Gerry Adams on the Loyalist Flag Protests

by Gerry Adams

Belfast 2013 is not the City I grew up in. In my youth and for much of my adult life Belfast was a place in which nationalists had no rights; a place where sectarianism and discrimination, injustice and inequality were commonplace and exercised as a matter of institutional and political practice.

Tens of thousands of nationalists were denied the vote in local and Stormont elections. They were denied jobs and housing. Any sense of Irishness was prohibited or frowned upon. The Irish language, music and culture were marginalised and the political representatives of northern nationalists had no influence and no power.

Elsewhere in the north the gerrymandering or manipulation of electoral boundaries ensured that local councils, even in those areas like Derry which had clear nationalist majorities, were run in unionist interests by unionist controlled councils. And Belfast was among the worst.

The northern state was an orange state. The Orange Order was the cement that held the political, economic and institutional structures of the state together. Most business people were members of the Order. If you were a unionist and wanted to be a senior RUC officer – you had to be an Orangeman. A judge? You had to be an Orangeman. A successful politician? You had to be an Orangeman.

The legacy of those decades still haunts the north. Sectarianism remains a scourge. The scars of discrimination can be found in the disproportionate numbers of citizens on the housing waiting lists in nationalist areas; in the employment patterns across the six counties where nationalist areas experience the highest levels of unemployment; and in the depth of deprivation. 36 out of the 40 most deprived wards in the north are nationalist.

For unionism the northern state was their state. It didn’t matter that some unionists also lived in appalling housing or worked in terrible conditions. The northern state – the Orange state – belonged to them. It gave them a sense of belonging, of cohesion and superiority.

The Peace Process and the Good Friday Agreement have changed all of that.It is a process which has been good for everyone on this island. It is also a process which is irreversible.

The underlying ethos of the Good Friday Agreement is parity of esteem, mutual respect and equality.It is also about change. Any process of change present big challenges. There are those who fear change.They see equality for all citizens as a threat.

Equality is not about one side dominating the other – nor is it about anyone attacking what some describe as unionist culture – it is about all citizens – unionist and nationalist – for the first time since partition being treated with mutual respect and on the basis of equality.

It is about nationalists and unionists, and others, living in a society in which decisions are taken democratically and peacefully.It is about tolerance and inclusivity- not hatred and bitterness.

Symbols, including flags, can be divisive but only if the debate is seen in its narrowest context.

So, Belfast is no longer a unionist city. It is a shared city.It wants to be a modern city. The vast majority of citizens don’t want the old Belfast – they want a new Belfast.

The decision taken by Belfast City Council is part of this. It was a compromise position democratically arrived at. Sinn Féin wanted either no flags, or equality of symbols with both the Union flag and Tricolour flying side by side. Sinn Féin Councillors supported the compromise position of the union flag being flown on a set number of designated days a year.

This compromise position was based on Flags legislation brought forward by the British government and which unionist leaders at the time recommended

This April the Good Friday Agreement will be 15 years old.It too was a compromise between conflicting political positions.

It’s success is to be found in the lives saved; the peace that has been achieved; the power sharing arrangements that are working; and the numbers of young people, who unlike their parents or grandparents, have had no experience of conflict.

So, where do we go from here?

It is clear that there are some among unionism who want to turn the clock back. Who believe that mutual respect means nationalists accepting that the unionist ethos must dominate.

That’s not mutual respect or equality. Nor does it reflect the political and demographic realities of today. 90 years ago the northern state was carved out of the rest of the island on the basis that it provided unionists with what was then believed to be a permanent in-built two thirds majority

In the most recent census figures published just before Christmas less than half of the population designated themselves as being British. 40% said they had a British only identity.

A quarter of citizens stated that they had an Irish only identity while 21% said they had a northern Irish only identity. That’s 46% of the population rejecting a British identity and seeing themselves as Irish.

So, the north is not as British as Finchley – as Margaret Thatcher once claimed – and unionists have to accept that almost half of citizens in the north have a different identity.

Could this gradual change in demographics and in peoples’ opinions be part of the motivation of those who seek to stoke the sectarian fires?

Could the decline in the unionist vote be part of the rational for the response of some unionists to the changes that are taking place?

Playing the orange card – fuelling sectarian divisions – is an old unionist and British tactic used to mobilise unionist opinion and put nationalists in their place.

It is a dangerous tactic which in the past brought pogroms and partition and decades of violence.

The vast majority of the protests taking place around the flag issue are illegal. Most are being organised by BNP, UVF and criminal elements, some of whom are well known drug pushers. They are seeking to exploit this situation for their own ends.

There is an expectation across the community that those who are organising these protests will be subjected to due process and that the protests will be policed in a fair way.

As political leaders on this island reflect on the events of recent weeks it is important to understand that the Good Friday Agreement must not be taken for granted. It requires constant attention and work.

