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Belfast: Political Sectarianism And The Left

Davy Carlin • 25/6/2002

A number of contributors to the Blanket have raised issues concerning political disunity, sects and political sectarianism etc. In this article I will attempt to give a honest practical and ideological assessment and reasoning on the issue of political sectarianism and how it can possibly be combated.

After approximately five years of being involved in a revolutionary socialist party I have learnt and begun to understand much in relation to the politics of the Left. Writing from the experience as a member of the Belfast SWP - an organization which is relevant despite its still small size - which has developed to become the most active and influential socialist organization in Belfast. Apart from two unprecedented events in the last year or so of both initiating several hundred anti-capitalist and then several hundred anti-war activists on to the streets of Belfast we are presently involved in several successful ongoing campaigns in cooperation with others. Yet it is the situation by groupings on the left in the North and the political sectarianism within them which I will attempt to address. I firmly believe that there still genuine forces active within them.

My starting point is simple in that it is not how relevant you perceive yourself to be are but the actuality of that relevancy both to and within the working class. Yet unless even in an initial small way you begin to deliver in practice that which you talk of in ideas then your inactions will lead to the continual concretizing of both your perceived and real irrelevance to wider society. My early experiences with some of the groupings on the left and their lack of development over those five years has lead to an understanding to that lack of growth. I believe the failure to develop lies at the door of four root causes inherent within these groupings: political sectarianism, ideological internalism, abstraction and protectionism.

Firstly the issue of sectarianism where the main problem for the particular grouping lies not at the foot of capitalism but perceived to be at the foot of other organizations on the Left. So then on many occasions both their energies and political development are focused blindly in that direction.

A recent practical example of this is at the recent NIPSA trade union conference where a socialist organization which have been building there for many years did everything in their power to attempt to hamper a differing socialist organization’s fringe meeting. Despite doing this the meeting by young SWP union activists attracted around forty people - about twice the delegates of the other organization. The reason why I raise this is that it is important to learn lessons and it was because that on this occasion - which is now being repeated frequently - that non-party aligned individuals felt the need to approach us as the sectarianism towards us was so obvious.

So despite their attempts to hamper us through open sectarianism and in spite of the rhetoric our work on the ground within the union meant that people both during and after the conference were pulled in our direction. As one non-party aligned delegate recently told me, 'two hours cornered in the bar of anti-SWP ranting and ear bashing simply because I was seen talking to you.' So yet another has had their eyes opened. While our growing numbers of young union activists can deal with this type of political immaturity a more serious aspect of sectarianism manifested itself only a few days later, which potentially has wider repercussions.

A picket on the night of Alex Maskey’s election as mayor was called by NIPSA in support of a sacked union colleague. When a member of the press arrived whom I know, a leading union activist of that said organization grabbed the journalist’s arm while he was talking to me and said, 'fuck that, don't talk to him'. I presume 'him' was meant in the context of seeing me as SWP rather than a leading NIPSA branch officer of the largest civil service branch who was there to both show solidarity and representation on behalf of my branch to a colleague. This, again obvious sectarianism only days after the previous incident, did two things. Firstly the journalist has now realized the sectarian nature of that organization as he felt moved to contact me on the issue. Yet secondly it carves out a more serious matter: because of that sectarian outburst it means that persons from that guys branch will go away seeing or hearing of that disunity and take it back to their branch just before they are to vote for strike action in support of him. How many will vote for action of support when they have seen such sectarian disunity?

I believe that outburst scrapes the bottom of the pile and unfortunately may impact on a colleague’s chances of re-instatement. So in effect his sectarianism towards the organization of which I am a member was of greater importance to him that the unity we had collectively shown for our colleague. While the SWP will deal with the sectarianism of some towards us, it is when it effects a working colleague then it becomes increasingly sad and further sinks into the cesspool of sectarianism. For the record to that union colleague from the Socialist Party all I can say is shame, shame on you.

So where does this come from, it comes from firstly ideological internalism, where the party increasingly looks inwards and so the practical and ideological aspects of the party and its limited internal networks becomes the perceived instrument for change rather than the working class. It progresses to where the party continually sees others on the Left as the problem rather than the system it theoretically opposes. This leads to its theory and its limited practice becoming continually defensive, with theory ever ascending over practice. This leads then on to protectionism which due to the party becoming ever more internal they then viciously hold on to that what they perceive they have. In doing so the party becomes ever more protectionist which we will see both practically through increased sectarianism and ideologically through increased ideological internalism. In effect as the protectionism ultimately increases the party will further bend towards authoritarianism.

