A presentation given by Cairde na hEireann Liverpool to the Unite Against Fascism North West Conference held in Liverpool on Sunday 2nd December 2012.
Racism, Fascism and Loyalism on Merseyside:
A growing threat to the Irish community
Cairde na hEireann Liverpool is an Irish community group which:
• Develops and supports initiatives that promote the rights of the Irish community on Merseyside, and that recognise and celebrate our identity
• Supports the campaign for the peaceful reunification of Ireland
• Engages in positive outreach work with the wider Merseyside community – to build shared understanding and to challenge all forms of racism and bigotry
Let me begin by saying something which I’m sure everyone in this room would acknowledge, but nevertheless needs stating quite clearly, in view of events in Liverpool over this past year:
ANTI-IRISH RACISM IS STILL RACISM.
It’s still racism and it is as serious, dangerous and disturbing as any other form of hate or bigotry.
Anti-Irish racism can be defined as: Any attack on any facet of Irishness, if the motivation is owing to Irishness, in full or in part, whether that is at a political, community, cultural or personal level. It can be the constant or targeted contempt of someone’s cultural identity or national identity.
Being Irish in Liverpool – historic overview
The Irish are the biggest ethnic and cultural community in the city of Liverpool. There has been an Irish presence in Liverpool for centuries, but significant growth came after 1847 and the waves of inmigration following An Gorta Mor / The Great Hunger.
Irish influence on the social and cultural development of the city has been profound – across the arts, business, music, politics, development of the trades union movement, the scouse accent, scouse humour and much more. Liverpool is often referred to as the other capital of Ireland or even Ireland’s 33rd county.
Yet over the years the Liverpool Irish community has faced challenges not only around a legacy of poverty, poor housing and individual discrimination, but also the challenge of organised and structured sectarianism and racism within the city, in the form of the Orange Order and various Loyalist groups.
The effect of this in the later decades of the 20th century was that Irish community activity, at a public level, was subsumed or hid behind parochial hall doors, for fear of an ‘Orange backlash’. So for example for a number of years there was no St Patrick’s Day parade in the city. The effect of this fear and concern was exacerbated during the period of the war in the north of Ireland, when the Irish became a ‘’suspect community’’ targeted by the state and the Police, and subject to crude Anti-Irish racism in the mainstream media. This climate consolidated the dominance of the ‘Orange order’ and its calendar of triumphalist street parades through the city centre.
Things did change eventually, and by the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, against the backdrop of a developing Irish peace process, and increasing popularity of Irish music and sporting figures etc, there was a corresponding increase in the confidence and assertiveness of Irish identity (including 2nd and 3rd generation) in the city. So the mid-1990’s saw the development of ‘Feile’ events – Irish cultural festivals and parades. But the shadow of the Loyalist and indeed Fascist threat had not gone away. In 1996, an Irish community parade (arranged to celebrate the civic twinning of Liverpool and Dublin) was violently attacked by local Loyalists, supported by members of Fascist groups (sounds familiar!..). On the day, the Police did not prevent the Loyalist attack, in fact Riot Police actually forced back the Irish community parade, including a children’s accordion marching band, back to the old Irish centre building on Mount Pleasant.
Repression Breeds Resistance
Following these disgraceful scenes, community activists took a decision to form a Liverpool Irish Flute Band (the James Larkin Band), to develop a more assertive and confident street presence and space for the Irish community to be able to express our political and cultural identity more confidently on the streets of this city. Against the backdrop of the bedding in of the Peace Process in Ireland, and enhanced cross-community dialogue and understanding, a regular programme of Irish parades was soon established and consolidated. The Loyalist and Fascist threat receded, at least on the surface. Irish cultural and political parades passed off peacefully, and they served to enhance Irish community confidence which also found expression in increased take-up of gaelic sports, the local Irish music scene, and the now very successful annual Liverpool Irish Festival. The Irish Flute Band (which changed its name to the Liverpool Irish Patriots in 2008), soon established solidarity links with progressive groups and diverse communities across the city, and has participated in many key marches and events, including:
• Leading the sacked Liverpool Dock Workers march in 1997
• Leading the march in defence of Asylum Seekers who were being held in Walton Jail in 2001
• Marching with the Black community in protest after the brutal racist murder of Anthony Walker in 2005
• Leading the huge Public sector workers strike march and rally in November 2011
• Leading the annual Merseyside TUC May Day march and rally for over a decade
• Marching with Liverpool Friends of Palestine and Merseyside Stop The War Coalition
For us as Irish community activists and for our Flute Band members, it was always quite clear – the assertion of our cultural and political identity was a threat to no-one, and we extended the hand of friendship and solidarity to all groups and communities with whom we shared a legacy of challenging injustice, repression, racism and bigotry.
18th February 2012 – The Fascists Strike back
On 18th February, an Irish community march was attacked and prevented from reaching the city centre, by a combination of local Loyalists and what was in effect a national mobilisation of Far Right groups, who descended on Liverpool in significant numbers on the day. The February march was an annual event to commemorate Liverpool-born Sean Phelan, a member of the Irish Volunteers, who died in 1921. This parade had taken place previously, without incident, and was due to take its usual route from the Vauxhall area (Sean Phelan’s birthplace, and the historic heartland of Liverpool’s Irish community) through to the city centre, for a rally. It never got to the city centre. Event participants were attacked on arrival by Loyalists and local Fascists. The Police made several attempts to clear the Loyalists and Fascists from blocking roads on the route of the march, but did not prevent them trailing along the side of the march, screaming racist abuse, spitting, singing sectarian songs (with lines like ‘’up to our knees in fenian blood’’ and ‘’the famine is over, why don’t you go home?’’) and threatening individual event participants. Eventually Merseyside Police stopped the march, still within the Vauxhall area, and told organisers that they could not get it through to the city centre, on the basis that there were 100s of Far Right group members waiting there to violently attack the march. Subsequent internet video footage showed that these included members of the English Defence League, North West Infidels, Combined Ex Forces, National Front, British National Party, United Kingdom Independence Party, ‘Kingos’, as well as members of the local Orange Order and Loyalist bands.
