If your favourite thing in life is to hate on specific social groups for no legitimate reason, it must get kind of boring just picking on the same one the entire time. Which is maybe why the Liverpool-based EDL splinter group the North West Infidels have been taking a break from threatening journalists and banging on about "Muslim paedo gangs" to focus their attentions on the city's large Irish community.
Teaming up with Combined Ex-Forces, Casuals United and their other assorted brothers in bigotry, they've recently been attempting to capitalise on growing tensions between the loyalist and republican communities in the city. So this past Saturday's annual James Larkin Parade – a commemoration of the Irish Republican trade unionist and a traditional catalyst for sectarian tension – was the perfect opportunity for them to take to the streets.
The parade is actually a tribute to Larkin, who was born in Liverpool to Irish parents and was instrumental in the 1913 Dublin Lock-out – the most significant industrial dispute in Irish history. But, clearly lacking the prerequisite brain capacity to perform a very basic Google search, the far ight have branded the march a celebration of – and a fundraiser for – the IRA.
After their attack on the parade last year, the far-right groups have engaged in sustained attacks on Irish cultural events in Liverpool and used a social media campaign to drum up support from the city's loyalist community. And with that community already on edge after the flag riots, the PR Chernobyl that was last week's Twelfth Parade and the Northwest Infidels promising anti-fascists payback for Brighton, tensions were running extremely high.
The police had spent the days running up to the event issuing known far-right members with Section 14 notices, ordering them to protest in an assigned space outside Lime Street station and away from the parade route. The far right responded by telling their members not to answer their doors and to ignore the warnings.
With Liverpool teetering on the brink of becoming a sectarian battleground, I decided to head up for the parade to see what all the fuss was about.
The parade was to begin at Larkin's birthplace of Dingle in the south of the city. When I arrived there was already a heavy police presence, with riot vans lining the streets and mounted police scanning the area for members of the far-right groups.
The parade was organised by the Irish Patriots Republican Flute Band and the James Larkin Society. These organisations should not be confused with the James Larkin Republican Flute Band, which wasn't affiliated with the event and whose members are known for supporting the 32 County Sovereignty Movement – a body often referred to as the political wing of the Real IRA.
While trade unionists were setting up, a small group assembled across the street. Despite the two-bit police kettle and the fact that those gathered spent most of their time trying to keep their faces obscured, I'm pretty certain this wasn't the far-right roadblock that had been promised.
Regardless, the far right were soon forgotten after the drums and flutes began and the parade got underway.
The march was led by a squad of mounted police, flanked on both sides by officers on foot and followed by a convoy of riot vans, presumably in an effort to avoid a repeat of last year. As the parade marched through the inner city, it became clear that they were being followed by a group of around eight men.
The men looked as menacing as a group of eight guys walking behind riot vans can look, but it was also apparent that they were intentionally keeping their distance.
Despite the scouting party, the parade made it to the city centre without any obstructions. Being a city centre, the area was already full of people, which put the cops noticeably more on edge as it gave would-be aggressors the opportunity to hide in plain sight. To counter that, a team of police took to approaching every tattooed man in sight to ask if they had any objections to the march.
Subtlety isn't traditionally a strong suit for the far right, and it wasn't long before a couple of guys broke their silence to start heckling the parade. It was difficult to make out exactly what they were yelling over the sound of the band, but with the police taking no chances, the only thing they seemed able to communicate was an apparent desire to spend the whole of their Saturday afternoon in the back of a boiling hot police van.
This guy was stood glaring at the parade for a good five minutes before it all got too much for him and he began jumping up and down uncontrollably, yelling, "No surrender! No surrender! No surrender to the IRA!"
It took about ten seconds for the police to suppress him, while his friend in the purple pointed at him and screamed, "They're arresting him!" Presumably in case nobody had ever seen an arrest before.
His mates, seeking to avenge their fallen comrade, picked up the pace and drew level with the parade. This seemed to be their last chance to make a dent on the march, so it was obviously time to bring out the big guns. That manifested itself in the unfurling of a Union Jack about 20 metres away from the parade. At this point, I wasn't sure if these guys were far right, loyalists, or both.
The police officers standing nearby swiftly circled them, relieved them of their flag and served them with Section 14 notices – banishing them to the other side of the city.
