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Loyalist protesters demonstrate against restrictions on flying Britain's union flag from Belfast City Hall in central Belfast

After three months of intimidation, sectarian hatred and disruption, the protests surrounding the removal of the union flag from Belfast City Hall appear to be slowly ebbing. Before the council vote in December to fly the flag on designated days only – in line with England, Scotland and Wales – few would have thought the discontent would have lasted as long, particularly when there are more pressing issues at hand. Those taking part in the protests have been treated with a mixture of fear and ridicule. In the distinctly insular society of Northern Ireland, many believe the situations we face represent a departure from the real world.

In the run up to the flag vote, the DUP and UUP distributed thousands of leaflets around east Belfast attacking the Alliance Party for supporting the Sinn Féin/SDLP measure. It was a sinister ploy by the main unionist parties to oust Alliance MP Naomi Long from the East Belfast Westminster seat, which she took from Peter Robinson at the 2010 general election. Historically, when crises arose, bourgeois unionism whipped up sectarian tensions in order to deflect criticism from the failures of their misrule and incompetence. This was cynically played out again in December. Previously, the DUP and UUP raised no concerns about the union flag being flown on only designated days in Lisburn, Craigavon and, indeed, Stormont itself. It proved useful in diverting attention from the DUP’s dismantling of the Housing Executive.

The mainstream unionist parties quickly lost control of the “movement” which sprang up around the flag issue to more radical and, at times, fascistic elements. Residents in Short Strand have borne the brunt of loyalist intimidation and violence, with illegal parades being facilitated by the PSNI on a weekly basis. Yet, there is nothing overly uniquely “Northern Irish” about these protests. A quick glance at news and election results from around Europe show an alarming increase in support for the far-right, with disadvantaged and alienated people seeking simple solutions to complicated problems. The rise of the Greek Golden Dawn party is perhaps the most disturbing. Notable, too, is the popularity of Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the True Finns and the National Front in France.

The Belfast flag protests are symptomatic of the shift to the right of small, yet not insignificant, sections of the working class across Europe. The far right are able to provide easy answers to people looking for them and can dangerously redirect their anger towards the wrong targets, whether they are immigrants, native Muslims or, in the Irish case, the “other side”. It highlights the dangers which lurk in the background if the political conversation continues to be dominated by the right. Failure by the left and trade unions to provide a radical alternative to austerity and corporate domination of public affairs leave open the possibility of people’s anger being harnessed by more reactionary forces.

The response to naked sectarianism on Belfast’s streets by the four main parties has been, at the very best best, unimaginative. Backin’ Belfast, a £600,000 publicly funded advertising campaign, was set up to reverse the losses made by businesses in the city as a result of the protests. Little has been done to challenge the anti-democratic, fascistic nature of the protests. Even less has been done to challenge the sectarian nature which lays the basis of the northern state. Instead, people have been encouraged to do their drinking, dining and shopping in Belfast. The alternative to sectarian hatred, apparently, is mass consumerism.

The public faces of Backin’ Belfast have been pub owners and retailers, such as Michael Deane and Colin Neill,who have lamented the loss of trade suffered by city centre bars and shops. They want an end to the protests, not because of the sectarianism on display at the demonstrations, but because they want to get back to ‘business as usual’. The fact that the pub and retail trades in Belfast are notorious for their gross exploitation of young workers goes largely unnoticed. Perhaps people would be able to afford to eat in Deane’s restaurant and shop in River Island at the weekend if bosses in these sectors paid their staff a living wage. Student blogger Aisling Gallager articulated this point excellently when she wrote:

“I am not #BackinBelfast- I can’t afford to. Neither can most students. Whilst students were not the main focus of this article, I’ll stick to what I know best- students are struggling to get by as it is, and with £9k fees for GB students in Queen’s University, halls that are more expensive than the basic loan, and a severe lack of part-time jobs (and those employed taken advantage of horrendously by their employers), students shouldn’t be shamed into spending more money than they can afford.”

The peace process should be about more than facilitating the needs of business owners; it should be about creating a better society, free from both bigotry and exploitation. It won’t be easy, and I don’t claim to have all the answers. But what’s absolutely certain is that tacky PR gimmicks such as Backin’ Belfast will not overcome the sectarianism which exists in the north.

This article was published in the Morning Star

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More than 100,000 people took to the streets around Ireland on Saturday (February 9) to demonstrate against the €64 billion bank debt which has been forced onto the country’s population. The protests, organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, marked the end of a busy week in Irish politics, which saw the publication of a report into the barbaric Magdalene Laundries, the liquidation of the former Anglo-Irish Bank and the announcement of a supposed “deal” on the hated promissory notes. Basic democratic standards took a hit on each occasion.

Although the population have been subjected to a relentless campaign of government spin and misinformation, those who attended Saturday’s rallies were well aware that the “deal” presented to the population earlier in the week was merely an extension of the calamitous bank guarantee which Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan condemned this country to. As a result, Ireland will pay for almost half of the total cost of Europe’s banking crisis, with every citizen coughing up €9,000 – compared to a European average of €191. Over the next 40 years, because of our political class’s dread of seeing billionaire speculators suffer a loss, the country’s population will witness hospital closures and mass emigration in order to repay a loan which they never took out. This is the incessant “no bondholder left behind” approach so eagerly adopted by Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil. “We are not going to have the name ‘defaulter’ written across our foreheads,” boasted Taoiseach Enda Kenny. “We will pay our way, we have never looked for a debt write-down.” The only concern this government has with paying off an illegitimate debt, it seems, is the timing. It will now be paid off over four decades instead of one. So much for a “deal”. So much for our “partners” in the ECB.

