Peter Geoghegan: Flags fly in face of reason

Almost 15 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, Stormont is arguably more divided than ever, says Peter Geoghegan, but it is the politicians who must ease the tension on the streets

Almost 15 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, Stormont is arguably more divided than ever, says Peter Geoghegan, but it is the politicians who must ease the tension on the streets

More than a month after they began, protests against Belfast City Council’s decision to fly the Union Jack from City Hall on 15 designated days rather than all year round show few signs of abating.

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On Saturday, around 1,000 loyalists demonstrated outside City Hall. Later that evening, shots were fired at police in East Belfast.

The disturbances that wracked Northern Ireland during the festive period were supposed to have stopped by now – at least that’s what the recently created Unionist Forum had hoped. Formed by the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party, the new grouping will “meet to consider matters of interest and concern to the unionist community”, Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt, the party’s respective leaders, said in a 
joint statement released last month.

No prizes for guessing what will be top of the agenda at the Unionist Forum’s first meeting: flags. It is an issue the DUP and the UUP have a history of working together on – in November, before the vote at Belfast City Council, activists from both parties distributed 40,000 leaflets in Belfast accusing the cross-community Alliance party of forming a pact with nationalists to take down the Union flag. Unionists, particularly the DUP, apparently believed they could drive a wedge between the Alliance and their electorate without any real political fallout.

They were wrong, as the hordes of hooded youths with Union Jack scarves across their faces that have blocked roads in Belfast and across Northern Ireland attested, along with the death threat issued against East Belfast MP Naomi Long and other Alliance politicians. But the fact that they were prepared to blow on the loyalist dog whistle in the first place speaks volumes about the intemperate political reality of Northern Ireland.

As their more moderate rivals in the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP wither on the vine, neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP, despite the pro-Catholic rhetoric evinced at their party conference last month, have any real motivation for reaching out across the sectarian divide. Community relations have ossified to the point where a majority of Protestants cannot envisage a time when there are no peacewalls in Northern Ireland, and disenfranchised loyalists burn tricolours outside Belfast City Hall to express their angry confusion.

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland still has no agreed anti-sectarianism strategy. It was not supposed to be like this. In 2005, the joint Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister at Stormont published “A Shared Future”, essentially an irenic blueprint for a post-sectarian Northern Ireland based on reciprocity but containing concrete plans for addressing contentious issues such as flags and emblems.

That “A Shared Future” saw the light of day at all was down not to local politicians but to a direct rule Westminster minister, Labour’s Des Browne, who championed the initial report and launched the public consultation. However, when devolution was reinstated in 2007, it was clear that the big winners, the DUP and Sinn Fein, had little time for the strategy. “A Shared Future” was quietly shelved.

A deracinated version of the policy – “Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI)” – was offered in its place. Despite being put out for consultation more than two years ago, Northern Ireland’s anti-sectarian strategy has effectively fallen behind the back of the power-sharing sofa. Given the heightened climate around identity and symbols, it is unlikely to be retrieved anytime soon.

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High-minded words in official ink will not, of course, resolve all Northern Ireland’s problems with a twirl of a pen, but their absence is indicative of a deeper malaise. While the prospect of a united Unionist Forum might have taken some of the sting out of the protests, it could yet open up a much broader front in Northern Ireland’s nascent culture wars.

In December, councillors from both the DUP and the UUP voted in favour of a “review” of Lisburn’s flag policy. In 2006, both parties supported the flying of the Union flag from the Island Civic Centre in Lisburn on designated days only. The same policy, de rigueur in the rest of the UK, was adopted in many Unionist-dominated councils, including Ballymoney, Moyle and Larne, as well as at Stormont. In Carrickfergus, a loyalist mob destroyed the Alliance’s offices in retaliation for the party’s support for a policy already in place in their area.

Initially lukewarm in their condemnation of protests that have cost the local economy millions, Robinson, Nesbitt and their followers may struggle to put the loyalist genie back in the bottle.

The unrest has largely been organised on social media by what former Ulster Defence Association political prisoner John Howcroft has dubbed “laptop loyalism”. However, Police Service of Northern Ireland chief Matt Baggott has said that the Ulster Volunteer Force have been involved in the street violence in East Belfast.

The rioters are mainly young men from working class neighbourhoods where levels of educational attainment are as dismal as turnout at elections. Many are sampling loyalist street politics for the first time. Let’s hope they don’t acquire a taste for it.

But not all the protestors are paramilitaries looking for the peace cash tap to be turned on again, or for the reining in of the Historical Enquires Team – set up in 2005 to investigate unsolved murders committed during the Troubles – that are making life difficult for many loyalists. I recently interviewed one of the leaders of the first major flag protest, which took place outside Belfast City Hall on 3 December. The 32-year-old, who asked to remain anonymous, is a member of both the Orange Order and the DUP. The unrest “will continue until we get our flag back”, he told me. The chair of Ulster Protestant Voice, a new outfit that has been at the vanguard of the protests, has already complained that protestors are not sufficiently involved in the Unionist Forum.

Not all unionists think that unity is the panacea. Liberal UUP MLA John McCallister has criticised the plans in the past. McCallister, a strident voice for moderation in a polarised Assembly and a critic of unionist unity, has spent most of the last year trying to force through legislation that would see a formal Stormont Opposition created.

The power-sharing set-up bequeathed by the Good Friday Agreement has, he argues, created “monolithic nationalist and unionist blocs”. Listening to the chorus of “us and them” that has accompanied the recent flags protests, it is hard to disagree.

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Almost 15 years on from the signing of the Agreement, Stormont is arguably more divided than ever between unionists and nationalists, loyalists and republicans. That the political situation is replicated on the streets should be no surprise.

“Unity Makes Strength” is the national motto of Belgium, a country perennially on the point of break-up. Perhaps not coincidentally, it is a sentiment that Northern Ireland’s unionists have long cleaved to: in 1974, the United Ulster Unionist Council brought down the Sunningdale Agreement, via the Ulster Workers’ Council Strike; both Ulster Unionist leader James Molyneaux and his successor, David Trimble, formed pacts with the DUP’s 
Ian Paisley at one time or another.

Now, unionist leaders are hankering after the old certainties of unity again, but it is unlikely to prove a profitable strategy. As the loyalist ire burns on, the answer to the current travails must be political – a genuine Opposition at Stormont that can hold Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness to account would be far more useful than 
a Unionist Forum redolent of the incessant “no’s” of yesteryear.