What’s the Point of the Peace Rallies?

Over the weekend, thousands of people gathered at Belfast City Hall to support a pair of events that aimed to restore hope and calm to a city rocked by pre-Christmas protests and riots. As has been well-documented, the disturbances have been sparked by the City Council’s decision to fly the union flag only on designated days.

The first was Saturday morning’s Peace Prayer, which I attended at the dusky hour of 8.30 am. It was simply five minutes of silent prayer, after which participants dispersed.

The second was Sunday morning’s Peace Rally, held between 11 am and noon. At the close of the rally, those present were encouraged to make as much noise as possible, to make the point that the voices of ‘the peaceful silent majority’ (as organizer Paul Currie put it) have not had their voices heard.

An editorial in today’s Belfast Telegraph bears the simple headline: ‘Prayers for Peace Must Be Answered.’  

Today also saw the First and Deputy First Ministers issue a joint statement calling for the flag protests to end, and the promise of an all-party meeting tomorrow or Wednesday.

Tonight’s traffic chaos indicates that their call to end the protests has not been heeded.

So whether our political parties can conjure up a statement, policy or an action that resembles an answer to prayer remains to be seen.

In an age of apathy and cynicism, it is of course natural to wonder if events like the peace rallies really matter, or if they impact on those with the power to engage meaningfully with the deeper issues that lie behind the flag protests. Then there are those who would dismiss the rallies as the self-righteous action of middle-class do-gooders.

In particular, the prayer rally leaves churches and Christian activists open to charges of hypocrisy. This is due to the institutional churches’  inability to own up to their own roles in contributing to division throughout our history, all the way up to the present.

As Rev Steve Stockman, the minister at Fitzroy Presbyterian in Belfast, pointed out on his blog, it was a younger generation of Christian activists who organised the prayer rally. Is this, in and of itself, a (hopeful) sign that younger Christians may be willing to engage differently than their elders in the public sphere?

As Stockman adds in another post on his blog, any Christian engagement should include the ‘humility’ to recognise and repent for the churches’ divisive behaviour.

Similarly, writing last week on my own blog, I said that the impact of ‘statements’ by church leaders seems increasingly irrelevant ‘… in a context in which the influence of churches is rapidly declining in everyday life.’ I added that ‘…in a context in which the churches have not (in my analysis) seriously and systematically confessed their role in propping up this island’s sectarian system – such statements almost always get dismissed or drowned out in the general clamour.’

For me, the non-violent, public action of the prayer rally is an example of Christian activists (finally) giving up on assuming moral authority and instead using more humble and therefore appropriate methods. Such methods implicitly assume cooperation with secular allies and carry no expectation that religious voices will be privileged over any others in the public sphere.

The Telegraph editorial rather vaguely and generically concludes that, ‘…people at all levels will need to work much harder to prevent further protests.’

Indeed, two peace rallies – no matter how powerful those who attended found the experiences to be – is only a beginning of a process, should it develop, that could:

But the real point of the peace rallies, it seems to me, is less about provoking others out there — like politicians or flag protesters — to do something differently. It is more about people asking themselves what they might do themselves to build a better future.

It could be said that this is happening slowly and tentatively in the church sector through the musings of Stockman (and others) about how the churches and Christian activists might re-think their public role. Doubtless there are other examples from other spheres. But it may take some time for such efforts to reach a ‘critical mass’ across varied sectors of civil society.




  • I dont know about numbers at the Saturday protest but BBC seemed to be reporting that “hundreds” had attended the Sunday protest.
    It was by no means a “mass” rally and I wonder if it was a “Peace Protest” (I have attended a few during the past forty years)……in the accepted sense of the word.
    From news footage, it seems the Sunday protesters were in good spirits and I noticed Fr Ted type placards of the Down With This Sorta Thing” and “Careful Now” type.