There are important parts of the Agreement still not implemented – for example a Bill of Rights and legacy issues. These matters must be addressed.

After the Massereene attack in 2009 in which two British soldiers were killed Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson brought together all of the political leaders, church and civic leaders to map out a way forward and to ensure that the tiny minority of voices who want to undermine the progress that has been made do not succeed.

That approach is needed again. The Unionist Forum established by the DUP and UUP may have a role to play but it is limited. Stability and inclusivity and progress are not in the gift of one section of people. Everyone has to be involved.

We need an all-party, cross community response to the flag protests and the violence which has accompanied them. It also needs to address all of the other outstanding issues.

This will be a huge challenge. Republicans do not underestimate the problems involved and in particular the difficulties facing unionism. But there can be no going back. The tiny minorities who want to cling to the past must be rejected. Sectarianism must be tackled and ended. The promise of the Good Friday Agreement for a new society in which all citizens are respected, and where fairness and justice and equality are the guiding principles, has to be advanced.

30 comments on “Gerry Adams on the Loyalist Flag Protests

  1. This is a ongoing issue with the loyalists over here they start all this bullshit and when they realise they are starting to look like a bunch of knuckle-draggers, which they are, they try and get the nationalist community involved to take the spotlight of them, hopefully the world now sees the true face of unionism/loyalist hatred

  2. jack ford on said:

    Had things gone differently over the last few years the PUP might have been able to play a positive role. It had the potential to provide the working class loyalist community with a party to vote for that was not sectarian or bigoted and was committed to Old Labour values. It might have been able to cooperate with Sinn Fein and challenge the nastier elements among the loyalists. Unfortunately I gather it was unable to confront gangster UVF elements effectively.

    http://splinteredsunrise.wordpress.com/2010/06/04/the-pup-loses-its-bark/

  3. saothar on said:

    What GA laughingly describes as a ‘compromise between conflicting political positions’ was actually a historic defeat for Irish republicanism.

    But most loyalists are too bigoted and stupid to realise that.

  4. While I can see that the loyalists involved are raging about their new found minority status in Belfast, scandalised at the idea that the taigs get to have a say and furious that from their protestant supremicist perspective that things can only get worse its remarkable that they cannot mobilise beyond a limited geographic area.

    GA’s point about the DUP and UUP is well made as it was their leafleting gave the green light for this to begin. I doubt they have the moral courage to involve themselves in a cross community approach.

    A bit of media focus on the links between who is rioting and the upcoming UVF trials would not go amiss.

  5. saothar on said:

    Why are they angry?, well partly because they find any concession to nationalists unacceptable, and also because many of them live in working class areas, which are impoverished, with high unemployment and all manner of social problems that remain unaddressed.

    That’s why its not untrue when they argue that they got nothing out of the GFA; in many ways, they, as working class people, did get sod all out of it

  6. jack ford on said:

    That’s spot on saothar. It’s the experience of being unemployed and treated like shit by the DWP or having a disgusting job that alienates people and makes them angry enough to fight the visible symbols of authority, the police. Combine that with a society traumatised by the effects of a war and still plagued by tribal divisions and you can expect serious trouble.

    The morons in the British establishment should be made to understand that decent affordable housing jobs that pay a living wage and a social security system that doesn’t go out of its way to humliate and hurt the poor are vital to the peace process. Social justice is a national security issue. And that’s equally true of Tottenham in London never mind Belfast.

  7. graham on said:

    it’s capitalism that causes these problems not nationalists and republicans. start fighting the bosses and not each other. Unity of the working class is the only way forward.

  8. saothar: That’s why its not untrue when they argue that they got nothing out of the GFA; in many ways, they, as working class people, did get sod all out of it

    Yeah the same as the rest of the working class in Northern Ireland, Irish or British, the difference is they think they are entitled to some sort of compensation for being British, it’s pathetic, the involvement of the paramilitary’s and the BNP says everything you need to know about their ideals and principles, as long as your White, Protestant and British your ok, these people just love to hate…

  9. jim mclean on said:

    Stand back and ignore the politicians and you will see two lots of working class kids who have gained nothing from the peace process. No economic or social advances. They are falling back onto basic identity politics which give them some form of (false) status. They have little faith in their political leaders and probably even less faith in the armed factions. I don’t have an answer except keep the heat on those wanting to restart the armed struggle. In a globalised world the two conflicting nationalist groups, British and Irish as they see themselves, have nothing to gain from a battle between their dispossessed youth.

  10. jack ford: It’s the experience of being unemployed and treated like shit by the DWP or having a disgusting job that alienates people and makes them angry enough to fight the visible symbols of authority, the police.

