As the PSNI opened fire with plastic bullets in north Belfast yesterday [Monday], the carefully constructed façade of a civic police service came tumbling down around them.
Of course, for many working class communities in the Six Counties there was never any meaningful attempt to construct this façade. Since the name change from RUC to PSNI, the paramilitary police have used CS gas and Tasers on an almost weekly basis, maintained fortified barracks in many areas and remained routinely armed.
The indiscriminate use of plastic bullets in Ardoyne, however, should have been recognised as a statement of intent by all those who believed, or wanted to believe, that the PSNI had really changed. The PSNI, like the RUC before it, will force sectarian marches through nationalist areas by any means necessary, including the use of lethal weaponry.
As nationalist residents gathered at Ardoyne shops to peacefully protest against the Orange Order’s coat trailing procession, there must have been a depressing sense of déjà vu. For decades, the community in Ardoyne has been demanding respect and the right to live free from sectarian harassment and, for decades, the RUC-PSNI has been accommodating every unionist attempt to harass, disrespect and, all too often, kill members of that community.
As the Orange Order passed Ardoyne, 300 drunken unionists gathered opposite in Twaddell Avenue to dance and sing sectarian party songs. Dignified nationalist residents, meanwhile, were corralled and forced back into their own area by the PSNI.
This was the reality of Orange Fest 2009 for nationalist north Belfast; an unwanted sectarian march, the deployment of hundreds of riot police to curtail freedom of movement, taunting by hundreds of drunken bigots and an attack on a peaceful protest – all facilitated by the British state in the form of the Six County Parades Commission.
The violent response by some nationalist youths to yesterday’s situation was as predictable as it was undesirable. The Orange Order is well aware that north Belfast is a tinderbox, made so by years of discrimination, poverty, oppression and sectarianism.
Eighty per cent of those on the social housing waiting list in north Belfast are from nationalist communities. It is only nine years since one of most the blatantly sectarian campaigns in the history of the Six County state was launched when baying mobs attempted to prevent the children of Ardoyne from entering Holy Cross Primary School. Meanwhile, across the North, nationalists remain two and a half times more likely to be unemployed than unionists.
If the Orange Order was motivated by anything other than the notion of supremacism, it would have rerouted yesterday’s march in the interests of peace. It didn’t.
As a result, the PSNI was let loose on the people of Ardoyne to fire plastic bullets, baton innocent people and deploy water cannon.
In 2001, one of the last acts of the Six County Police Authority was to supply the PSNI with an extra 50,000 plastic bullets. The potential for further violence on the part of the paramilitary police remains real.
éirígí chairperson Brian Leeson called on the nationalist parties to withdraw support from the PSNI in response to events in Ardoyne.
“When the nationalist parties went onto the Six County Policing Board, they did so with the expressed aim of ending the human rights abuses of the RUC and holding the PSNI to account,” Leeson said.
“In July 2009, it must be recognised that this project has failed utterly – the PSNI remains a violent unionist paramilitary force, dedicated to maintaining the sectarian state in the Six Counties.
“Given recent events, how can working-class nationalists be expected to lend their support to the PSNI?
“The time has come for Sinn Féin and the SDLP to withdraw from the Six County Policing Board and properly represent the interests of their communities. Failure to do so provides political cover for the state gunmen who entered Ardoyne and opened fire to suppress a nationalist protest.”
Meanwhile, party general secretary Breandán Mac Cionnaith dismissed Sinn Féin claims that éirígí was in some way involved in yesterday’s rioting.
“The suggestion by Sinn Féin that éirígí orchestrated the rioting that occurred in Ardoyne is a transparent attempt to divert attention away from the outrageous actions of the PSNI,” MacCionnaith said.
“I challenge Sinn Féin to produce a shred of evidence to support their claims of éirígí involvement in rioting.
“If Sinn Féin thinks it can use éirígí to hide the contradictions of its support for a paramilitary police force, they will be sorely disappointed. Sinn Féin would do better to focus on the actions of their friends in the PSNI than attacking republicans. The dogs in the street know that the Sinn Féin leadership is deeply worried by the growing support for éirígí’s political message. This is the context in which this latest attack on éirígí by Sinn Féin should be seen.”
Mac Cionnaith concluded: “éirígí commends the community in Ardoyne for taking the decision to peacefully oppose a sectarian march through their community. Like the communities of the Ormeau Road in south Belfast, Erris in County Mayo and the Garvaghy Road in Portadown, they have shown true courage in facing up to the forces of a state intent on suppressing their rights.”
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