    Im not of course saying that Peace Rallies have to be sombre but I think that Sunday missed the point in several ways.
    The rioting had actually eased after mid week. The violence (notwithstanding tonights on going protests) had effectively stopped already. And I think most discerning people would have realised that the rioting was orchestrated and was turned off as easily as it was turned on.
    And I think that many of the people who were inconvenienced for the best part of ten days would have preferred a more active PSNI response rather than attending a Peace Rally.
    And Peace Rally tends to say more when there is inter-community violence …..there was little or none in the rioting. Calling a Peace rally in those circumstances gave it all a degree of gravitas that it did not deserve.

    There is of coursea lot of point to Peace Rallies. Too many good, decent people have been involved in them for decades.
    But the weekend was not the proper time or place for one.

  • anne warren


    The point of peace protests is to say “I was there and I did my bit”
    As indeed the participants did.
    I’m not citicising them but . .
    the current situation in NI has moved far beyond being helped along by well-meaning citizens holding
    peaceful demonstrations

    I deeply regret no Loyalist leadership has seen fit to explain and discuss with their followers the meaning of the GFA/Belfast Agreement.
    I am appalled at the BNP/EDL involvement
    I am horrified by empty slogans like “No Surrender”

    We now live in a democratic, pluralist society.
    There is no space for any “dictatorship”, much less that of a less than majority.

    Civil society in NI cannot be held to ransom by people who threaten everything to get their own way despite the democratically expressed view of other citizens.

    Someone somehow has to explain to these individuals the meaning of a democratic vote and the need to accept it.

    On another thread on Slugger a poster reported that the Loyalists are planning an Ulster Workers Strike mark II or is it III?

    Only the police and the forces of order can deal with that

    My best advice is to let the police and the forces of order get on with their job

    Rather than peace demonstrations well-meaning citizens should better spend their time trying to educate the Loyalists to modern values in the 21st century.

    Otherwise stand aside and let the Law deal with them

    I very much doubt if any Church or Congregation will have much influence – It’s a class, civic education and political outlook thing!!

  • Comrade Stalin


    I’m not sure where you get the idea either that things have died down or that the violence can be turned off. I had to go home from work this evening for the first time in quite a few years due to threats of widespread roadblocks and talk of taxi drivers and bus drivers refusing to work certain routes.

  • Clanky

    I think the rallies sent a message to the politicians who stirred up the trouble in the first place (note not against SF / SDLP who requested the flag to be removed, but against the alliance party who just happen to be their more likely direct political rivals) that the ordinary people of the north of Ireland reject the politics of fear and intimidation and do not accept the stirring up of bigotry and mistrust as a way of gaining a few extra votes..

  • ayeYerMa

    The point was to beash the only political ideology that can maintain long-term peace and stability: Unionism.

    I wonder where all these “peace rallies” where when the place was being blown to smithereens?

  • GEF

    Latest news is they are just sticking the two fingers up to Robbo’s DUP & Marty’s SF request to stop the protests.

    “Loyalist protests bring traffic chaos to Belfast”
    Demonstrators stage sit-down protests on roads across city in union flag dispute


  • Neil

    Also City Hall.

  • AyeYerMa,

    Check out the Nobel Peace Prize winners.

  • Brian Walker

    The peace rallies come over as useful counter publicity to the image of rioting and road blocking on national TV. Not a bad thing I’d day.

    A bit of agonising about their sectarian role from the churches donesn’t come amiss. But overall I wouldn’t expect too much from what we call civic society. That’s what normal life is about.

    I can think of four ways during the Troubles that had an impact on violence and other militant action.

    1 Mass rallies like the Peace People in 1976 But they petered out, lacking their own political base and long term rationale. They were quietly squeezed by the paramilitaries at the height their power .

    2 Local action by local people. Brave and rare, such as the Bogside women after the murder of Ranger Best. This made a major contribution to the Official IRA ceasefire in – May 1972!. ? This would probably be the most effective approach if it can be martialed. Any sign of it emerging on the Woodstock Road or the Braniel?

    3. Finding out what the paramilitary inciters want and doing a deal, a familair approach since 1998.

    The common factor is the knowing the appropriate approach for dealing with the street bosses.Mass civil action has littler to do with it Depressing to realise that they still hold a fair amount of sway and also worrying, if the DUP have finally lost the knack and are out of touch If the cause is really about the flags and not something closer to their lives, it’s going to difficult to improve on designated days – though if it was me (!) I’d up the offer slightly as a goodwill gesture. .