The political class in Ireland have long been infatuated with the wealth of foreign capitalists. Since partition, our economy was built around the goal of attracting “foreign investment” rather than the development of native industries. Economic policy was constructed around the desires of the wealthy, more so than most other European nations, a situation which continues to the present day. It is the enduring continuation of “trickle-down theory”, the folly long promoted by Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher which contends that the more wealth those at the top accumulate, the more those at the bottom will benefit. The global stagnation of wages in the midst of rising CEO pay over the last three decades is proof of its failure.

Despite the gravity of last week’s events, as well as the wider drive for austerity in general, the ICTU leadership succeeded only in completely neutering the message of Saturday’s rallies. A comedian, a rapper and musicians dominated the stage outside Government Buildings in Dublin in what seemed to be a deliberate attempt to depoliticise the protest. The crowd was entertained rather than radicalised by an uninspired display devoid of any political content. Its success in entertaining those in attendance was affirmed by the droves of protesters who departed the rally early.

The overall message of the demonstrations was carefully crafted by a trade union leadership determined to pursue a social partnership model which has immensely weakened the movement. The ire of the top brass was directed solely at the EU/ECB/IMF Troika, and not the government which has chosen to implement their policies, betraying pre-election promises. Rather than demanding the outright repudiation of a debt that we have no moral obligation to pay back, the ICTU leadership is content to call for a “better deal”.

Bland, apolitical campaigns which fail even to inspire otherwise enthusiastic activists are unlikely to reverse the drop in trade union membership we have seen over the past number of decades. The opportunity to send out a radical message on Saturday was entirely squandered. This is a somewhat unsurprising consequence, given that this same leadership failed to take a position on the Fiscal Compact Treaty last year which enshrined austerity into EU law.

As we approach the centenary of the great class battle which occurred during the Dublin Lockout, the contrast between Larkin and Connolly and the present leadership couldn’t be greater. It’s time for change.

This article was published in The Morning Star

2975186_1352784608Amidst all the pageantry and spin of the US presidential election, you may have missed the news of Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif’s untimely death. The 36-year-old Yemeni citizen died in September, languishing in solitary confinement after spending eleven years in Guantanamo Bay. Amnesty International reported in 2009 that he had suffered from “a number of physical health problems, including a fractured cheekbone, a shattered eardrum, blindness in one eye, a dislocated shoulder blade, and a possibly dislocated knee.” Adnan endured almost eleven years of this torture, embarking on a number of hunger strikes in protest against his treatment. He was never charged with any crime.

Latif’s grim death cell, to which he was consigned without even the semblance of due process, seemed a world away from the nationalistic, patriotic, flag-waving fanfare surrounding Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony last month. Comments in support of gay rights during his speech were held up as evidence by the liberal media as having shown the president’s “progressive” tendencies. The presidency of Barack Obama, however, has been anything but progressive.

Throughout American history, there has been a remarkable continuity in foreign and domestic policy among successive administrations. Domestically, the economic system was skewed heavily in favour of those who already enjoyed enormous wealth to the detriment of those who had least. The vast prison system devoured the lives of millions of US citizens while, on the foreign front, the American Empire’s “right” to bomb, pillage, loot, occupy, torture, murder and maim wherever in the world it wished went unchallenged – a modern adoption of Manifest Destiny.

Despite his promises of “hope” and “change” back in 2008, part of a deceiving PR campaign for which Advertising Age named him marketer of the year, this continuity remains unbroken under Obama. Since day one, his administration has been packed with Bush-era war criminals and Wall Street lobbyists who helped crash the world’s economy. What’s clear is that even when the figurehead changes, the system ticks as normal, regardless of any soft piecemeal reforms. Contrary to the image portrayed in all the phony television debates and public personality clashes which surround each tedious election, there are many more issues which unite the Democratic and Republican parties than divide them.

The sinister nature of the Obama administration can be seen on a number of fronts; from the children murdered by his drone attacks in Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan to the sponsoring of Israeli terror and an array of military dictatorships. At home, repression has increased on a massive scale. No case highlights this more strikingly than that of Bradley Manning, the alleged Wikileaks whistle-blower. He was accused of having leaked footage of a US Apache helicopter massacring at least 18 unarmed people – including two Reuters journalists. For this, Bradley Manning faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison. The soldiers who murdered 18 people, of course, are lauded as “our boys” and “heroes”.

Locked in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, deprived of sleep and refused access to clothing, the treatment of Bradley Manning is testament to the cruelty of the American state against even its own people. Juan Mendez, who investigated Manning’s case for the UN, told the Guardian: “I conclude that the 11 months under conditions of solitary confinement (regardless of the name given to his regime by the prison authorities) constitutes at a minimum cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of article 16 of the convention against torture. If the effects in regards to pain and suffering inflicted on Manning were more severe, they could constitute torture.” Manning’s treatment, according to Obama, is “appropriate”.

Abroad, Obama has continued and expanded Bush’s wars of aggression. His enthusiastic embrace of Bush’s drone strategy, according to the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, has led to the murders of as many as 891 civilians in Pakistan. Of these, 176 were children – some as young as three – blown to pieces by machines controlled through a computer screen in Nevada. “The same person who attacked my home has gotten re-elected,” said Mohammad Rehman Khan, a 28-year-old Pakistani who lost his father, three brothers and a nephew in a U.S. drone attack a month after Obama first took office.

The false dawns offered by political liberalism are apparent – mild reforms at home, mass terror abroad. Invasion, occupation, violation of national sovereignty, summary executions, internment, torture and murder. These things all occurred under Obama, yet the reaction has been minimal. Where are the mass protests which erupted onto the streets after similar outrages perpetrated by Bush? Where are the calls for his arrest, which were so common during Bush’s terms? Disturbingly, Obama’s apparent sophistication and ‘hip’ liberalism appear to have absolved him of war crimes in the eyes of many.