Is a Flag or Democracy Under Attack in the North of Ireland?

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.

8 comments on “Is a Flag or Democracy Under Attack in the North of Ireland?

  1. albacore on said:

    Who did the Alliance party negotiate this compromise with? How did the voting break down across the parties?

  2. jim mclean on said:

    What surprised me on other forums is the number of Unionists outside the six counties support the flag decision. “Normalisation” is the word used by some, in the rest of the UK the Union flag is only raised for special occasions, Belfast is only being asked to follow suit. On the negative side the rise of racist attacks on the English in Scotland points to a fragmentation of working class solidarity. I do get confused. I do agree with you, but with the collapse of Rangers and the Govan Spring things are polarised among some sections of the community. Bit of a rush but looking forward to some positive discussions on this thread.

  3. This issue has nothing to with the protestants and loyalists having their identity taken away or the nationalist side getting more funding after the good Friday agreement, its all complete bollocks, these protestants you see protesting and rioting in the streets are hardcore loyalists who still believe they are the ruling class within the north and will never accept a shared country, and also have the view of how dare these Taigs or fenian bastards think they can take our flag down, you have to understand this issue runs deeper than what is being shown, there is a mental block when it comes to the protestants in the north, they are so anti Irish, anti nationalist due to the hate being passed on to the next generations through the parades and religion, it is impossible to break that ideology when they cant even acknowledge their own nationality which is Northern Irish and secondly a British citizen, this is due to the Irish bit, I agree with the statement that the communities are still polarised and through time that will change every generation that grows up here will lose some of that hate and with that the walls will come down, also another thing you must understand that a lot of these problems are down to Loyalists paramilitary’s organising these protests and whipping up sectarian hatred, just to justify their existence within the communities…

    29 votes to 21 in favour of removing the flag, apart from 17 days a year, also I would like to add that the majority of people in N Ireland wish to have all flags removed, British or Irish

  4. Zhou Enlai on said:

    Much as I have no connection to the Union Flag, I do feel the removal of the Union Flag for most of the year is a serious concern to many of the ppl of Belfast.

    The removal of the flag seems to be a pretty petty gesture of a majority council, which anyone could guess would lead to disquiet and worse, as we have seen.

    Do I naturally support it? No! But sometimes common sense would avoid intentionally offending people.

    No one should be hurt for the removal of a flag. But if the greater good means the flag should remain – then let it fly.

  5. Zhou Enlai: No one should be hurt for the removal of a flag. But if the greater good means the flag should remain – then let it fly.

    Yes its much better to give in to the mindless knuckle draggers, yes send out the message that the minority rules, in order for the situation in N.Ireland to change we need to be moving away from all the crap that divided us in the first place, the flag needed to be removed from public buildings because it symbolises loyalist domination of the north, which is not the case any more. that’s why they don’t want it taken down…

  6. CJB: the flag needed to be removed from public buildings because it symbolises loyalist domination of the north,

    This is true. Loyalism is a dying creed in the North. It offers nothing but the false and fading comfort of a triumphalism rooted in the past. It is reduced to symbols and arcane rituals, which are complemented with periodic upsurges of reactionary and revanchist violence.

    The Catholic population in the North is 45 percent and growing. 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.

  7. John: Loyalism is a dying creed in the North.

    Seemingly so, the numbers mobilised so far are a far cry from the previous decades.

    Nor was the timing felicitous for Loyalism. They have annoyed Hilary Clinton who suprisingly has said she wants a further role in the Peace process, the demographic direction of travel is now crystal clear as the census publication begins and the UDA are in the spotlight as a tool of the British State for carrying out political murders.

    We should remember that, as ever, it was the mainstream Unionist parties who let the dog of the leash.

    @1 SF and SDLP proposed a motion, DUP and OUP oppossed, Alliance proposed an amendment limiting union flag flying to those days approved by Buckingham Palace. SF and SDLP voted with Alliance for the amendment. DUP and OUP voted against and then put out 40,000 leaflets denouncing Alliance in east Belfast. Death threats burnings and riots ensue.

    Zhou Enlai: But if the greater good means the flag should remain – then let it fly.

    In this case the ‘greater good’ requires the Croppies to lie down. They are not minded to, being a majority in Belfast nor required to given “parity of esteem” enshrined in the international treaty that is the GFA.

    You will note the Union flag still flies as often as it does in England and yet we see mayhem as a result. Pandering to this misplaced sense of supremacy does not contribute to the greater good, the opposite really.

  8. In response to Albacore, Comment 1.
    As I understand it, Sinn Féin was proposing to put a motion to the Council to remove the Union flag permanently or to fly the Irish tri-colour along with the Union flag (not sure exactly which of these they were proposing or whether they actually had a motion ready to put down).
    Anyway, Alliance then put their motion forward, which said the Council would only fly the Union flag on its building on certain days of the year – up to 20 days, days such as the Queen’s birthday etc (I’m not British so I don’t know what other days are involved). As I understand it this would bring the Belfast City Council into line with a lot of (or most?) councils around the UK.
    When Alliance put down their motion it was supported by Sinn Féin and the SDLP (nationalist parties) and opposed by the DUP and UUP (unionist parties).
    So the vote was passed with a clear enough majority.

    I’m from Dublin, a citizen of the Republic of Ireland. All I can say is I think the unionist parties played it appallingly. They could just as easily have voted for the motion and played it as a victory (saying “They wanted to fly the tricolour on City Hall but we stopped them. We’ll be flying the Union flag the same way its flown on most council buildings across the UK”.) Instead they made eejits of themselves (again) and gave comfort to the poor deluded youths who wrapped themselves in the Union flag and rioted, damaged property and far worse, made death threats against and attacked the homes of decent, democratically-elected public representatives.