    It would do no harm to knock on the head the “cold home” whinge theory. Difficult to do during a recession admittedly, but it should be advanced by the unionist parties stressing how much better life is in this generation despite many problems etc- and any rate not any better for Catholics. But the parties’ sectarian championing largely prevents them doing this.

    My only consolation in faraway London is that in the medium term, the ground is gradually narrowing for loyalist militancy.

    4. If this goes on and on the police go in hard with many arrests. Local people might feel enough was enough. But the consequences are unpredictable. And besides, this seems counter to PSNI tactics and training. I say this with some regret. I admit it.

  • Comrade Stalin


    That’s a brave attempt at a bit of rationality. The peace people were sadly not only victims of the paramilitaries but of the sectarian modus operandi of the time. If I have it right, they found themselves in a position where someone was shot dead by a soldier and they appeared to hesitate since their campaign was mostly focused on the paramilitaries. Brave women, nonetheless.

    (3) is a bit tricky since, like the rioters in London a year or so back, I don’t think they really know what they want. They’re rallying around the cry that their heritage is being taken away but I really don’t think they have a complex or detailed conception of what that heritage is or means, especially not when there are so many social/unemployment/etc problems in these communities.

    The PUP and other loyalist parties showed some promise years ago when they appeared to recognize that working class unionists were suffering due to decades of manipulation by established political parties. But now the PUP seem to have fallen back and are following the whims of the whipped-up crowd.

    I do not think the violence is being actively organized by the paramilitaries even at this stage although I’ve no doubt they take part. The guys involved in the trouble aren’t even very good at it.

    Which leaves (4) which to me is the only option at this point. There is cross community support for the peace. There is cross community opposition to violence and disruption, especially during the christmas period. Why the police appear to be so hesitant when it comes to major arrests or crackdowns, I do not know.

  • Michael Quinn

    The current problems around the Belfast City Council decision to reduce the number of days the union jack is flown is a culmination of the way in which our peace agreement has been implemented. Before the ink was dry, it was treated like an A La Carte menu!! Immediately each communities rights trumped the others. Politicians, in an attempt to keep the ceasefires intact, promised a future that was not in their gift to offer!! A ‘shared future’ became the abstract concept that never made it to the production line. Just like we need traffic lights at road junctions so no one persons journey trumps everyone else’s, so too do we need a mindset change that one communities wants WILL NOT trump another’s. And I say wants because our needs are more than met in this territory!! Are they not? We also need to bear in mind that humans are far more loss averse than they are happy to gain. This is proven in psychology and is apparent in the reaction by the Unionist  community in issues of their concern.  As I say, a shared future is not something politicians can offer the public, it’s what the public can only offer itself.  We should stop invoking ‘human rights’ and the state to resolve our dissonance with our ‘coming out of conflict’. It’s up to each person to resolve it in their own mind. Hidden behind the word RIGHTS is the word RESPONSIBILITY and hidden behind RESPECT is TOLERANCE. We don’t need political permission to apply these in our lives! JUST DO IT. 
    Michael Quinn
    email; theboyneschool@hotmail.com

