The months leading up to the general election saw church burnings, harassment of Catholic churchgoers by Loyalist thugs at Harryville and Catholic families in Belfast fleeing their homes in fear of their lives. All of this was against a background of an inflammatory campaign by Unionist leaders demanding the right to lead Orange marches through Catholic areas.
As the Loyalist marching season warms up to its peak in the summer, the fears are that the violence and sectarianism that was seen last year will be repeated. Last July police, for the second year running, gave in to a Loyalist mob and allowed it to march through a Catholic area at Drumcree, since when there has been rising tension with an increase in sectarian attacks against Catholics.
Some Catholic politicians are pinning their hopes for progress in the peace talks and the question of Orange marches on the new Labour government. Their belief is that the veto the Unionist MPs were able to exercise while their votes kept the Tories in office was the main barrier to making headway. However, they may soon find that these hopes are misplaced.
Some newspaper headlines have used the deterioration in the situation in Northern Ireland as confirmation that the problem is the existence of 'two tribes' who can never be reconciled. But what is missing is any acknowledgement of the fact that the majority of the population do not support the increase in sectarian attacks and still want peace. Indeed, the ceasefire in 1994 resulted from a groundswell of disillusionment with the armed struggle among ordinary people.
During the ceasefire the lessening of tension on the streets of Belfast was palpable. The optimistic plans for cross-community projects, with much talk about just how much ordinary Catholics and Protestants had in common, showed the potential for opening up new ideas. But the people of Northern Ireland had no say in how the 'peace process' proceeded and so it was scuppered by Major with his ever changing conditions which effectively prevented Sinn Fein joining the talks. As Paul, a civil servant from Derry, said, 'There was a lot more people involved in politics then. But the British government drove that into the ground, although the Republicans were amenable to any sort of gesture.'
Major proved he was in hock to the Unionist MPs. The beleaguered Tory government survived but the price was paid by others those who died in the renewed IRA action and those suffering from violent intimidation, including murder, at the hands of Loyalist thugs.
The Unionist leaders did make the most of their temporary ability to put barriers in the way of any movement to all party talks. And their campaign over the right of Orange marches to go through Catholic areas has increased in ferocity. The fact that the march at Drumcree in 1995 was allowed through the Catholic area, albeit under cover of darkness and in silence, was greeted by Loyalist bigots at the time as a great victory and a snub to local Catholics. This in turn paved the way for 'Drumcree 2' in 1996.
Orange Order members have invoked the concept of 'civil rights' in arguments about the right to march 'the roads of Ulster', claiming it is a part of Protestant tradition which is not provocative to Catholics and so should not be subject to negotiation. The slogans shouted from such marches 'Fuck off, Fenians!' and the sectarian attacks which follow the speeches by Loyalist leaders should give the lie to that idea. Last month eight Catholic families living in a block of flats on Limestone Road in north Belfast were forced out of their homes by a masked mob of Loyalists wielding knives, sledgehammers and clubs. The RUC watched from a nearby Land Rover, refusing to intervene, as a Catholic couple tried to escape while their attackers shouted, 'I'm going to slit your throats, you Fenian bastards.'
Despite such evidence that there is little more to talk of Protestant culture than an excuse for sectarianism, there is still a tendency for Loyalist claims to be accepted without question. A lead article in the Guardian in January pointed to 'a genuine Protestant fear that restrictions on the right to march are a big step down a slippery nationalist slope which threatens Unionist culture and tradition in much wider ways'. A recent interview in the same paper with a Protestant writer, Brian Ervine, quotes him saying, 'Take Orangeism, for example it's fashionable to deride it now. It's rich with music and history', and he goes on to say that he hopes one day the 12 July Orange marches will be a festival like the Mardi Gras.
Such talk has to be rejected. Orange marches are not some quaint tourist attraction, but demonstrations celebrating the defeat of Catholics and the dominance of Protestants. There have been more Orange marches in recent years precisely because the Unionists feel their dominance being threatened. The myths of culture and tradition, supposedly embodied in the white gloves, orange sashes and banners of the Orange Order, are part of the attempt to maintain the idea of the separateness and superiority of Protestants in Northern Ireland.
Yet all these symbols are relatively recent inventions. The Orange Order itself was created by the Protestant establishment in 1795, with the sole purpose of breaking up the growing solidarity created amongst Catholics and Protestants by the movement of the United Irishmen at the time. It legitimised violent harassment of poor Catholics and pledged itself to smashing progressive organisations which threatened its power. Both the symbols and organisation have been resurrected at different periods since, when Protestant bosses feared they were losing dominance over the ideas or activities of Protestant workers.
