Marching into the dustbin of history?

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Recent Loyalist riots and disturbances in Glasgow and a subsequent ban on Orange and Republican parades in the city have the shaken the image of Scotland as a modern, inclusive democracy. Mark Brown considers how revolutionary socialists should respond to recent events.

On 30 August of this year an Irish Unity march by the James Connolly Republican Flute Band through the working-class community of Govan in the south-west of Glasgow descended into chaos as it was attacked by hundreds of Loyalist thugs. Smoke bombs and other missiles were thrown at the Republican marchers in what can only be described as a Loyalist riot.

The Republican Flute Band’s choice of Govan, which is immediately adjacent to the district of Ibrox, home of Rangers Football Club, was not a random one. However, although the organisers must have expected some Loyalist opposition, they will have been taken aback by the scale and ferocity of the violent counter-demonstration.

The following weekend, on 7 September, a Republican march was attacked by Orange thugs as it passed through Glasgow City Centre. In the ensuing melee a police officer was injured by a flare thrown by a Loyalist.

In response to these two Loyalist riots, the Scottish National Party (SNP)-led Glasgow City Council, in consultation with Police Scotland, banned four Orange parades and one Irish Republican march planned in the city for the weekend of 14 September. This, in turn, led to a hundreds-strong demonstration in George Square, in the heart of Glasgow, by a Loyalist group calling itself Scottish Protestants Against Discrimination (SPAD).

The protest organisers insisted that the ban was motivated by anti-Protestant, anti-Unionist bigotry on the part the SNP Council. This despite the fact that the only Republican march scheduled for the weekend in question had also been prohibited.

Scotland’s main Protestant church, the Church of Scotland, distanced itself from SPAD, declaring that it did not believe the ban on the marches was “anti-Protestant”. Nevertheless, the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland threw its weight behind the SPAD protest and announced that it was considering legal action against Glasgow City Council.

Orange marches planned in Glasgow beyond the weekend of the ban were permitted to go ahead, following police advice that it would be more difficult to control Loyalist protests against any further ban than it would be to police the Orange parades themselves.

Historic ties

So what is behind this upsurge in Loyalist violence? The recent Loyalist thuggery in Glasgow has to been seen in the wider context of political events on the island of Ireland and in Scotland. There are strong, historic ties between Scotland and Ireland. The Ulster Scots in the North of Ireland are the descendants of Scottish Protestants who migrated from the 17th century onward; a fact that was underlined on 12 October when the Glasgow Loyalist flute band, the Govan Protestant Boys, created outrage by playing the Orange anthem “The Sash” inside the building of Belfast City Hall.

Scotland also has a big Irish Catholic community, which is largely descended from people who migrated during and after the Great Famine of the mid-19th century.

The Irish peace process, in which the Unionist establishment has had to give up many of the trappings of Protestant supremacy, has led to considerable nervousness among Loyalists on both sides of the Irish Sea. They feel, and not without good reason, that their sectarian ideology is being left behind by history. That’s why the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) — the predominant Unionist party in the North of Ireland — has been so forceful in insisting that any Brexit deal must not treat Northern Ireland any differently from the rest of the United Kingdom. This stance is rendered farcical by the DUP’s opposition to Northern Ireland having either the abortion rights or the gay marriage rights that have been achieved in Scotland, England and Wales.

If the peace process makes Loyalists nervous, so too do the massive political changes in the Irish Republic. Both before and after the partition of Ireland in 1921, Loyalism has tried to wed Protestant workers in Ireland, and in the North in particular, to its cause with the slogan “Home Rule means Rome Rule”.

However, due, in part to public revulsion over a series of hideous scandals involving the sexual and physical abuse of children by Catholic clergy, and also to inspiring and successful mass movements over such issues as gay marriage and abortion rights, the power of the Roman Catholic Church in the Republic has diminished.

The fear of Catholic Church domination in the event of the reunification of Ireland is no longer a meaningful strand in Loyalist propaganda. In fact, ironically, the staunch Protestants of the DUP and the Orange Order in the North of Ireland now find that their closest ally in opposing gay rights and women’s rights is the Catholic Church.

It is little surprise, therefore, that for many people in the North, particularly young people (including Protestant youth), the idea of a united Ireland is becoming increasingly attractive. A survey in September of this year showed that, if a border poll was to be held in the North, the vote would be 51 percent in favour of joining a united Ireland.

