The flag protests have now been going on for a month. During that time we have heard assorted apportioning of blame, descriptions of the events as marking a disintegration in loyalism (and by extension then unionism), calls on various people to display “leadership” and much merriment and contempt directed at the flag protest leadership: often vitriolic here on slugger.
The protests are at core a political issue. The riots are clearly criminality and some of those attacking the police may well have little interest in politics and no coherent reasoning even to themselves as to why attacking police officers is explained, let alone justified, by politics. The genesis of these events, however, is political: it is in the political decision by Belfast City Council to reduce the number of days on which the Union flag is flown over city hall.
Demographic shifts combined with the remarkably odd and restrictive drawing of Belfast City Council’s borders with large swathes of solidly unionist East Belfast in Castlereagh, unionist parts of North Belfast in Newtowwnabbey and bits of nationalist West Belfast in Lisburn, have delivered a council with a plurality for a number of electoral cycles. Alliance has held the balance of power and until late last year Alliance supported the continued daily flying of the Union flag.
When Alliance decided to support a change to the policy and have the flag only flown on designated days the UUP and DUP launched a leaflet campaign opposing the change. This was attacked by Alliance who accused the unionists of stoking up trouble. It is, however, unlikely in the extreme that these leaflets have caused the rioting we have seen. The simple fact is that removing the flag (which was difficult physically to see at city hall) was the sort of visible symbolism which is important to all sides in Northern Ireland. Removing the flag from that place is seen as symbolic of the erosion of Britishness in this part of the UK by unionists (and republicans may hope that that is true). Republicans and nationalists see it as part of the equality agenda. Both sides may also harbour more negative feelings of triumphalism over the other side from the retention or removal of the flag. Alliance on this issue are somewhat closer to broader nationalism than unionism along with their view of the “shared society” ethos (sometimes disparagingly called “letsgetalongerism”).
Therein: in the position of Alliance, lies a significant part of the resonance of this problem especially in East Belfast. As everyone knows Naomi Long famously won Alliance’s first (and thus far only) Westminster victory in East Belfast. The reasons for Long’s victory have been rehearsed repeatedly but in brief were a combination of factors, two were external to Long: firstly the electorate’s desire to give Peter Robinson a kicking over his supposed financial chicanery and the issues surrounding his wife’s adultery; and secondly the political ineptness of the UUP candidate Trevor Ringland. Added to those factors, however, was that East Belfast Alliance in general and Long herself have always played a soft unionist card. Long is an East Belfast girl born and bred: she still lives and works in the area, attends a local Presbyterian church and does all the things one would expect of a nice middle class soft unionist (a classic Ballyhackmore-ite). The fact that subsequently it has become clear that Peter Robinson did nothing wrong financially; that his wife was indeed ill and that he has softened his image markedly may well make many feel a trifle guilty regarding their desire, very prematurely, to dance on his political and reputational grave.
Travelling down the Newtownards Road: Long also gained significant support from the more working class areas with the ballot boxes from the likes of Mersey Street being very solidly for her. This support was gained in part from endorsement by the ex PUP leader Dawn Purvis in a vain hope that her support for Long would translate into transfers from further up the Newtownards Road and keep Purvis’s assembly seat.
Those working class (and many middle class) unionists who supported Long now seem to feel that they were tricked by Alliance who have shown themselves not to be a unionist party but rather a nonaligned one which over this part of the flag issue has sided with nationalism. That Alliance are not and for some time have not been unionist is irrelevant: the fact is that those working class unionist voters felt they were voting for a unionist party; a delusion Alliance in East Belfast were more than happy to encourage them in.
The above then is one explanation as to why the protests are centred in East Belfast and help explain the threats to Naomi Long and others. In no way does this justify threats to kill and assorted criminality but quite simply if loyalist paramilitaries support you and then perceive that you have betrayed them, they will respond with their default position: criminality. Those criminals are almost certainly also the ones involved in the orchestration of the rioting. In actual fact personally ghastly as the treatment of the Alliance political representatives has been it may have helped the party a bit in terms of the optics of their flag decision. Moving back up the Newtownards Roads and indeed in wider Northern Ireland society there was marked unionist annoyance at Allaince’s decision. Even relatively non political people were far from happy with the decision The fact that the change brings Belfast into line with, for example Craigavon, is irrelevant: it was seen as Alliance supporting a republican agenda. That annoyance would have cost Alliance dear come the next Westminster (and Belfast City Council) elections especially in Long’s seat. However, such is the opposition to the rioting and the disgust at the threats to Long and co that some of this anger against Alliance will be assuaged by sympathy. As so often loyalist terrorists in their actions actually help unionism’s opponents but as well as having little political acumen many loyalist terrorists seem to miss the irony in so many of their actions.
Attempts to stop the riots and even the protests have now been made by both unionist parties with assorted commentators decrying the lack of leadership by the likes of Robinson. The mainstream unionist leadership is, however, in a bind largely not of its own making. Indeed they did produce the leaflets but that is what political parties are meant to do: attack their opponents; the unionist leaflets were a political attack and such is the nature of politics throughout the democratic world. The unionist parties were very annoyed by Alliance’s flag decision as were very many ordinary unionists: to highlight Alliance’s position was normal politics. What was also normal politics was to take part in peaceful protests as a number of unionist politicians did at the start of the protests. When the violence started, however, politicians left the protests. These unionist politicians when they were involved in the peaceful parts of protests were castigated by the same media types who now demand leadership from the unionist politicians but ignore the genuine anger amongst unionists about this decision. The leadership many in the media require is an end to the protests but the politicians are in a bind: ignored if they call for an end to protest; castigated if they attend protests and try to keep them peaceful. This is not a case of the UUP and DUP whipping up people’s emotions. This is a case of Alliance and many in the chattering classes misreading the depth of feeling over this issue and ascribing blame all round them for the problem.
Alliance have of course the right to take any democratic decision they want, but some of the anger from them and the media is probably also from their own realisation that actually people are less liberal than they are. This is of course magnified by the media and middle class conceit that the working class unionist population are actually much more liberal on the union than their political representatives (a delusion at times shared by nationalists as well). Those who believed in this nonsense pointed to Long’s election as the proof of their point. Although most of their anger stems from the criminality on display a little probably stems from the gradual realisation of how wrong they were.
Still they can just call them “fleg” protestors: it even has the letter “e” in it like pleb.
As an after thought we could always stop the protests by putting the flag (or fleg) back up. That of course would be completely unacceptable: it would be rewarding violence and criminality. That would never happen here in Northern Ireland would it now?
This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.