February 18th was a shock to the Police, and even more so to the Irish community. Loyalists and Fascists had made a violent incursion into the Vauxhall area for the first time in years, and stopped a lawful and legitimate community parade from reaching the city centre. The level of violence and hate directed against our community should not be underestimated, and Far Right internet sites and pages were all very boastful of their ‘victory’ on February 18th in Liverpool.
For our part as activists, we took stock, looked to reassure our own community members, met with the Police on numerous occasions, and sought to strengthen solidarity networks, actions and meetings with UAF and local anti-fascists. We aimed to develop a civic response and to highlight the growing threat of Fascism to all communities in the city.
July 21st – Annual James Larkin Society March + Rally
The James Larkin Society exists to remember + celebrate the life of the Liverpool-born Irish Trades Unionist, James Larkin. Each year, they hold a commemorative march from the south end of the city, through to the city centre, where it is addressed by a prominent Trades Union Speaker. In view of the events of Feb 18th and the growing threat of anti-Irish racism afterwards, included threats to our community on the internet and a rise in hate crime incidents, the JLS decided to theme and advertise their annual event as a march and rally for
‘’Working-Class Unity Against Racism and Fascism’’
The Far Right used social media and street posters to attempt to caricature this march against racism as an ‘’IRA march’’. This has become a central tactic for them – any Irish community event or any march with an Irish community presence on it, is projected as ‘’IRA march’’ or indeed a ‘’pro-IRA child-killers, pro-Muslim paedophiles, Marxist anti-British event’’.
The NWI produced and circulated lurid posters full of crude anti-Irish racist language featuring lines like,
“Over the past several years the city of liverpool and north west england has seen the rise of anti-British feeling projected on them by immigrant families from the republic of Ireland.”
“These people are much like the Islamics. They take take take with one hand and abuse their host nation with the other. They openly support sinn fien [sic] and the irish republican army and we are expected to stand by, smile and allow them to spread the hatred for britain.”
The JLS march and rally went ahead on 21st July, led by our Liverpool Irish Flute Band, and supported by UAF, local trade unionists and community activists. The same Fascists and Loyalists who had been out in February, attempted to block and attack this event, and gain they mobilised significant numbers. In some ways it was an even more distressing experience for people on the march. This time the Fascists got close enough to throw objects including slate tiles, which did hit some individuals.
Yet again event participants were subject to death threats and racist abuse, with shouts of ‘’Irish scum’’, and ‘’Fenian bastards go home’’…and indeed women marchers were singled out for threats of rape. Nevertheless, despite this barrage of hate, the march this time got through to the city centre, and a rally was addressed by Billy Hayes, Gen Sec. of the CWU and Paul Jenkins from UAF. As a reminder of the now open alliance between local Loyalists and the various Far Right groups, Nick Griffin, him of the notorious ‘fenian bastards’ quote sent this tweet after the 21st July event,
“Many congrats to patriots who stopped pro-IRA march in Liverpool yesterday,”
October 13th – ‘’Annual Cairde Na hEireann March and Rally
We held our annual CnhE march and rally on 13th October in Liverpool city centre. Now in its 15th year, this event had passed for a number of years without significant opposition or incident.
We themed the event, in view of the changed circumstances in the city, and the growing Fascist threat and confidence, as an
International Brigades Commemoration:
‘’Remembering all those from Merseyside and beyond, who fought against Fascism in Spain 1936-1939’’
Again, this event was targeted by Fascists and local Loyalists. The racist hate was the same, but this time their numbers were less, because we had took a decision not to publically advertise the event, and that, combined with a massive Police presence on the day, ensured the parade reached its end point.
So the day was a limited success for our community and other progressive groups in the city. Since then we have seen continued crude anti-Irish racism displayed on the various Far Right social media sites, and more recently they have made threats against Irish pubs and bars in the city.
1. Anti-Irish Racism is still Racism
2. The Irish community is being targeted by the Far Right in this city, as is the muslim community, public sector workers, and others
3. There are dangerous and growing links between the Orange Order / Loyalists and Fascists groups in this city, with disturbing implications for wider community relations
4. The threat and challenge from Loyalist and Fascist groups has damaged the confidence of the Irish community and created real fear, and forced us to consider carefully whether it is safe for our younger children and older community members to attend particular events in the current situation we face – But we will not be driven from the streets of our own city
5. We will continue to hold our annual programme of Irish community, cultural and political parades and events – and by the way, to be an Irish Republican is a perfectly lawful and legitimate thing to be. We will therefore continue to remember and honour the men and women who fought in the struggle for Irish freedom.
6. We have witnessed this year the woeful failure of certain sections of the Left and Trades Union movement, who have refused to recognise the growing threat of Fascism, who did not support the anti-Fascist marches in July and October, and worse, have actually blamed the Irish community for holding such events as, quote, this has ‘provoked’ a Fascist response. Some have gone further and said that an Irish Flute Band, by its assertive display of Irish cultural identity is a ‘provocation’ to Fascists and Loyalists. Effectively this amounts to blaming the victims for the actions and activities of the perpetrators. So shame on those elements on the Left who have taken this ridiculous position.
7. Finally, we are all familiar with the Pastor Niemoller quote*. So we all need to recognise, if the Fascists are currently targeting the Irish community and others, they will surely in turn come for you. If we don’t stand together now, we will all pay the price. UNITY IS STRENGTH!
’’First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me’’.
Pastor Martin Niemoller