The controversy that has erupted over the flying of the Union flag over Belfast City Hall would have come as no surprise to anyone familiar with politics in the North of Ireland, or who has spent any time there. On the contrary, it merely confirms that the much heralded peace process which brought to an end thirty years of conflict known as the Troubles was cobbled together in state rooms and government ministries and not in or between the communities concerned. Instead, it involved throwing money at said communities in a clear attempt at buying their cooperation, hoping that in time the entrenched divisions, mistrust, and outright hatred would recede in importance compared to a peace dividend of prosperity and concomitant boom in consumption.
Given the years it took to get from the IRA’s original ceasefire in 1994 to the formation of a devolved government in the province in May 2007, signed up to by mainstream unionism and republicanism, the use of the word ‘process’ as in Peace Process proved prescient. It was a process that went through a temporary setback in 1996, when the IRA broke the ceasefire due to the intransigent stance taken by the then British government, under John Major, on the decommissioning of weapons. It got back on track shortly thereafter, and in 1998 US Senator George Mitchell presided over talks which bore fruit in the form of the Good Friday Agreement. As for the IRA, despite announcing their original ceasefire back in 1994, it wasn’t until 2005 that they formally announced the end of the armed struggle and pledged to decommission all weapons.
In July 2000 – two months after Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) formed an administration – the British Army announced the end of Operation Banner, the name given their military operation in the province which began in 1969.
The significance of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness working together as First Minister and Deputy First Minister respectively of the nascent Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont seemed entirely justified. Throughout the Troubles, Ian Paisley had personified loyalist intransigence and a commitment to preserving the status quo of loyalist ascendancy in the province. Martin McGuinness was a former IRA commander in Derry, whose status among the ranks was largely responsible for bringing on board the so-called ‘hard men’ of the IRA who were less than enthusiastic about ending the war.
The mere fact of these two men, each representative of the hardliners on either side of the political and communal divide, working together in government was proof to many that the conflict and, more importantly, the hatred underpinning it, had absolutely and finally come to an end.
But has it?
Passing through the likes of Armagh, Newry, Portadown, Loughgall, small towns the names of which are internationally known as a result of the Troubles, there’s little sign that the polarisation between both communities lasting generations has in any way dissipated. In loyalist and Protestant working class housing estates throughout the province you come upon an abundance of Union Jacks, Red Hand of Ulster flags, red, white, and blue bunting, and various symbols exalting loyalist militarism. Orange Order halls are also common, the meeting places of an organisation which more than any other in the North represents a tradition of Protestant domination.
That said, militant loyalism is not alone in being able to attract a sizeable minority to its ranks. So-called dissident republicanism is also on the rise. In Derry, for example, around the republican Bogside, dissident graffiti is a common sight, just as it is in places like Armagh and Newry; the former notorious as a no-go area for British Army patrols and the RUC during the height of the Troubles.
Moving up to Belfast, the contradiction between the modern face of the North that the political establishment is eager to project, and a past defined by over thirty years of conflict, is very much in evidence. The centre of the city is no different to that you will find in any modern European city. Despite the recession it appears vibrant and affluent. An abundance of cafes, restaurants, designer stores, and upmarket bars clog the streets, and the demographic seems predominately young. Indeed, passing Queens University, the energy and dynamism produced by so many young people out on the street is palpable.
But move out to West, East, North and South Belfast and you enter a different world. Despite the peace process these areas remain citadels of British nationalism in the case of loyalist areas, and uncompromising resistance to British rule in nationalist ones. The preponderance of so-called ‘peace walls’ separating both communities, and the obvious continued attachment to their separate identities and traditions, rubbishes any notion of a meaningful peace bringing them together. Each community remains off limits to members of the other, with the pride that each takes in its martyrs and the paramilitary organisations which fought on either side evident in the elaborate wall murals that abound.
The underlying causes of the conflict – the struggle to retain when it comes to unionism an identity based on a supra-British cultural, economic, and political hegemony, and when it comes to nationalism the struggle to achieve parity in the short term and an end to British rule in the longer term – still lie at the heart of society the North of Ireland. The fact that members of the province’s moderate Alliance Party, whose votes decided the decision by Belfast City Council to restrict the flying of the Union flag over City Hall, have received death threats illustrates a sad familiarity and banality when it comes to this tiny corner of northern Europe.
As they say when it comes to any conflict, stand in the middle of the road and you get knocked down.
A prevalent grievance within working class Protestant and loyalist communities is that they have lost out to their Catholic and nationalist counterparts during the peace process. They believe that their communities have not received as much of the aforementioned peace dividend. With this context in mind, the vote over the flag is more confirmation that their status is steadily being eroded and undermined.
As the recession inevitably bites in a part of the world where the word peace increasingly suggests the temporary suspension of conflict rather than its definitive end or resolution, this sense of grievance, however false, is likely to get worse rather than better.
But regardless of the why’s and wherefores, a democratic decision was taken and as a result there has been a wave of riots and elected politicians living in fear of their lives.
Loyalism is a dying creed in the North. It offers nothing but the false and fading comfort of a triumphalism rooted in the past, one reduced to symbols and arcane rituals complemented by periodic eruptions of revanchist violence. The controversy over the flag reflects the rising tide of panic within a community that grows increasingly isolated in its hatred and refusal to understand that the past in the North cannot and will not be the future.
In Western Europe in 2012 surely the only place for a cultural identity that is incompatible with democracy is the dustbin of history.