  • paddywhack

    The point of a peace protest shows that our community can stand side by side against hating each other! The true British people of northern ireland are not out on the streets. they are sitting at home, with their identity, their dignity and respecting the true fundamental of our society which is democracy. SF have a lot to answer for over the past 40 yrs, they are as sneaky and crap stirring as any other party! Sadly there is bitterness in both our communities, i see it rife catholic areas and have enough friends from both sides to see and hear that it is rife in protestant areas too. Thats said it culmunates more in largely dominated republican and loyalist areas…..and its always the stupid ones, we all see them. we hear their narrow-minded crap, and see their iron age slogan and murals. I always try to see from both sides of the fence. It is the bitter element within the protestant community that have been ficklely led up the garden path by Peter Robinson. I’m not hating on protestants, i despise the republican muderers and scumbags that live in my community as much any protestant,! Anyway – The need to win back east Belfast is no myth and Peter and the DUP will do what they can to get it back. That is the nucleus OF IT ALL! Can you really not see that? Mike Nesbitt will back any support in the community for anything at all really in an attempt to spark a flame in the died out fire that is the UUP. The flag flying has not been a hot topic for years, most of dont care. We live in Northern Ireland,part of the UK. FACT. It has not been a problem with other councils, agreed by protestants for disignated days before, for years this has been happening at council. There have been no issues with unionists in regards to flags at these councils. Why are seeing what we have been seeing the past 2 weeks? Why A Leaflet all about Naomi Long, she has no seat on the council, no vote, so why? She Holds Peter’s seat thats why! Of course he wants it back. I’m Disgusted at Mike Nesbitt, Basil McCrea and David McNarry have more political skill in their finger nails than Mikes body. A UUP with either David OR Basil would be a better UUP! David can be hardline, Basil at times to easy, but either way a billion marathons ahead of Nesbitt on a political level! I have argued with people in my community that for 1 day let them have their day and let them walk in relation to parading. I will not bat an eye If the flag goes go back up, and i’ve no doubt down the line it will as the result of another vote but it wouldnt bother me. What bothers me is underhand politics, mob rule, over-riding democracy and masking it all in the claim that britishness is being eroded. Its time to stop hiding and start living. James Zabiela is playing in Shine on boxing night for gawds sake!

  • ThomasMourne

    It bothers me that a lot of the condemnation of the flag-waving bigots comes from the so-called ‘leaders’ in our society who themselves belong to sectarian political parties and/or churches.

  • Anne,
    Common sense as usual from you. Workers strike? I doubt if many of these “Protesters” would have to take a day off work somehow

  • Framer

    The problem is those same people would not rouse themselves for a moment against, for example, the last few years extreme violence in Ardoyne. Nor even speak out against the concomitant and regular sectarian attacks on Protestant homes nearby and in the Fountain area of Derry.
    They unconsciously demonise loyalists and sneer at their class. Sad but true.
    Oddly the first empathetic news report – unlike the BBC NI website which reads like Pravda and the Belfast Telegraph which has become ‘Alliance r Us’ [they don’t notice Alliance types wouldn’t be seen dead with a copy] – was tonight on Newsnight.
    Worth watching if only for a couple of interviews with coherent pro-flag spokesmen.
    Time for Alliance to consider reversing its vote.
    Now that notion will make moderates cease to be moderate and become very very nasty.

  • Framer,
    Which coherent pro flag spokesmen?
    Do you think the protests should be rewarded by the reversal of a democratically taken decision? if so please explain, it would be interesting

  • Framer

    Democracy is all about people changing their minds or do moderates disapprove of second thoughts?

  • Comrade Stalin


    Have you ever considered the possibility that you might be wrong ?

  • Framer, I asked only two questions in response to your comment. You answer mine and I’ll answer yours, at length

  • Granni Trixie

    I was heartened by the creativity and determination of the noisy “silent Majority” …it provided a media opportunity to counter the protests,representing those of us who do NOT identify with protest action and presumably empowered individuals.

  • GoldenFleece

    Anyway its too late to reverse the flag decision regarding the city hall now. If it goes back up it will be a dangerous precident that says to everyone “don’t like a law? No problem, whip up some violence and have it overtuned.” Bad idea.

  • paddywhack

    Democracy is about decisions taken by elected representatives that are elected by us all.

    What Democracy is not though is ruining christmas cheer, putting people out, having embarrassing images shown of Northern Ireland around the globe….then saying we’ve changed our minds and that vote doesn’t count. Ridiculous! It’s embarrassing no matter if it’s catholics or protestants wrecking their own areas and making their own people miserable and coming out with trashy statements like we’ve changed our minds or to quote Framer ‘Time for Alliance to consider reversing its vote.’ – Get a grip!

    Yes people can change their minds and have second thoughts and that will no doubt be evident in the next east Belfast election. But to riot, hi-jack roads, try and kill police officers, send death threats, wreck political offices and above else annoy and embarrass your community then no way.

