When loyalists decided to erect flags outside the catholic church in Ballyclare, their motivation was clearly sectarian and merely followed a long tradition noted on Slugger last year at Chapel Hill, Lisburn and previously in Antrim town of loyalists seeking to antagonise catholics in majority unionist towns as they attended their places of worship.
The widespread violence across the North Saturday night would indicate that loyalists have clearly entered the Marching Season of a mind similar to that of the dissident republican factions who showed last year a desire to manipulate the heightened community tensions to instigate violence at ground level.
Thus, we’ve had loyalist violence following the Tour of the North parade as well as the UVF-sponsored Short Strand attack, whilst dissident republican factions were evidently behind the Lurgan violence which followed the arrest of the Republican Sinn Fein leader, Des Dalton, in the town.
The Ballyclare violence was accompanied by attacks on Catholic families in Coleraine and Magherafelt, and violence was also reported in Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey. The catholic church in Harryville, long a target of loyalists, was once again vandalised. There have also been a number of attacks on Orange Halls in recent days.
But there continues to be a distinction with regard to how violence emanating from those quarters is perceived by both the PSNI and political representatives. Whilst Sinn Fein representatives have had little difficulty condemning the actions of dissident republicans and actively confronting their leaders and followers during unrest in both the Short Strand this year and Ardoyne last year, unionist politicians continue to struggle to put distance between themselves and the loyalists who have sponsored much of the summer’s violence to date.
Once again, loyalist violence has precipitated a coming together of unionist-loyalist representatives, and there has been a distinct absence of robust condemnation from unionist political quarters- with the notable exception of Sammy Wilson.
Regarding the latest loyalist-inspired violence, in Ballyclare, DUP MLA Paul Girvan actually had the temerity to suggest the PSNI had “overreacted” and that residents felt “under threat” from the PSNI because the latter had removed flags clearly designed to intimidate catholic parishioners. Here’s Mr. Girvan:
There was a heavy police presence on Saturday night and as a result tensions were high because police didn’t only remove paramilitary flags, they also removed Union Jacks and Ulster flags, which sent out a message to the wider community that they felt very much under threat.
Hence, in Mr Girvan’s world, the loyalists were “under threat” because the PSNI had sought to remove flags erected with the sole intention of intimidating members of the minority religious community in the town as they attended Mass.
Indeed, BBC News covered an interview with Willie McCrea who was at pains to emphasise how the PSNI had given an unequivocal apology to the local community for their actions. Accompanying the DUP representative was the loyalist representative, Ken Wilkinson.
Justice Minister, David Ford, has provided a press statement which offers the context to the PSNI actions. Here it is in full:
South Antrim Alliance MLA David Ford has repeated his condemnation of those who rioted in Ballyclare on Saturday and said that police officers acted entirely in accordance with the flags protocol.
David Ford said: “Last year, a number of flags were removed from the vicinity of two Ballyclare churches as a result of negotiation. This year, I understand that local police representatives had lengthy negotiations about the removal of both paramilitary flags and flags outside the Catholicchurch, but these negotiations were not successful.
“The decision to remove the flags after negotiations had failed was in accordance with the flags protocol and represented appropriate action by the police. They bear no blame for what happened on Saturday night: the blame lies entirely with those who fomented the riot and those who caused fear and mayhem in Ballyclare.”
Ford’s statement clearly indicates that all involved were aware that the erection of these flags was an issue to catholic parishioners, and hence the removal of the flags by loyalists last year in acknowledgement of this fact. Their decision not to do so this year was clearly an attempt to not only intimidate the catholic population but also put it up to the PSNI to act.
Consequently, the apology issued by the PSNI is rather disconcerting as it suggests an unwillingness to confront sectarian bully boy tactics in unionist heartlands. The absence of political support for the actions of the PSNI in such areas is not only regrettable but is also clearly causing the PSNI to think twice before confronting the perpetrators of intimidatory actions, something which does not augur well for the future.
The UTV report suggests that the PSNI removed predominantly UVF flags, with locals reportedly rehashing the facile argument that such flags were merely honouring the victims of the Battle of the Somme- cue much giggling in loyalist drinking dens. As I suggested in an earlier thread, perhaps it’s time a local journalist enquired as to the organisation responsible for purchasing and distributing these flags by the hundreds in recent weeks.
Another loyalist representative, Phil Hamilton, not only denied paramilitary involvement in the rioting but also provided this interesting analysis of the cause of the violence:
I don’t think there’s paramilitaries involved in it. I think we’ve seen a community at boiling point and it just shows what can happen, people’s tempers and patience have just gone thin.
“What I do think this has been is the community venting its anger against the PSNI and their reckless decision to remove the Union flag.(my italics)
The inference that the removal of the Union Flag sparked the violence is important as, if it transpired that the PSNI apology was in regard to the removal of this flag, then that clearly sends out a message to loyalists that the PSNI will acquiesce in any intimidatory antics which involve the erection of the British National flag whenever and wherever loyalists desire, as has been the case in Antrim previously.
Already I have noted in earlier threads the failure of unionist political representatives to make even the slightest of gestures to indicate that Peter Robinson’s expressed desire to broaden unionism’s appeal beyond the protestant community is anything more than hollow rhetoric. Indeed, I noted how the primary focus for that appeal was likely to be the more liberal wing of unionism, still yet to be convined by a DUP-led unionism.
But the inability of such political representatives to concede that such a wilful act of sectarian intimidation as that in evidence in Ballyclare deserves condemnation underlines the fact that there is little desire to conceive of a unionism detached from explicitly sectarian and supremacist trappings.
Is it possible to find a unionist political representative who will publicly state that erecting loyalist flags of any and all hues outside a catholic church is a sectarian act, not least in a town which is overwhelmingly unionist and with plenty of other places to erect the flags?
If not, then why not?
Could it be because they agree with the sentiments expressed by former DUP/TUV Antrim councillor, Mel Lucas, who asserted “It’s all British- even the bits outside the chapel” when loyalists in Antrim decided to erect flags outside the catholic church there for nakedly sectarian reasons?