for the ‘other side’ – that is, for republicans and nationalists. Despite the fact that there is high unemployment and widespread social decay among working-class loyalist communities in West Belfast and elsewhere, they were not rioting for a better deal for themselves or even just as an expression of disgruntlement with their predicament. Rather, the rioters seemed to be motivated by a belief that their community is being ignored while republicans, in their eyes, are being feted.

One rioter complained that the government is ‘ignoring us’ while ‘always listening to the republicans and Catholics’. Even when issues of social deprivation were raised, it seemed to be in a competitive fashion. One loyalist resident pointed to the Catholic ghetto of New Lodge and said, ‘They are getting everything that’s going. We are getting nothing. They’ve got new doors and new floors’ (4). David Ervine, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party that grew out of the Ulster Volunteer Force in the mid-1990s, said the riots were caused by a ‘sense that the Unionist community has been set aside while the [British] government plays footsie with the republicans’ (5).

Of course, for a long time there has been no love lost between working-class loyalists and working-class republicans in a small and decaying part of Northern Ireland like West Belfast. But this specific complaint that the government is ‘ignoring us’ and loving ‘them’ – which almost sounds motivated by envy, or by a child-like temper tantrum – has its origins in the politics of the peace process. Virtually every institution in the New Northern Ireland is built on the premise that the ‘two communities’ will never really be able to live in peace, so it is the state’s role to manage relations between them and to make sure that both feel equally valued and respected. Or else….

The idea that politics should be a sectarian balancing act – or about achieving ‘parity of esteem between communities’, as the PC lingo puts it – comes from the very top down. So those elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly (when it’s up and running, that is) have to present themselves as an identity more than a politician, so that the Assembly can ensure that every decision taken is likely to keep both communities happy. Assembly rules demand that ‘at their first meeting, members of the Assembly will register a designation of identity – nationalist, Unionist or other – for the purpose of measuring cross-community support’.

Assembly members make decisions ‘not by a simple majority’ as in other democratic parliaments, but on the basis of what is called ‘sufficiency of consensus’ – basically meaning that ‘any agreement that was to be put to the people of Northern Ireland in a referendum would have the broad agreement of the representatives of both parts of the community’ (6).

Then there is the Parades Commission, the body that decides whether parades and marches, especially ‘contentious’ ones, can go ahead. The Commission issued a decree that Saturday’s Orange parade through Whiterock in Belfast had to be moved by ‘126 paces’ so that it would not pass close to Catholic communities who said they found the parade offensive (7). It was this decision that led to the loyalist rioting.

The Parades Commission, like the Assembly, is also concerned with trying to create ‘parity of esteem’ between communities, by carefully judging whether a certain parade will offend one cultural identity and also whether banning that certain parade will offend the other cultural identity. This official sectarianism can create a broader sense of grievance and competition among communities, where they tend to see their problems, not as social or political ones, but as stemming from the other side’s potential encroachment on their cultural space. So when the Parades Commission re-routed the Whiterock Orange parade because it was an offence to the Catholic community’s cultural identity, what was to stop loyalists from demanding: ‘What about our cultural identity?!’ The riots were effectively a more violent version of identity politics, a cry for the cultural recognition that has become the staple of politics and life in Northern Ireland.

Throughout Northern Ireland there are also numerous community groups – often funded by British or European money – that encourage people to ‘celebrate diversity’ or to ‘air their grievances’ (8). There is even a Minister for Victims in Northern Ireland, who ensures that both communities’ losses and trauma from 25 years of conflict are equally valued and memorialised – and there is talk of setting up a Victims’ and Survivors’ Commission, which will look into ‘appropriate mechanisms’ for ‘dealing with the past to the satisfaction of all sections of the community’ (9).

The recent violence is the product of this divisive and degraded politics of identity. Having created a society based on the idea that there are two irreconcilable communities – whose relations need to be permanently monitored and managed and where each side must always be reminded that they are valued as much as the other lot – the peace process has also nurtured the potential for angst, disgruntlement and even violence if one side feels it is left out of the loop. The politics of identity does not only heighten sectarianism; it also actively encourages individuals to see themselves as potential victims with a grievance that ought to be expressed. No doubt the authorities would much prefer it if such grievances were expressed over tea and sympathy with a community worker, rather than in a riot.

So those who pin all of the blame for the recent riots on the Orange Order or loyalist paramilitaries are missing the point. Even these bodies are now part of the new politics. The Orange Order presents itself as a cultural heritage outfit and describes the re-routing of its parades as an offence to its ‘cultural rights’. And the role of loyalist paramilitaries in the recent riots suggests that they have changed, too: where once they were the armed wing of Britain’s domination of Northern Ireland, today they are effectively the armed wing of loyalist cultural identity. Today they fire bullets for recognition. And we have the peace process to thank for that.

(1) British government reviewing the status of loyalist ceasefires, Ireland Online, 12 September 2005

(2) Riots hitting working-class Protestants the hardest, Belfast Newsletter, 13 September 2005

(3) ‘Orangemen: why they suck’, Libby Purves, The Times (London), 13 September 2005

(4) Loyalist streets in the grip of violence spawned by resentment and bloody feud, Guardian, 13 September 2005

(5) UDA call prompts fall-off in nightly Belfast riots, Ireland Online, 14 September 2005

(6) See Hansard, House of Commons, 21 May 1997

(7) Ulster on edge, The Times (London), 13 September 2005

(8) See Today it’s just pure naked bigotry, by Brendan O’Neill

(9) Murphy announces proposals for a Victims’ and Survivors’ Commissioner, Northern Ireland Office, 1 March 2005

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Topics Politics


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