    It’ is a pity that some are having second thoughts like you say, some will change their minds too and some will not vote Naomi and Alliance. It will though be democratic….just for all the wrong reasons and i’ll agree and hardly even dwell on it.

  • David Crookes

    Several grave thoughts occur to me as I go to bed.

    Some unimaginably wicked unionists have decided to start up the Troubles again.

    People are going to get killed.

    It may not be very long before we shall need UN troops.

    Whatever happens, if we don’t crush the fascist thugs, the fascist thugs will crush us.

    The peace rallies have achieved nothing of significance.

    The thuggery is not about a flag. It is about statistics that certain highly placed persons knew about in advance.

  • simtrib

    Yes the decision can be reversed but it should not be reversed in any other way than as the result of an election to Belfast City Council. Make the next council election a proxy referendum on the flag. Impossible to win? If the groundswell of emotion is really there I don’t see how it is any more impossible than Robinson losing East Belfast in 2010 or Bobby Sands winning Fermanagh South Tyrone.

    As to the protests yes violence is wrong, but a small amount of violence should not tar those who are not violent, such as in the student fees protest in London. A problem with the Peace Rally is that it lost some relevance and came to look a bit too much like people taking to the streets to protest peacefully against the fact that some other people had taken to the streets and protested peacefully. It would have maintained more relevance, and probably had a bigger turnout, if it had happened a week earlier.

  • Charlie Sheens PR guru


    You could run on a flag referendum platform if you like, but how sad is it that? Its the most primitive embodiment of drum beating politics that there is. But do it. Its democratic at least. Probably counter productive though if the huge number of disillusioned middle ground non voters see that all the unionists have to offer is more flag rabble rousing.

  • simtrib

    The thuggery is not about a flag. It is about statistics that certain highly placed persons knew about in advance.

    I think that you see conspiracy where there is cock-up.

    If you look at their actions before this happened, or as it was starting,

    DUP — “I don’t think think this will make the news in China”
    Alliance – no problem having this vote during the Christmas trading period
    SDLP – ditto
    Sinn Fein – ditto
    PUP – changing their stance on flag flying policy

    I really don’t think that ANYBODY on that list really expected this to happen. I think that even the UVF and the UDA have been taken by surprise by this, even if many of their members are involved in it. I just think that it’s one of these new things, like the post Mark Duggan riots, or the Arab Spring, that came out of the blue largely due to social networking. Blame Mark Zuckerberg.

  • simtrib

    @Charlie Sheens PR guru

    Personally, myself, I’m not so fussed about the difference between 365 and designated days, but if it makes people who feel strongly about the issue either way register to vote then it is the only real solution on offer to give people somewhere to go within the present political structures unless we assign the issue to a democratic body other than the actual council concerned. I think that a big part of what led to this problem is that many of the people of Greater Belfast, if not the people of Northern Ireland as a whole, perceive that particular flagpole as belonging to them and not just to the electorate of inner Belfast, unlike say the flagpole on Lisburn council.

    It’s a vexing issue but what are our alternatives? Perhaps to remove the power over flags on councils from those councils themselves and give it to Stormont to be negotiated in all party talks which may result in union flags on all councils all days in exchange for an Irish language act, or something like that, but we would probably be creating as many problems as we solved. Frankly it all makes my head hurt, but perhaps we should not all be blaming each other so much, because I don’t think that any of the political parties knew or intended the consequences that have occurred. Certainly those who have taken part in violence and threats should be blamed for their own actions, and prosecuted in a court of law, but we need to realise that for the rest of us, we are all still in this together, and most of us are acting in good faith from within our own worldview, even if not to each other’s preferred agenda.

  • David Crookes

    Thanks, simtrib, forgive my gloomy late-night ravings. I find it hard to believe that people can be so stupid. But that’s stupid of me.

  • paddywhack

    Tourist bus wrecked at the days hotel. A police officer injured. Kids as young as 11 yrs old arrested for disorder. Larne council hi-jacked and intimated by people in hoods. A union flag placed outside Holy cross primary school. Cars jumped on by men on the shore road. I simply don’t see the vast majority of working class protestants protesting peacefully. I see a minority of protestants standing in groups of no more than 50 or so at different locations, wrapped flags and blocking roads.

