Northern Ireland flag protests signal wider problems
BELFAST, United Kingdom (AFP) – The flag protests in Northern Ireland have exposed the deep sense of alienation felt by the staunchly pro-British Loyalist community, as the benefits of the peace process seemingly pass them by.
The unrest has also shown how symbolism remains a highly contentious issue in areas of Belfast where deprivation, unemployment and educational under-achievement have become entrenched.
The capital’s City Council – hung between Catholic Irish and Protestant British parties with the cross-community Alliance holding the balance of power – voted on December 3 to fly the British flag above the City Hall only on certain designated days. Until then, it had flown all-year round.
Since the vote, loyalists – the working-class hardcore of Northern Ireland’s Protestant unionists – have taken to the streets to protest and even riot, an explosion of anger that few predicted.
On Saturday alone, 29 police officers were hurt in rioting.
At a small, daily demonstration outside the Alliance office in the loyalist heartland of east Belfast one local man, said loyalist concerns were simply not registering with politicians.
He wore the British flag round his shoulders as well as on the hat and scarf keeping out the January chill. He brandished a banner reading “Defend our flag”.
“That flag was up for 106 years. It’s Britain. It should be up.
“It’s not on, they just take and take,” he said of the Irish nationalists now sharing power in Northern Ireland with unionist parties.
“It’s all right having peace and all, but not at any price.”
Dominic Bryan, director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast, said the attachment to flags and emblems is heightened in ethnic disputes.
Unionist politicians had failed to prepare their electorate for the implications that power-sharing inevitably has for symbols such as the City Hall flag, he said.
“It seems madness to the outside world, but that is what people get deeply perturbed about,” he told AFP.