With 12 of their lot arrested and several more confined to the Lime Street protest pen, it was time for a huddle to discuss tactics. But it seemed the protesters present had already lost their best strategic minds, as the most they could muster was to call it a day and give up on their counter-demonstration.
Which left the parade to walk the final part of the route free from harassment. Once the speeches and photo ops were over, a final warning was given to be mindful of far-right members targeting people as they dispersed.
After the parade, the Irish Patriots were holding a social event at a pub in Kirkdale, Liverpool's Irish heartland. I went along to catch up with their secretary, Jeff O'Connell.
Jeff O'Connell, secretary of the Irish Patriots Republican Flute Band.
VICE: Hi Jeff. So how have the far right been targeting the parade today?
Jeff O'Connell: They've been using social media to identify people who move in left-wing circles and tried to figure out where they live, and that kind of thing. Then they make direct threats over the internet. It's dangerous what they're capable of. I haven't been directly threatened, but other individuals from the band have been directly threatened; threats of violence, burning your house down, things like that.
It seems like a lot of the far-right support comes from confusion between the Irish Patriots and the James Larkin flute bands. Can you explain the difference?
In 1996, the St Patrick's Day parade was attacked by a combination of loyalists and fascists. We thought we needed to politicise people and take a stronger stance on the streets, so we formed the original James Larkin Republican Flute Band. Then, in 2008, we dissolved that band and formed the Liverpool Irish Patriots Repulican Flute Band. The original Republican Flute Band and the Irish Patriots support Sinn Fein, the Belfast agreement and the peace process.
But now dissident republicans have taken up the name – which was no longer in use by ourselves – and formed the James Larkin Republican Flute Band. But, of course, the far right always talk about the James Larkin Republican Flute Band. That band doesn't exist – it's a virtual band. We support the peace process. The loyalists know that, the fascists know it, the council and the police know it. But, at all our events, the far right claim it's for dissident republicans and the Real IRA because it suits them to muddy the waters.
As loyalism in Northern Ireland becomes more violent, does that affect the Irish community in Liverpool?
Absolutely. It's all tied in. In June, the loyalists had the apprentice boys from Derry over to march through Liverpool. They had various bands over in paramilitary uniforms and flying UVF flags, then that night they had a function and they put a video on YouTube of them burning an Irish tricolour and singing, "We're up to our knees in fenian blood." We reported that as a hate crime incident, but the police didn't have enough to go on.
In terms of Northern Ireland, I think unionism and loyalism are in their end game now; they're going to have to make accommodation for republicans. Unionism is hopelessly divided against itself and we're seeing the more violent elements emerge. It's in its death throes, but that's when it's at its most dangerous.
The Liverpool Orange Order made a statement effectively saying that its members shouldn't oppose the parade today. Is this a step in the right direction?
The Grandmaster of the Orange Order has said they accept the rights of the Irish community to march, they don't want anyone to oppose it and they discourage their members from joining far-right groups. That has discouraged some of their members, but that being said, most of the protesters today were loyalists. The fascists were the ones making the internet threats and trying to mobilise a protest, but the ones who were actually on the ground were identifiable loyalists.
Hopefully sensible heads of the Orange Order here will pull back from this growing relationship with the far right. Then hopefully the far right will be isolated and we can continue to do our outreach work. There's always a danger with the far right when times are economically hard – people look for a scapegoat, but we'll continue to challenge that.
Great. Thanks, Jeff.
UPDATE, 24/07/13 – After this article was published, VICE received an email from the James Larkin Republican Flute Band disputing a number of points made by Jeff O'Connell of the Irish Patriots Republican Flute Band. We publish those points here as a means of giving the James Larkin Republican Flute Band the right to reply:
"The James Larkin Republican Flute Band never ceased nor dissolved. Following a vote some members wanted to embrace the provisional movement's constitutional move and support the GFA. Others felt this was unacceptable. This led to the forming of a new flute band the Liverpool Irish Patriots. We, the James Larkin Republican Flute Band, regrouped with new members and aligned ourselves to the 32CSM. "We should also make clear that none of our marches in Liverpool have been attacked or counter protested by the right wing. It is misleading for Mr O'Connell to say the right wing confused the two. The evidence suggests otherwise. "The James Larkin Republican Flute Band are functional and are committed to promoting Irish heritage, Irish Culture and anti-Fascism while campaigning for a united Ireland."
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