Israel/Palestine: The Politics of a Two-State Solution

  • Israel/Palestine and the Politics of a Two-State Solution
  • When Peace Fails: Lessons from Belfast for the Middle East

Monday, December 10, 2012

Needing inferiors for self-asteem in Belfast--sectarian riots

For the last six days there has been renewed rioting by loyalists mobs in Belfast and now in Derry also ostensibly over a compromise provision that limits the flying of the Union Flag at Belfast City Hall to only seventeen designated days per year. Nationalists wanted the flag not to be flown at all at the City Hall but settled for an Alliance Party compromise motion that limited it to flying on designated days only. Alliance offices have been broken into in response to the compromise and a leaflet put out by the DUP calling on constituents to let Alliance know how they feel about the measure. Unionist commentator John Coulter sees this possibly reverberating to the benefit of the struggling UUP.

This has been the second major period of rioting in Belfast since the peace process was finally bedded down in mid 2007. There were major riots two years ago in North Belfast. These riots all have ostensible local causes but the real reasons are the need for loyalist paramilitary organizations to demonstrate that they still have relevance and justify their existence and the unhappiness of working class unionists--loyalists--with the gains made by nationalists and republicans since the start of the peace process. The traditional position of loyalists was to be looked down upon by middle class unionists and to look down upon nationalists. Unionist parties neglected the educational, employment and social needs of loyalists and nationalists. Loyalists compensated by looking down upon nationalists. The gains made by nationalists to a situation of equality with loyalists is seen as a net loss by the loyalists. That at least is the analysis of Peter Shirlow, lecturer at Queen's University at Belfast.

This is very similar to the situation in the American South where poor whites, many of them of Scotch-Irish/Ulster Scots ancestry,  self-identified with the rich white planter class both during the American Civil War of 1861-65 and then during the Civil Rights Era of 1954-68. The poor whites felt a relative sense of prosperity by being comparatively better off than their black neighbors. By the tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands they sacrificed their lives during the Civil War for that illusory sense of white unity. Because of this common feature and the fact that both the American South and Northern Ireland are parts of larger liberal democracies that might be induced to intervene led NICRA to copy the strategy of the American civil rights movement. But because neither Paisleyites nor republicans believed in non-violence Northern Ireland erupted into sectarian conflict and then terrorism. 

Only through education from a young age has racism been gradually driven back across the American South and elsewhere. Such an approach could work in Northern Ireland only if there were widespread integrated non-sectarian education of children. Instead Protestants are educated in state schools and nationalists in Catholic parochial schools. The relatively few integrated schools are private and tend to be used by the middle classes--many of them Alliance Party voters. The loyalists and republicans grow up with entrenched stereotypes about "the Other" that are almost impossible to eradicate because there is no first-hand evidence to the contrary in their segregated schools and neighborhoods. 

The second major reason for the riots is that they are seen as an effective means of extorting goodies from the government. Loyalists know that republicans rioted for decades including after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. London appeased the IRA and Sinn Fein in order to keep the peace process from falling apart. Now loyalists feel that it can work for them as well. If they riot enough and are destructive enough they will be given "neighborhood rehabilitation grants" that can be supervised by the paramilitary organizations. This is a kind of welfare for the criminal element. Here is comment in The Scotsman that echoes both the Shirlow analysis and the idea of rioting as a strategy. Its author echoes my sentiment that Northern Ireland paid a high price for Tony Blair's decision to appease Sinn Fein during the peace process rather than to play hardball in supporting the more moderate centrist parties.

If Jerusalem under American pressure should ever attempt to seriously make peace again with the Palestinians, expect the settlers and many of the mizrakhim to play the same role in the peace process there as the loyalists have played in Northern Ireland. In Israel the mizrakhim (Jews from Muslim countries) are likewise positioned between European Jews and the Arabs. Much of their upward mobility has been through occupations related to the occupation and security. Should peace occur, the settlers would lose their tax-subsidized prosperity in the settlements and the mizrakhim would be in many cases on an equal level with Israeli Palestinians.

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