What I have also found becoming an increasing feature is that the more a party becomes internal the more abstract it tends to become. This is because it attempts to theoretically change the world to suit themselves rather than putting ideas into practice to attempt to bring change to the world. An example of this was the Short Strand. While we in a small way worked behind the scenes for a resolution, we also answered the call for solidarity for an
anti-sectarian rally from the residents against the nightly attacks. While our trade union representatives from UNISON, NIPSA, ATGWU, NASUWT etc were at the rally we witnessed both bomb attacks by loyalists and a young man next to us shot in the chest by the PSNI. So, as we did several months prior, we began to put pressure on the trade unions while in tandem launching a network petition for solidarity. The 'left' were noticeable by their absence as one grouping had called for an immediate socialist revolution pitting themselves as the vanguard, while a larger socialist party were reluctant to take a position on the increasing nightly attacks on the small nationalist enclave in fear of alienating the protestant working class by being seen to support the catholic working class?

Such abstraction comes from internal politics concentrated on purity of theory. This purism is absolute over the conditions for and the relation to practice at a given time, thus leading to isolation from the instrument of change as defined by Marx. So rather than burying your head in the sand, reverting to abstraction or vocal armchair observations, when sectarianism raises its head you need to stand firm at the forefront with working people against repression. It amuses me at times when we take a lead that these groupings shout from the back or sides 'SWP front' - 'sectarians' etc. It does not matter if we have just mobilized hundreds of people onto Belfast's streets those groupings, through an internal clone-like mindset, feel the need to shout such. I remember once the same group that were sectarian to us at the NIPSA conference sent along their Northern organizer to one of our campaigns. About forty people sat in the room; many non party aligned and all were discussing the ongoing campaign. This person when afforded the right to speak spoke for fifteen minutes solely against the SWP and its politics, never once mentioning the campaign. He then called for a new campaign under a different name which he would set up and that people should see him afterwards. To be honest some people thought he was just a nutter while once again everyone realized that organization sectarianism which was reflected in the fact by how people positioned themselves to avoid contact with that solitary figure at the end of the meeting. When I state such instances now amuse me while before they annoyed me they do also still sadden me as these organizations do hold some genuine activists and socialists which if afforded the opportunity would work fraternally with others.

So then as with the Short Stand issue it is important to put ideas into practice. This means that when sectarianism rises it is important to show that unity is possible. For example while working around the Short Strand issue we also are trying to build support for the sacked airport strikers. So this week around twenty people worked on our central Belfast stall including five strikers as well as comrades at the West Belfast stall and in Corn Market. On a wet afternoon in the space of one and a half hours we both raised awareness and almost three hundred pounds from our supporters for the strikers. We also took them around some of Belfast's largest union branches in which our members sit to again gather support. So the ideas of working class unity was put into practice against the backdrop of sectarian violence, thus the practical relevance of our voiced ideas.

The question then of how one relates to the working class is by putting those ideas into practice yet some have raised the issue of the practicalities of our stalls and whether or not it helps or hinders our politics. The stalls or sales as seen with the airport strikers are merely a part tactical means to a platform not usually afforded to those on the far left, which may move to a differing tactical approach as influences grows.

So in conclusion there are a number of points I have learnt through these first few years. Firstly that those who genuinely attempt to relate to the working class tend at times to be more genuinely interested in working with other forces to fight for class issues. Secondly that the political sectarianism in Belfast once constantly put against us in the years prior is increasingly becoming isolated and concentrated within those internalized groupings. This is to a large part due to us increasingly finding ourselves working with larger and more representative forces where the priority lies within the campaigns and not within differing politics. Thirdly political sectarianism within the left is defeated not by the methods of those who embrace it but by relating ideologically and practically to wider relevant layers. Through this both the sectarianism and indeed those groupings I have found will become increasingly irrelevant as they sink through their sectarianism into ever more internalism and wilder abstraction.

Finally the SWP have and will work with all those genuine forces on the left in Belfast of which I know of quite a few yet we look also to the layers in wider society who wish to fight for working class issues. May it be in the unions or those attempting to establish union recognition, or those in campaigns or those wishing to initiate one. As the SWP in Belfast moves to a new stage in its development we believe socialists and like minded people can begin to develop a growing alliance of individuals, groups and organizations around N. Ireland for collective support and the development of campaigns and long term alliances. We need also to pool our ideas and forces collectively to fight on working class issues, whether in the workplace, communities or tactically within elections. Those who know me know I argue to work fraternally with others if others are prepared to also work fraternally. They would also know that I have always said it as I see it as I believe there is no point in talking the talk without taking a lead in walking the walk. So on that note for those who want to attempt to put class politics back on the map or are just interested in the initial sharing of such ideas contact me for discussion at





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I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever, in religion, in philosophy, in politics or in anything else, where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to Heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.
- Thomas Jefferson


28 June 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


The Pity of War

Billy Mitchell


Dispute At Dunboyne School

Wealth Before Health

Anthony McIntyre

Belfast: Political Sectarianism and the Left
Davy Carlin


23 June 2002


It Is But Institutionalised Collusion

Davy Carlin


Snarling Down Below
Eoghan O’Suillabhain

Reunion vs Six-County Independence

Paul A. Fitzsimmons

Eire Nua
Sean O Lubaigh



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