The Orange Order has never represented the ideas of all Protestants least of all today when its membership has declined by almost half in the last 20 years. There are more members of trade unions in Northern Ireland 38 percent of the workforce than members of the Orange Order.
Polls show that 60 percent of Protestants support negotiation to resolve the issue of Orange marches. Most are appalled at the pickets that Loyalist thugs have set up outside the Catholic church at Harryville near Ballymena every Saturday night for almost eight months. Support for the Catholic churchgoers who have to run the gauntlet of abuse, was organised by the group United Against Bigotry. Trade unionists from Britain joined Protestants and Catholics in a demonstration which showed the potential for organising against sectarianism. Many working class Protestants signed a petition at a stall in Belfast city centre supporting the initiative, while those who came on the demonstration declared themselves proud to have made a stand.
Craig, who is from a Protestant background, said, 'I've been living here for four years and I think there's an awful lot of Protestants who are not sectarian. It's just a small hard core. It's shocking to stand here watching them shouting their chants and throwing bottles in our direction. My throat's catching at the moment it's really shocking. This looks like the last throes of it, like the South African laager mentality, if I can call it that, based around Ballymena which is a stronghold and around Drumcree trying to regroup the forces for another summer of sectarianism.'
Even within the Orange Order there are deep splits developing about the minority 'Spirit of Drumcree' group, which arose out of last year's violence, with its slogans of 'Stop talking, start walking'. The arch-bigot, Ian Paisley, has seen his influence decline and is trying, unsuccessfully, to use the campaign to regain support.
The tragedy is that for the mass of people, Catholic and Protestant, who yearn for peace and a better quality of life, none of the main political parties is offering an alternative to these sectarian divisions which have dogged the working class for generations. Both Unionist and nationalist politicians have been more concerned with electoral pacts, seeing the general election as merely an opportunity for a sectarian headcount.
Any attempts by Unionists to talk about tackling unemployment, low pay or health cuts are hollow, given that it was Unionist MPs who prolonged the life of the Tory government which caused the unemployment and cutbacks in the north.
On the other hand, Sinn Fein's refusal to look beyond its Catholic constituents means that the concerns that unite both communities, such as the health service and jobs, are only addressed from the point of view of 'their community'. Sinn Fein leaves Protestant workers with no alternative but to look at some form of Unionism to reflect their interests.
But Sinn Fein's approach is bankrupt even in relation to the working class Catholics it claims to represent. Its leaders have had talks with the CBI. They have bent over backwards to stay in favour with US president Bill Clinton and stood on their 'record of attracting inward investment' and enhanced job creation in their areas. Far from talking about fighting oppression or British imperialism, the slogan for their most important candidate in the election was, 'Working full time for West Belfast, Gerry Adams gets results for West Belfast'. Such a paltry vision shows the dead end that Republicanism has reached.
The election of a Labour government shows no sign of offering any solution in Northern Ireland. Labour MP Kate Hoey has written that the '"Unity by Consent" policy is outdated... I believe it is only a question of time before it is formally dropped... It is time for Labour to build a New Union'. Hoey has associated herself with the most rabid strands of Unionism and is a founder member of Democracy Now, a Labour campaign group whose members include an ex UDA activist, an ex British soldier and David Montgomery of the Daily Mirror.
However, her views are not unique. Another Labour MP, Andrew MacKinlay, told the Unionist Labour group that 'Unionists have nothing to fear from a Labour government. Tony Blair has made it clear that Labour will not seek to become persuaders but has stated that Northern Ireland's existing relationship with Britain will endure so long as the greater majority want it.'
Supporting the status quo means that the dominance of the Unionist bigots will carry on unchallenged. The alternative that socialists have put forward in the past has always looked to ordinary struggles of workers, both Protestant and Catholic, in the knowledge that it is in these struggles that the real divide in Ireland has been exposed that of class. Despite the pessimism about the future that the resurgence in sectarian division has created, it is still with these struggles and the class politics which they nurture that hope lies. Belfast is not enveloped in devastation like Sarajevo or Beirut. There is infrastructure, industry, a health service and a working class which despite the deterioration in the situation in the last year has actually been involved in struggle.
Last month 3,500 health workers went on strike in a dispute about pay. The Tories' decision to close the Accident and Emergency ward at the City Hospital in mainly Protestant South Belfast and the Royal Maternity Hospital in predominantly Catholic West Belfast has led to condemnation of the plans from all sides. The Protestant Shankill Women's Group has offered support for the workers at the Royal Maternity Hospital who walked out when the proposals were first announced.
Such struggles are still small but they can expose the ability of sectarianism to undermine the unity and therefore the strength of the working class. The intervention of socialists will be crucial in ensuring that these lessons are learnt