Northern Ireland Flag Protests - A Sign of Normalisation, Not a Throwback to the Troubles

The violent themes emerging from recent nightly news bulletins from Northern Ireland are not new - they have recurred intermittently since the 1960s. What is different this time is the numbers of people supporting the protests and the violence is very small.

The demonstrations are in protest over a decision by Belfast City Council to reduce the number of days it flies the Union Flag over City Hall to eighteen. They have been attended by a maximum of 2,000 people. That is a fraction of the 250,000 unionists who protested against the Anglo Irish Agreement outside the City Hall in the mid 1980s, and a fraction of the estimated 120,000 Protestants who live in Belfast and could, but have chosen not, to join the protests.

It is a similar story when it comes to the violent protests - these are mostly limited to East Belfast and are even smaller in size. In some cases onlookers report major roads blocked by a handful of protestors wielding sticks and cones. It is an irritating problem for Northern Ireland but it is not a crisis.

Irritated, but Peaceful Loyalists

The proof that we are not heading for a return to the daily killings and conflict of the 1970s and 1980s comes through analysis of the response of formerly violent loyalist groups. They do not agree with the decision to stop flying the flag most days, but they nevertheless in the main oppose the violence over the issue and are trying to stop it.

More tellingly, they are not being provoked by the far bigger threat in Northern Ireland - that of dissident republicans, who continue a campaign of murder and attack in parallel to the flags issue of the past six weeks.   

On 30 December 2012 a police officer survived a dissident republican murder attempt after discovering a bomb under his car, a plot against a British soldier has reportedly recently been foiled in the Irish Republic and in November a prison officer, David Black, was murdered by Irish dissidents.

Yet Loyalist groups which fifteen years ago would have entered into a spiralling tit-for-tat set of murders in response to such killings are showing restraint - and that is critical to holding the peace.

Peter Shirlow, Professor of Conflict Transformation at Queen's University Belfast and author of an acclaimed recent book on Loyalism[1], says:

'The day the loyalists return to killing Catholics - that is when we've got to start worrying. These recent dissident republican murders are the most provocative acts you can have - there's always been a history of tit-for-tat - but the loyalist groups are not retaliating'.

The response to the flag issue can be divided into two separate categories - the occasional demonstrations in the city centre and the violent protests in East Belfast.

The demonstrations are organised by a breakaway unionist group which disagrees with the peace process because it believes it gives too much to Sinn Fein and which will doubtless be hoping to build a powerbase on the flags issue and lure unionist votes from the far larger Democratic Unionist Party.

The violent response, though, is getting the higher profile. It involves very small numbers of youths who gather on local interfaces with Catholic communities to launch attacks and at its worse, end up in violent confrontation with the police.

The Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has pointed the finger at senior individual members of the formerly violent Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in East Belfast for organising the trouble. Even though the UVF denies it has internal rifts, the police believe some of senior members of the UVF in East Belfast are ignoring leadership calls to stop the violence and are actively fuelling it.  

Elsewhere in Northern Ireland the UFV has with some lesser exceptions managed to keep the lid on the trouble - persuading members to stick to non-violent protest. The other significant loyalist group, the Ulster Defence Association has also condemned the violent response and made attempts to stop it.

It's the Economy ...

It is not that these groups agree with the flag decision - they don't. But they do not see merit in a violent reaction which hurts the economy of Northern Ireland and in the end damages the very areas where the protestors live.  Within the Loyalist groups there is still a capacity to refrain from violence.  The Loyalists themselves are helping to ensure it does not spread and that in itself is evidence the situation is not as it was in the 1960s. They are not allowing the peace process to crumble.    

Add to this the further dimension that there is not the climate in which there could be another 'Bloody Sunday' with civilians killed by British troops on the streets of Northern Ireland - and which turned communities to support violent conflict again troops and Police.

Nevertheless the violence of today comes at a price. The Confederation of British Industry blames it in part, for a drop of 40 per cent in retail takings in the run-up to Christmas. The Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has warned the protests threaten jobs, investment and tourism in the region.

Politics as ever is at the heart of this. Sinn Fein is critical to maintaining the peace process but needs to show its supporters that there are dividends in maintaining peace rather than using violence to work towards a united Ireland.

But while it would be hard for Catholics now to argue they are discriminated against, some communities are still dogged by social issues and poverty - just as some Protestant communities are.  A recent Joseph Rowntree report found one in five people in Northern Ireland live in poverty.

The decision to reduce the flying of the flag at the City Hall will be sold as a political gain at a time when Sinn Fein, like the other political parties in Northern Ireland, will be finding it more difficult to argue that it is improving the social conditions of some.  

The flag issue is a distraction from far deeper problems such as poverty. Professor Shirlow believes:

'We are trapped in politics where culture is more important than poverty - politicians in the Northern Ireland Assembly have not done enough to reverse the trends towards poverty. Cultural issues - like the flags - are a diversion from the lack of jobs, poverty and a lack of prospects for some young people'.

The flags issue is also a further sign of the entrenched sectarianism that remains in Northern Ireland.  Schools, homes and jobs remain largely segregated. While most people on both sides are happy with the current status quo, and the vast majority enjoy the quiet life and abhor violence, there is in reality little significant progress towards integration.

Most Protestants believe that Catholics have won the bigger dividend from peace. Most object to the fact the flag is not being flown as much. But it is significant that is not enough to make them protest on the streets. There is not the wider will to turn back the clocks and unpick the peace process.   

This issue will in time resolve itself. But until the politicians tackle poverty, and social cohesion, until they do more to move the intransigent underlying sectarianism in the Province, then we can expect to see intermittent outbreaks of frustration and even violence over symbolic, cultural issues like the flags. Sadly the negatives images these then send beyond the shores of Northern Ireland will inevitably slow progress internally, but it is not at present enough to herald a return to the extreme troubles of the past.



1 The End of Ulster Loyalism?, Manchester University Press, 2012


Margaret Gilmore

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