Far-right groups hurl racist abuse at parade to commemorate life and role of James Larkin
Some 25 were arrested on Saturday in Liverpool as protesters taunted marchers celebrating at the birthplace of the Irish trade union leader
JAMES LARKIN, who later founded the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union, was born into grinding poverty in Combermere Street in Toxteth, one of Liverpool’s poorest quarters, in the 1870s. Today, nearly 150 years on, it has the record for being Britain’s most deprived district.
On Saturday afternoon, the James Larkin Society, led by the Liverpool Irish Patriots Republican Flute Band, gathered for the seventh occasion – this time outside the Globe pub on Park Road – to commemorate Larkin’s life and works.
In the past, it has been a family occasion, with children brought along. However, times have changed in ways that indicate that street violence by the far right, seeking to exploit economic troubles and unemployment, is returning. For days previously, far-right groups had urged protesters to come on to the streets to “stop the IRA march”, telling them that they should remember Tim Parry and Jonathan Ball, killed in an IRA bomb blast in 1993.
From the off, beginning outside the Toxteth Tabernacle Church on Park Road, police – some on horseback – kept protesters away from the marchers, many of them carrying trade union placards, as they gathered outside the Globe pub.
Most of the protesters were young, male and tattooed, but not all. One elderly woman, her lips pinched from years of heavy smoking, told a policeman: “This is terrible. They shouldn’t be allowed to march like this, no way.”
From Park Road into Liverpool city centre, the abuse came in torrents.
“F*** off back to Ireland, ye murdering bastards,” one man screamed, as he tried to force his way towards the marchers. Like 25 others, he was arrested.
Some were locals, others had clearly travelled for the day.
On the junction of Park Road and Upper Warwick Road, significant numbers had gathered, chanting variously “Rule Britannia”, or “No surrender to the IRA”. One was seized by police after he sent a volley of phlegm-lined spittle into the marchers.
“It’s not like the worst of the troubles that you see at an Orange Order march in Belfast, but it’s not a bad imitation, is it?” said Billy Hayes, general secretary of the Communications Workers Union, one of those who spoke at a rally later.
Historically, Liverpool has always had sectarian tensions. The city has a dozen Orange lodges, while the Liverpool Protestant Party, which had once campaigned against Irish emigration after the Famine, existed up to the 1970s.
However, Saturday was, at times, surreal. The majority of those marching behind the James Larkin Society flag were not Irish. One Muslim man in his early 20s sighed in despair as he was accused by an obese black teenager of being “an IRA murdering scum”.
Another, Jane Calveley, a member of the UK’s largest public sector union, Unison, told The Irish Times: “This has come as a bit of a shock, it was always such a peaceful event. It has nothing to do with the IRA. I’m actually Jewish, anyway.”
Despite the far right’s claims, Liverpool has not seen an influx of recent Irish emigrants. Once heavily Irish, Toxteth, for example, has become home to new generations of migrant Somalis, Indians and Bangladeshis, among others.
In flyers distributed in the city, one far-right group, the North West Infidels, claimed that Liverpool and the northwest of England had seen “the rise of anti-British feelings projected on them by immigrant families from the Republic of Ireland.
“These people are much like Islamics [sic]. They take, take, take with one hand and abuse their host nation with the other. They openly support Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army and we are expected to stand by, smile and allow them to spread their hatred for Britain.”
Police see Saturday’s protests by the far right as further evidence it has decided on street violence rather than politics, following the heavy losses suffered by the British National Party in the May local elections.
The primary targets are not the Irish. Last November, striking public sector workers were assaulted; so, too, were Occupy Liverpool protesters. Unite’s Liverpool offices were vandalised, while the left-wing bookshop News from Nowhere has been repeatedly attacked.
In February, the far right forced the rerouting of a march to commemorate Liverpool-born War of Independence fighter Seán Phelan, organised by Cáirde na hÉireann, a British-based republican organisation.
Held back for so long, a small group of protesters, carrying a Union Jack inscribed with “Combined Ex-Forces”, evaded police to scream abuse at the march’s final rally, near the Catholic cathedral of Christ the King. “You’re all scum,” one roared.
Addressing the crowd, Hayes, remembering his Liverpool childhood as the son of Irish emigrants, could not help but see the protests in sectarian terms, even if most of his audience did not necessarily do so.
“We refuse to be second-class citizens in our own city but they still refuse to accept that. The days of second-class citizenship for Catholics in Liverpool are over,” said the leader of a 250,000-strong union.
Once the rally was over, marchers left by specially organised buses, believing that it would not be safe to walk in small groups towards the city centre.