When the Scottish Defence League were plunged into a digital no man’s land after Facebook removed their pages last May, the organisation looked as if it was gone for good. Ten years after emerging as the new face of the Scottish far-right, the SDL had suffered the loss of what was their only method of organising. Despite outliving their English namesakes, the EDL, by several years the SDL were never able to achieve the same prominence – at one time the Tommy Robinson-led EDL were able to bring thousands on to the streets. With their heavily policed and constantly opposed demonstrations never breaking into three figures, the SDL’s longevity went in parallel their obscurity. Their demise was noticed by few, and tears shed by even fewer.
It now appears that after having their page deleted by Facebook in early May, the SDL’s main organiser set about creating a new forum for spreading their far-right hatred just weeks later. A page going by the name of “National Defence League” surfaced on 1st June last year, claiming to be a new organisation that will “protect our great nation”. Its Facebook feed is a familiar stream of memes supporting Brexit, Boris and the Billy Boys, and fiercely opposed to Nicola Sturgeon, Jeremy Corbyn, Muslims, and Irish Republicanism. Some posts are identical to those on a Twitter account run by the main SDL organiser, Graham Walker.
It did not take long for the NDL’s page to find a fresh raison d’etre, when Glasgow’s usual “marching season” war of words hit fever pitch. How we got here can be traced back to 7 July 2018, when Canon White was spat on by a follower of an Orange march outside his own church, St Alphonsus, on London Road. This was effectively the final straw after a string of other public controversies, including uproar over footage of a band playing the “Famine Song” during the Glasgow Boyne parade in 2017.
A campaign group called Call It Out was formed, with the primary purpose of calling for an end to loyal order marches outside Catholic places of worship. A series of peaceful, silent and usually women-led protests were held outside Catholic churches when parades were passing them. Pressure began to grow on Glasgow City Council to limit and reroute parades.
A familiar pattern soon came into play. As we noted in 2013, “any concessions towards Catholics, like giving them basic human rights, the vote or even the right not to have the flag of their oppressors shoved in their faces 365 days a year, is seen as a threat to the supremacy of Protestantism and leads to an upsurge in Orange activity.”
The Orange Order declared that the council were creating “no go zones” for Protestants, accusing them of “raising religious tensions” and singling out “unionists or Protestants” for unfair treatment. A new organisation, Scottish Protestants Against Discrimination (SPAD), was formed, enjoying the tacit backing of the loyal orders.
SPAD’s public profile began unceremoniously last April with a riot in the Merchant City as their first rally, allegedly a protest against institutionalised religious discrimination from the council, conveniently coincided with a republican march through the same area. Tensions continued to grow over the course of the summer, as a number of marches were rerouted away from St Alphonsus Church in the Calton, and the language emanating out of the Grand Orange Lodge and SPAD’s “official statements” grew increasing hyperbolic.
When Govan saw loyalist rioting in September, with dramatic images of burning barricades splashed across the media and police officers in full riot gear deployed on Glasgow’s streets for the first time in decades, the city was in shock. Amid the social media furore and politicians’ soundbites, it was very easy to miss the real reason for the sudden rise in tensions – namely, that the loyalist fraternity did not like, for the first time in living memory, being told what they could not do.
An unprecedented ban on all marches would eventually be enforced, but not before 400 police were drafted in to oversee two republican marches held the weekend after the Govan parade, putting the city centre on lockdown for nearly an entire day.
Today saw the first republican march in Glasgow since that day. Around 200 people took part in a parade to commemorate Bloody Sunday, the massacre of 28 unarmed civil rights protestors by British soldiers in Derry in 1972, marching between Cowcaddens and the Gallowgate, via the city centre.
A call out to oppose the Bloody Sunday march was first made on 13th January by a loyalist Facebook page. The following day, the National Defence League created a Facebook event page for the counter-protest and began promoting it. When the press picked up on this earlier this week, the NDL – not incorrectly branded as “far right” – were credited with organising the counter-demo and have subsequently received most of the “credit” for it. In recent days, a new NDL website has appeared, with no content other than a plea for donations.
There is little surprising about this in itself – the far-right in Scotland have been trying to capitalise on loyalism for almost a century, yet have rarely translated this into any tangible success for their own organisations. By the time of the SDL’s demise, they were only able to call on the same handful of regulars, including National Front old-timers and disparate collection of daytripping Neo-Nazis. But with loyalist street militancy on the ascendency, a far-right pivot towards street unionism and “stopping the IRA on our streets” is a logical move.
It is unclear how much headway the NDL can make here – they are unlikely to have any real network of their own to draw on and no resources. This is in contrast to the organisations behind the existing disorder, facilitated at arms-length by an array of flute bands, fringe Rangers fan groups and the Lodge itself. When the marching ‘ban’ took force for one weekend last September, SPAD were able to fill a large part of George Square, with a crowd that included senior Orangemen.
Today’s counter-protest saw only around 50 turn out, yet even with this number they were able to cause chaos around the city centre, with the police repeatedly having to clear the road and form human barriers to allow the procession to proceed. Minor scuffles ensued.
Following the Govan violence and subsequent march ‘ban’ last September, GCC pledged to undertake a review of parades in the city. Pollsters Ipsos Mori were brought in to run a series of focus groups and findings are due to be presented to councillors soon. If that doesn’t fill you with confidence, you are hardly to blame – it will not be the first time the council have promised to try this, and nor is it likely to be the last. A similar study in er, 2001 found that 53% of respondents in a representative sample “said that Orange Walks should be banned”, with 56% wanting “Catholic Parades” banned too.
We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the current turmoil was set in motion by what seemed like a perfectly reasonable demand: that marches by an inherently anti-Catholic institution should stop parading past Catholic Churches. Such thinking should surely be part of finding a balanced solution to an enormously contentious issue, not the excuse for rallying the troops to your dying organisation.
Now the far-right are trying to capitalise on the disarray, although they are – fortunately – coming at it from a position of extreme weakness. It is not totally clear what will happen next – beyond the NDL’s Facebook page will continue pumping out racist memes and sharing links to MailOnline stories, trying to rack up likes in the process. Meanwhile the police and council will try to keep the situation on the streets under control, with Police Scotland already raising concerns about available resources.
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