“until there is a change in the balance of power in City Hall, the flag decision won’t be reversed”

TTV photo by Moochin PhotomanJackie McDonald is no stranger to speaking his mind and at times seeming out of kilter with loyalist group think. A few days ago in an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, he outlined his opinion on the current flags debacle.

I share the anger in the loyalist community but somebody needs to stand up and tell the truth, which is that the flag is not going to go up again without an election or agreement … Sinn Fein has achieved this and until there is a change in the balance of power in City Hall, the flag decision won’t be reversed. There is no point giving people false hope.

Contrast this with statements from PUP leader Billy Hutchinson.

Described in the newspaper as a “veteran UDA leader” [Ed – since no one’s quite sure any more of the power lines and hierarchy within the UDA?], McDonald was supportive of the public demonstrations while also voicing his concern that a new strategy was required and (in the words of the article’s author) “they risk becoming counterproductive and spinning out of control”.

People need to take stock, draw a deep breath and realise that everything they are doing is suiting Sinn Fein. We are just running about like headless chickens. (McDonald)

The article went on to describe the anti-PSNI feeling within some elements of loyalism that I have heard anecdotally elsewhere.

Just yesterday one person involved in organising protests told [McDonald] he would have laughed if the police officer who found a bomb under his car on Sunday had instead been blown up with his family.

“I told him that meant he had more in common with dissident republicans than he did with the police,” Mr McDonald said.

Yet the issue of flags and the associated protests haven’t gone away … and won’t go away quickly.

  • The late suggestion at December’s fractious Belfast City Council meeting to fly the Union Flag all year in the Garden of Remembrance will now undergo an Equality Impact Assessment.
  • In the days to come, some or all of the protest organisers may be invited to attend the Robinson/Nesbitt Unionist Forum … and few are likely to choose to attend to voice their concerns on the issues up for discussion and help reframe the debate.
  • Separately, the protest organisers plan to organise their own forum, and politicians may not be invited along to discuss amongst other things a return to direct rule. Will Frazer says that the group “will not be talking to politicians until they re-engage with people on the ground”. In the meantime, protests continue, with two people arrested last night and ten PSNI officers injured during disorder in East Belfast.
  • Other voices will continue to criticise unionism’s desire to consolidate and entrench at the expense of damaging cross-community relationships and putting the brakes on real progress on cohesion, sharing and integration. (Basil McCrea’s UUP disciplinary hearing had been set for later today – though he’s unavailable to attend and it is not yet clear whether it will go ahead.)

With dissonant voices across loyalism and unionism, a march from the City Hall to Stormont being planned for 20 January (though not yet registered with the Parades Commission) and very different articulations of what the underlying problems are, there will be quite a tussle ahead to stabilise unionism.

In terms of the DUP’s “seven top priorities”, the party seems to be concentrating on one priority above the others at the moment:

  • More jobs: “… the creation of 20,000 new jobs …”
  • Low rates: “… block additional water charges, limit any regional rate increase to inflation and cap district rates”
  • Tougher sentences: “… prisoners should not be treated more favourably than law abiding citizens”
  • Fix education: “… increase investment in early years, produce roadmap for a single education system …”
  • Better health: “… resources are targeted on the front line …”
  • Work together: “… work with other parties to create a settled society in NI, realising savings through sharing and breaking down division”
  • Strengthen unionism: “… end divisions and bring unionists together to maximise unionism’s strength and influence … seek to create a shared and united community in NI where everyone has the opportunity to succeed…”

Perhaps the solution to their problem would be to concentrate – in terms of both changing public perception and making real progress – on the other six?

Photo – Moochin Photoman