    Is it? Their forbears were doing just the same thing when they held a monopoly on trades and a job for life in Harland and Wolfe. Grandparents of the current crop. Of course in those happy days they could count on the polce to lend a hand in making the croppies lie down. Amongst their current complaints is that the police now are full of vicious taigs who don’t understand that ‘the people’ are not to be molested no matter what they do. As for “visible symbols of authority” they are wrapped in the ultimate symbol of authority.

    It is a fact that deprivation among catholics is still higher than among protestants. But educational attainment is higher amongst catholics and the old open institutional discrimination is gone. The tangible benefits of that system have not applied to this bunch for a generation.

  11. Adams would be better off explaining why he is implementing Tory “austerity” measures and why only 28% of people in Northern Ireland wish to identify as Irish when Roman Catholics are 45% of the population.

    The flag issue is a deliberate provocation by SF to hide their usual “talk left/act right” politics and to try to scare Middle Class Roman Catholics back into the UI camp.

  12. Marxist Lenonist on said:

    #7&8 As someone who’s on the dole myself at the moment, I must say I have less sympathy than you for the supremacist specifics of the loyalists’ anger, so eloquently summed up by CJB #10. I also think the convergence between dissident republicanism and these flag protests hinted at by saothar is just pie in the sky stuff, even if the parallels in the social causes of both are interesting. And while capitlaism does indeed still exist and treat the poor in both communities like shit, that doesn’t in itself mean the peace process has delivered nothing; as well as peace (obviously) it has achieved many of the original demands of the civil rights movement, the crushing of which in the late 60s led to the Troubles in the first place. That specific national context, and not the abolition of capitalist alienation, was what the situation was all about. And the direction of future travel is clearly also in a positive direction on these issues, and even on Irish unity, hence the rage of the UVF bigots and their supporters…

  13. AndyS.: he flag issue is a deliberate provocation by SF to hide their usual “talk left/act right” politics and to try to scare Middle Class Roman Catholics back into the UI camp.

    Andy you are talking bollocks here, this wasn’t a deliberate provocation by SF at all, this situation regarding flags and emblems was on the table from the GFA 15 years ago, and it was a positive step towards removing the symbols that divide us, I have lived here all my life and I can tell you the vast majority of people here would do away with all flags and murals on walls, this whole situation is down to ignorance of the protestant people and the failure of their leaders to encourage a change in thinking and culture, lets not forget it was the DUP the largest political party in the north the started this chain of events by shipped leaflets out to the unionist people whipping up anger and condemning the alliance party for voting in favor of only flying the flag on selected days which was more in line with the rest of the UK, also lets not forget that the proposal was also made by SF to have both flags Irish and British together in the form of equality, which the unionists blankly refused, and it all comes back to the same thing, Unionists and Loyalists still believe that they are still the dominant people of Northern Ireland, and when they don’t get their own way they throw the toys out of the pram…

  14. AndyS.: Adams would be better off explaining why he is implementing Tory “austerity” measures and why only 28% of people in Northern Ireland wish to identify as Irish when Roman Catholics are 45% of the population.The flag issue is a deliberate provocation by SF to hide their usual “talk left/act right” politics and to try to scare Middle Class Roman Catholics back into the UI camp.

    Ah the census, well fact is that 40% of the population describe themselves as British only and 25% describe themselves as Irish only. A further 20% see themselves as Northern Irish. British designation is 40% compared with 45% for some type of Irish definition. Its also worth looking at the age demographic and how that will impact. We will see how it goes when the first border poll is launched.

    I doubt middle class catholics have left the UI camp in meaningful numbers as their party of choice the SDLP has become very green of late. Its been interesting to watch.

    So we are left with your view that the UVF running amok is justified by SF and the SDLP voting for an AP amendment to fly the Union flag on days designated by the UK State. I thought that genorous, parity of esteem maybe, rather than provactive and so would most people.

    As for ‘implementing Tory “austerity” measures’ SF are seeking fiscal powers and that’s what their voters want them to do. If they get them you can criticize how they use them while keeping in mind the realities of power sharing.

  15. AndyS. on said:

    SA,

    I am not justifying anyone going on the rampage, just not buying into Adams self-righteous tosh.

    I very much doubt that the 20% who identify as Northern Irish are expressing any form of pan-Irish identity rather than stating a separate identity to that of the Irish Republic.

  16. AndyS.: I am not justifying anyone going on the rampage, just not buying into Adams self-righteous tosh.

    It seems you are more exercised by Adams than by what he very reasonably said unless you would like to say why its tosh.

    On the identity thing it might be as you say or not. We cannot know just yet. They did not choose British though. Perhaps they have been secretly reading Eire Nua and thinking we could live with that?

  17. SA – I just wanted you to know, all your posts go into auto-moderation. It’s nothing to do with you at all, it’s just an unfortunate co-incidence that one of the recurring right-wing trolls posts from an almost identical IP address to the one you’ve been using for the last few weeks, and the spam filter uses that, among other things, to decide what to let through. If you spot a comment being held in moderation for too long, drop me an email please.

