Liverpool has historically been considered a left-wing stronghold, but recent years have seen the city become an increasingly popular target for far-right groups. Last year saw the establishment of the National Culturists movement – a kind of youth club BNP who want to rid Britain of multiculturalism, i.e. get rid of all the Muslims – along with demonstrations by violent EDL splinter group the North West Infidels and members of UKIP vocally supporting loyalists in Belfast's flag riots.
Due to the lack of a large Asian community to scapegoat, Liverpool's far-right have increasingly been focusing on the city's Irish population. The North West Infidels have targeted public celebrations of Irish culture by circulating posters claiming that such events support the IRA, and organised an anti-IRA march to counter the Irish community's commemoration of trade unionist James Larkin.
Due to long-standing tensions with the city's loyalist community, Liverpool doesn't host an official St Patrick's Day celebration, despite having the largest Irish population of any city outside of Ireland. So you'll get why the lack of an official parade has been a constant sore point for the city's Irish community.
This year, the Liverpool Irish Patriots Republican Flute Band – who have come under attack from the far-right for, surprise, surprise, allegedly glorifying the IRA – took celebrations into their own hands and organised a march through the Irish heartland of the city. It's the first time that had ever happened, so I figured I should head up to see how it would go.
Arriving in Liverpool, the city centre was already swarming with drunken students in leprechaun hats and green face paint, propping themselves up on pub signs advertising the cheap Guinness and craic inside. Due to fears of a far-right backlash, the parade was not to enter the city centre, so I had to walk 25 minutes through largely abandoned, miserably bleak industrial buildings to get to the parade's start point. Two marching bands had assembled by the time I arrived, along with an crowd of spectators and a sizeable police presence.
The parade snaked around the estate for just over an hour before coming to an end where it began. Despite a noticeable tension in the air, the celebrations passed without any interference from far-right groups (maybe they just didn't fancy a repeat embarrassment of their time in Manchester two weeks ago). After the parade I talked to Jeff O'Connell, secretary of the Irish Patriots and one of the key organisers of the parade, about the rise of anti-Irish racism in the city.
VICE: Hi Jeff. How do you think the parade went?
Jeff O' Connell: It was a big success. We loved it and we didn't have any opposition from anti-Irish groups. Loads of cities all over the world have huge council-led St Patrick's Day celebrations and, while that wasn't possible today, it was important for us to be back on the streets in our own community. We hope we can have a bigger, city centre parade in the future, but today was a great success for restoring the confidence of an Irish community that's been badly shaken after a year of growing anti-Irish racism and attacks on public celebrations of Irish culture.
What sort of anti-Irish attacks have been happening?
We've had parades and events celebrating a variety of Irish cultural, historical and political issues since 1996 and, until last year, those years were reasonably opposition free. But last February we had a commemoration parade for Sean Phelan that was attacked by fascists and loyalists. They basically blocked off the city centre and the parade couldn't get through. Then, after that incident, we had a lot of other events come under attack from a combination of fascist and loyalist groups.
What happened in those attacks?
People were subjected to racial and sectarian abuse, objects were thrown at us and there were threats of violence and death threats. We had to really take stock of the situation. We've had to do a lot of work for today in terms of working with the police and the council and in terms of bringing the Irish community back from the shock of the attacks to build up some community confidence.
Which groups have been targeting the Irish community?
The main force is the local loyalist community; they can get the largest numbers out to protest and can pose a big physical threat. But the spark that's motivated them to go out on the streets and protest has mainly come from fascist groups. They're relatively small around Liverpool, but for big events they bring members in from across the North West. We've been targeted by a huge range of far-right groups – the North West Infidels, English Defence League, National Front, British National Party, Combined Ex-Forces, football casuals, UKIP members – the whole spectrum of the far-right, really.
Why are they targeting the Irish community?
Because the Muslim community here doesn't have such a high profile as it does in other cities in the north of England. Since the far-right has been on the rise, they've been singling out scapegoats, so they targeted the Irish in Liverpool because there's not a big Asian population. They try to caricature our events as supporting terrorist groups when they know that they're not. It's just a knee-jerk reaction that's sparked this rise in anti-Irish racism.
Why hasn't a city-wide parade happened before?
I think it's partly because for many, many years, the Orange Order and the loyalists were very clear that they would react violently to broad expressions of Irishness. Last year kind of reinforced that, so the city council are probably a bit wary of endorsing St Patrick's Day celebrations. Telling the Irish community to keep their celebrations to themselves so they don't anger the loyalists is very short-sighted. Often oppression breeds reaction, so we're hoping that what's happened over the past year will motivate people to stand against the anti-Irish factions. The city is a shared space and we have every right to use it as everyone else.
It seems a bit hypocritical that every pub in the city will be profiting from St Patrick's Day but the Irish community aren't allowed an official celebration in the city centre.
That's it. I mean, if you go into the centre today, there's tricolours everywhere and people are out in green and drinking and so forth. We wish all those people would come to the parade first, but that's the nature of it. It's sad because historically all our events have always been greeted very well by the people of Liverpool. It's only in the last year that the far-right has ignited the loyalists to rally against us, and that's what's caused all the trouble.
How do you plan to stand up to this rise in anti-Irish racism?
We need to reclaim the streets as a shared space. The important thing for us is to not accept the claims that it's two sides of the same coin – two rival Irish factions engaged in a sectarian conflict. We don't subscribe to that. We don't attack loyalist parades or events. We respect their right to have their own views, even though we don't agree with them. Unfortunately they don't give us the same respect, but we're determined not to be put off the streets. We support the campaign for the peaceful reunification of Ireland and we're determined to defend the rights of Irish people in Merseyside.
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