Inside a war of words; outside traffic disruption, flag burning, brick throwing and storming the City Hall

Democracy in action tonight. A decision made (democratically) in a Belfast City Council committee – not with everyone’s agreement but a decision following the procedures nonetheless – was brought to the full council for debate and ratification. While the exchanges could be described as a war of words, a democratic process was followed and a recorded vote taken.

The vote 29/21 passed Alliance’s proposal to fly the Union Flag on designated days only over Belfast City Hall (and not over other council buildings). [Update – After the vote, Councillor Lee Reynolds raised a proposal to fly the flag permanently at the Belfast Cenotaph at the side of the City Hall. This will be discussed by council next month. Pity this kind of (imaginative) offer hadn’t been made before councillors of all parties lost control of the flags issue.]

Relations on Belfast City Council had improved greatly over the past few years. Tonight UUP Councillor David Browne said that because of the flag issue he’d do no more deals with Alliance, the SDLP or Sinn Fein.

Civil unrest in action tonight too. Outside the back of the City Hall, the Save Our Flag protest that – after last night’s blog post “Who needs bus lanes when a flag might block the Belfast traffic?” – had promised not to affect the traffic brought May Street to a standstill as protesters occupied the very bus lanes that motorists so love to hate as well as the two lanes for ordinary vehicles. By 6pm, the police were diverting traffic down Victoria Street and away from the back from the City Hall. Translink reported bus diversions and delays.

However, the predicted traffic disruption was not the height of the disturbance.

The scale of the rally grew, with estimates of 600 or more protesters. Chanting and singing. Not content to protest about the potential for one flag to be taken down, another was burnt – a tricolour. Journalists were heckled when entering the City Hall. Later on, two female police officers – officers of the very crown the protesters were there to uphold – were injured. Bricks, golf balls and fireworks were thrown. The City Hall gates were breached. DUP Councillor Guy Spence’s yellow car was damaged. Update – by Tuesday morning reports listed injuries as fifteen PSNI officers, two City Hall security staff and a press photographer.

Proceedings inside the chamber were suspended for a prolonged period. Police with riot shields came inside the City Hall before it was secured and business could restart.

There’s a police presence in East Belfast tonight, with reports of missiles being hurled at PSNI officers on the Albertbridge Road and an attempted bus hijacking.

No matter what people think about the merits or demerits of flying a flag over council buildings, I imagine that no councillor would say tonight’s protest and violence was good for Belfast. Yet some should have seen it coming. Flags enrage, and public protests are unpredictable and at times unstable.

There was surely a stark contrast between the family-friendly retail opportunities at the front of the City Hall and the thuggery around the back that disrupted the buses shoppers would take home. A sharp contrast between the democratic processes followed inside the council chamber and the lawbreaking by some on the street outside.

What price for a flag? The BBC’s News homepage  has a story “Trouble erupts after Belfast flag vote” on its front page, under news of the royal pregnancy, Starbucks tax plans, a feared chemical strike in Syria and Israeli defiance over building three thousand more settler homes.

Surely the DUP and UUP leadership should have been able to predict the risk of tonight’s events occurring and stepped in early to ensure an unmanageable protest would not transpire? Where was the civic leadership and cool-headedness in the run up to tonight’s vote? Where was the ability – on all sides – to discuss flags in an anti-sectarian atmosphere? And will there be party discipline and a dampening of tensions in the aftermath? An unfortunate tweet from a Belfast DUP councillor (and senior Orangeman) goading republican dissidents feels more about keeping conflict going that seeking peaceful resolution.

John Lowry from the Workers Party commented this evening:

The pitiful sight of thousands of people protesting outside Belfast City Hall about flags is matched only by a chamber full of councillors debating it inside.

The real questions that must be asked about this tribal debacle are the ones that Sinn Fein and DUP voters in particular must ask of themselves. While jobs are being lost, prices rising, homes being re-possessed, child poverty increasing and thousands of people across the city facing a daily ‘eat or heat’ dilemma, Councillors in Belfast are using flags and emblems as a smokescreen for their failure to even address these issues.

Sinn Fein and DUP supporters must now ask themselves “Do I really want to vote for a party that is happy to ignore social and economic realities to secure their own tribal positions?”

Belfast, Christmas 2012 – not yet a season of peace and goodwill.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.