If Loyalism is worried about events in Ireland, in Scotland it is terrified by the increasing likelihood of independence. The recent Loyalist riots in Glasgow were reminiscent of the violence that followed the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. On 19 September (the day on which the narrow defeat of independence in the referendum was announced) a Loyalist mob (organised, in part, by fascists) descended on George Square and physically assaulted anyone they could identify as a Yes voter.

Poll evidence, not to mention the extraordinary All Under One Banner (AUOB) movement (which brought 200,000 people onto the streets of Edinburgh last month), indicates that support for Scottish independence is on the increase.

Loyalism in Scotland, from the Orange Order to the various Loyalist and fascist street thugs (who could muster only a few dozen counter-demonstrators against the massive AUOB march in Edinburgh), is fighting a rearguard action. The recent violence is a response to the dual threats, as they see them, of a united Ireland and an independent Scotland.

The recent Loyalist violence in Glasgow has led to increasingly loud calls for Orange parades to be banned. Anyone who has ever been in the vicinity of a large Orange walk, and witnessed the atmosphere of bigotry and intimidation, not to mention the outbursts of sectarian violence (such as an incident during a parade in Glasgow in 2018 in which a Loyalist thug spat in the eye of a Catholic priest outside his own chapel), will have sympathy for this position.

Repression

However, there are a number of reasons why socialists would be ill-advised to support a ban. First, as we saw with the recent SPAD protest in Glasgow, the prohibition of parades by a local authority, the government or the police, enables the bigots to portray themselves as victims and draw support from a minority within the Protestant working class on the grounds that they are facing repression.

Second, a ban on Orange parades on grounds of “public order” could easily be used against the left and progressive movements. The 14 September ban in Glasgow affected not only Orange walks but also an Irish Republican march. The blanket ban against Extinction Rebellion which the Metropolitan Police tried to enforce in London on 15 October shows where calling upon the state to halt reactionary and right-wing marches could lead.

Third, a ban on Orange parades, vile though they are, would not prevent the kind of Loyalist violence that erupted in Govan on 30 August. That was a counter-protest, organised, not under the auspices of the Orange Order, but by a hardcore of Loyalist and fascist street thugs.

The recent Loyalist violence in Glasgow notwithstanding, Orangeism and Loyalism in Scotland are in decline (just as they are facing a crisis in the North of Ireland). As the growing support for Scottish independence indicates, Protestant workers in Scotland are much less committed to the unity of the British state now than they were. In the 1960s and 1970s, right-wing Tory Teddy Taylor could get elected as MP for Glasgow Cathcart, partly on the strength of the Orange vote.

The independence movement in Scotland is characterised by an absolute absence of religious sectarianism or racism. The AUOB demonstrations include people of all ethnicities and of all religions and none.

Anti-Tory slogans

Anti-Tory slogans are popular on the marches. Stand Up to Racism placards are taken up enthusiastically, as are Socialist Worker placards with the slogan “Break up the British state”.

What should the labour movement say on the Irish question? The Socialist Workers Party has a long and proud tradition of advocating a united Ireland. In doing so we build upon Leon Trotsky’s position of unconditional but not uncritical support for national liberation struggles. This means that, whatever our political or tactical disagreements with Irish Republicans, we are steadfastly on the same side as the Republican movement in demanding a united, 32-county Irish Republic.

Unfortunately, the SNP leadership and (despite Jeremy Corbyn’s longstanding support for a united Ireland) the leaderships of the Scottish Labour Party and the Scottish trade unions don’t see the Irish question in these political terms. Rather, considering the issue to be too controversial, they wash their hands of it, taking a “plague on both your houses” attitude, as if the Loyalist and Republican traditions are simply sectarian mirror images of each other.

In the Scottish Labour Party the refusal to support the cause of a united Ireland combines dangerously with a virulent defence of the Union between Scotland and England. There was widespread shock and consternation when it was announced, in July of this year, that the new Executive Officer of the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland was to be Ian McNeil, a Labour councillor in North Lanarkshire. Questioned about the perceived conflict between Orange sectarianism and Labour principles, the Scottish Labour Party replied that membership, indeed leadership, of the Orange Order was not incompatible with membership of the party.

Neither the SNP leadership nor the leadership of Scottish Labour can be relied upon to support the cause of a united Ireland. However, the direction of grassroots politics, both in Ireland and in Scotland, suggests that Orangeism is marching into the dustbin of history.