Jan 17, 2013

Union flag riots in N. Ireland: 'no surrender' politics of loyalist hardliners

Riots in Belfast to protest a council vote on the union flag at City Hall

Over the past few weeks communities in N. Ireland have been hit by rioting instigated by a minority of hardline loyalists protesting restrictions on the flying of the union flag at Belfast City Hall. Recently the rioting took on a more sectarian aspect when the Short Strand neighborhood in Belfast was targeted. Loyalists attacked a Catholic church and nearby homes with stones and petrol bombs.

The change in policy on the flying of the union flag 365 days of the year at the front of Belfast City Hall was arrived at democratically, the result of a council vote. The flag will still be raised on designated occasions - royal birthdays and such. The ruling brings City Hall in line with Stormont - the N. Ireland seat of government - and other government buildings. But of course, no measure of compromise on the flag can ever appease loyalist hardliners. The world as they know it is intimately associated with a year-round City Hall display of that rather garish centerpiece of former empire AKA the Union Jack.

The counterproductive nature of the rioting has been acknowledged by members of the pro-union Ulster Defence Association (UDA). East Belfast member Jimmy Birch told BBC Ulster that "Every time they call a tune, we take to the streets... We are wrecking our own areas, we fight with the police, we are burning our own cars and we stop our own people going to work and coming home from work and disrupt our own people's way of life... It is wrong, we need to step back and we need to stop being predictable."

There is a minority of hardline loyalists who seem to think that life revolves around the union flag and a siege mentality best illustrated by the "no surrender" attitude. You could call them hardliners or perhaps deadenders might be more on the mark.

Working class loyalists have essentially been pawns in a larger game. The Protestant ascendancy was long promoted by the Orange Order and a Unionist business and industrial elite that saw the British connection as sacrosanct. Working class loyalists were given the short end of the stick in terms of wage levels when compared to other parts of the UK, but nonetheless they took comfort in a rather pathetic triumphalist view of themselves as a notch above mainly-Catholic nationalists.

The days of oligarchic Unionist rule are in the past but many loyalists still cling to the old myths and symbols. At the same time they are more alienated than ever politically and economically. They need to recognize that the enemy isn't their neighbors in the nationalist community, but a system that limits their opportunities and potential. They would be a lot further ahead if they worked cooperatively with their neighbors in the nationalist community to address the lack of opportunity that keeps some communities, both Catholic and Protestant, economically ghettoized - rather than wasting energy on rioting over a flag.

N. Ireland isn't what it once was, namely a bastion of unassailable Unionist power. The nationalist community now brings a different set of political priorities into play. That's the nature of politics... the realities of changing times... but there are some people in N. Ireland who can't live with it. Nationalists in the north of Ireland have earned their place at the table after years of struggle against a Unionist dominated society riddled with human and civil rights abuses that were among the worst in Western Europe.

N. Ireland remains a divided community on the question of the British connection. Flying the Jack every day at City Hall is likely to alienate nationalists engaged in the life and politics of the community who don't experience the same rosy glow felt by Billy-from-the-Shankill when gazing on the red-white-and-blue. It's just civic decency and a gesture to inter-community relations to arrive at an arrangement that allows for the flying of the union flag at designated times, rather than all the time.

The new arrangement is common sense. But of course not to loyalist hardliners who become deeply insecure and threatened by any move to de-flag what they still think of as "their" turf.

In a sidebar to the current events, Sinn Féin has requested that CNN use the correct title when referring to its president Gerry Adams. A video that discusses the flag riots features a brief interview with Adams. The American broadcaster makes reference to the Sinn Féin president as a "former IRA paramilitary commander."