    It started with the flag and the blame lay with alliance, SDLP and SF. Then it was more than a flag and it was the erosion of Britishness of which the blame lay with SF and their ‘agenda’ or ‘new war on culture’. Now it’s the working class protestants very own politicians fault for not listening to them.

    Who will get the blame next?

  • Neil

    I’d say the silent, intelligent majority will be eyeing that leaflet. Some people might see it as cynically whipping up tension so the Glorious Leader can retrieve his seat, at the expense of, well, everyone?

  • Scáth Shéamais

    Gladys, I don’t know if Saturday’s prayer meeting was organised by young people but any footage I’ve seen of the several hundred people taking part would suggest it was mostly an older crowd in attendance.

    The image of Sunday’s rally being “the self-righteous action of middle-class do-gooders” probably wasn’t helped by the organisers of the event claiming that it wasn’t directly related to flags protests. So it was apparently just a general call for ‘peace’ as an abstract concept.

  • Scáth Shéamais

    On another thread on Slugger a poster reported that the Loyalists are planning an Ulster Workers Strike mark II or is it III?

    Only the police and the forces of order can deal with that

    Like they dealt with the original UWC strike?

  • BarneyT

    I was in Belfast on Sunday morning to have a wee poke in St Georges market. I heard some noise up near City Hall and assumed it was the start of another flag protest 🙂

  • Neil

    On another thread on Slugger a poster reported that the Loyalists are planning an Ulster Workers Strike mark II or is it III?

    Things to do:

    Get a job.
    Go on strike.

  • On the church response, I am still waiting for the sermon that starts, “You must love your catholic neighbours or burn in hell, you must love your republican enemies or suffer eternal torment”, or alternatively, “to get into heaven you must serve your protestant neighbours”.

    Or someone could hold an exorcism, as obviously the people who designed and printed the leaflets were possessed by the devil.

  • 241934 john brennan

    What on earth is the SDLP up to? It started with the noble aims of equal rights, inclusion, peaceful politics – and total rejection of the illogical, contradictory and impossible aims of unity though violence. With the GFA, the SDLP laid the foundations, built and roofed a structure guaranteed to deliver an agreed Ireland. All that remains to be done is the internal finishing work, including reconciliation at home in the North.

    So why has the SDLP lost the plot through its present support for Sinn Fein’s self-serving and divisive agenda e.g. same-sex ‘marriage’, City Hall flag, naming of Newry children’s playground etc. Sinn Fein has a selfish (electoral) interest in pushing this agenda, but what’s in it for the SDLP? Is there some as yet unrevealed noble, self-sacrificing objective, for which alienating, not only moderate unionists, but also many its core supporters.

    Sinn Fein was brought in from the cold by the SDLP. Seemingly the latter party now wishes to go further, by exiting politics, giving Sinn Fein a free gift of its hard earned title deeds and front door keys?

  • Damian O’Loan

    “…like the rioters in London a year or so back, I don’t think they really know what they want.”

    Potentially an interesting thread here, not enough attention to this question.

    Two simplistic answers jump to mind:

    1. Abandoning the designated days only policy

    2. Satisfaction that British identity isn’t under threat

    Since nobody is making open requests, it would be interesting to hear from the people taking part.

    And perhaps in future you could see if those who claim to represent them are actually asking for the same thing.

  • David Crookes

    100% correct in every particular, johnbrennan.

  • Ní Dhuibhir

    Having spent a ridiculous amount of my childhood at peace rallies, protests and vigils throughout the 80s and 90s, I thought the gathering on Sunday was all the better for not quite being any of those things. Every person using our public space in joyful, considerate, non-threatening ways is a good thing; lots of people doing that in the same place at the same time is just a way of performing and practicing ‘normality’, in the best sense of the word. I didn’t hear anyone claiming it would put an end to violence and stupidity, but it is one way to remind ourselves and others that our city centre is for more than spending money and picking fights.