  18. Vincent Doherty on said:

    If it was deemed abusive then fair enough. The point I was trying to make is this. The idea that the ‘fleg’ issue is all part of a sinister Sinn Fein plot displays either a profound ignorance of the actual situation in the 6 counties or a deluded political sectarianism which shudders at the though that actual living events do not comply with the theory. Either way it pretty much arrives at the position were cover is provided to neo-fascist gangs which are orchestrated and led by PUP/BNP coalition. There is no doubt that the neo liberal economic policies being imposed by the Stormont Executive have contributed to the sense of alienation and hopelessness which provides such fodder for the extreme right.

  19. Vincent Doherty: There is no doubt that the neo liberal economic policies being imposed by the Stormont Executive have contributed to the sense of alienation and hopelessness which provides such fodder for the extreme right.

    Hold on Vincent you know well enough that the current riots are in a long tradition going back at least to the days of Roaring Hanna. The grandfathers and fathers of the current loyalists were doing the same thing whether in good economic times or bad.

    Its about trying to dominate and intimidate their catholic neighbours and its a central part of their identity as ‘the people’. Significantly none of the loyalists interviewed have mentioned cuts as part of their motivation.

    To say “There is no doubt that the neo liberal economic policies being imposed by the Stormont Executive have contributed to the sense of alienation and hopelessness which provides such fodder for the extreme right.” fails in two respects firstly if you wish to locate the source of the cuts it lies with the UK Tories and Liberal Democrats not with the fiscaly impotent Stormont and secondly what we are seeing is not a new development related to austerity but a very old one arising from protestant supremicism.

  20. Vincent Doherty on said:

    The pysical and political domonation of their neighbours is not an ‘add on’ to loyalism but an actual core component of a supremicist ideology. At the putrid heart of loyalism is a child like glorification of monarchy,empire and the slaughter of endless imperialist wars. So you are right to one extent that loyalism does not need an excuse to display its ugly orthodoxy.That said, I think it’s simply a fact of life that elements of the Protestant working class, are futher alienated as a result of cuts imposed by the local agent of the British Treasurey at Stormont. I’m not sure that this is exactly the point that SA is making, but I agree that not only is Stormont is fiscally impotent, it is also largely politically impotent which I suppose leads to a fundamentally different question?
    As regards the existence of the PUP it still exists to the extent that it provides a public voice for the UVF and Billy Hutchenson has re-emerged as the party spokesperson. hutchenson has been at the centre of the ‘fleg’ protests despite the PUP having previously supprted ‘designated days.’ The problem for the PUP has always been that the ideology it champions is as I stated earlier totally immersed in the supremicism and glorification of monarchy and Empire and a s such is incaple of developing anything like a coherent socialist programme. The reality of trying to straddle this contradiction, alongside the unconditional support for UVF gangs has driven what some would have seen as the ‘progressive’ element out of the party and seen the hard core militarist element around Hutchenson re-emerge as the only ‘voice’ of the party.

  21. Vincent Doherty on said:

    Aplogies for the presentation of some of this. I posted in haste during my luch break this without even having proof read it. Hopefully despite my sloppiness the points I try to make are at least coherent.

  22. Vincent Doherty: So you are right to one extent that loyalism does not need an excuse to display its ugly orthodoxy.That said, I think it’s simply a fact of life that elements of the Protestant working class, are futher alienated as a result of cuts imposed by the local agent of the British Treasurey at Stormont. I’m not sure that this is exactly the point that SA is making, but I agree that not only is Stormont is fiscally impotent, it is also largely politically impotent which I suppose leads to a fundamentally different question?

    Three things there Vincent.

    1. We, and really anyone informed, agree about the nature of Loyalism.

    2. The grievance here as expressed by the Loyalists themselves is about their perception that Catholics are getting too much power and reducing Britishness. Objecively Loyalists are rejecting the idea of any sort of equality in favour of Catholic subordination.

    So my point is its a red herring to suggest they are rioting because they are ‘futher alienated as a result of cuts imposed by the local agent of the British Treasurey at Stormont. They are not and have told us so.

    3. The political settlement provided by the GFA is a work in progress not an end in itself. No one so far has come up with a viable alternative and as it works through this sort of thing will happen and needs to be challenged on the basis of what it is – in this case an ongoing sectarian riot by Loyalists co ordinated by the UVF with inputs by British fascists and designed to intimidate.

  23. AndyS. on said:

    SA,

    Eire Nua does at least put forward the idea of a federal Ireland rather than one dominated by Dublin – if RSF were to stop supporting the murder and intimidation of Roman Catholic members of PSNI then that might be a useful conversation to be had.