Unionist support for flag protests has dwindled: time for a new strategy?

Ruth Patterson’s newly appointed campaign manager for the next Assembly election is Jamie Bryson. Here on Slugger he argues that the time is over for protest and that a new strategy must be found to raise concerns of working class loyalists.

There has been much discussion and debate in recent days about a planned Union flag protest to be held on St Patrick’s day. The protest is billed as a 12 hour vigil. 

Protest is a powerful tool to articulate your opposition or support for an issue and to highlight grievances or inequalities. But protest must have an underlying strategy, a method of converting the energy of protest into political action and then ultimately turning that activism into democratic gains.

The absence of such a strategy during the height of the Union flag protests was a huge missed opportunity. The flag protests were spontaneous and they belonged to the people, therefore there was no prior strategy and due to the nature of the protests it was difficult to craft such a strategy in the midst of such an unprecedented protest movement.

I can not see any strategic or political advantage in holding a protest on St Patrick’s day. That is why I believe the organisers should rethink their plans. Further to this I think that if they believe there is a strategic or political value in a St Patrick’s day protest, then the organisers should put forward a spokesperson to articulate what the value is.

Holding a protest on St Patrick’s day has no significance in relation to the Union flag dispute- ironically the Union flag flies on St Patrick’s day and the flag of St Patrick is incorporated within the Union flag.

Whilst the protest is- I am sure- well intentioned, it will be portrayed and interpreted as a blatant attempt to create a sectarian stand-off and the protestors will be demonised and portrayed as sectarian bigots who have gone out of their way to be offended. That serves no purpose, no success or victory can come from a St Patrick’s day protest, so that then surely should beg the question- why have one?

There are very genuine concerns around some of the sectarianism and anti-Protestant bigotry that flows from St Patrick’s day. A loyalist protest will only deflect from these issues.The way to challenge those issues is to hold the organisers to account via the rule of law and demand statutory bodies fulfil their obligations to ensure that organisers of the events behave in a lawful, inclusive, non-sectarian and respectful manner.

The flag protestors- and especially those who maintain a weekly protest- have displayed remarkable commitment and dedication. They have done themselves and our community proud.

However, at some point in every campaign, whether it be a protest movement, a military campaign or business, there must be a reflection of the current situation and a discussion around how best to adapt tactics in order to achieve the optimum gain and advancement towards your goals.

There has to come a time when someone has to be brave enough to ask the question, what is this achieving? Tactics change and the political landscape constantly evolves. If no one ever stood up and said “we need to change our tactics” then people would still be using swords and charging across battlefields on horseback during the Cold War.

Looking at how to move from protest to political activism is not a betrayal or a sell out of principles. It is, in fact, the only way to advance the cause of Unionism and to fight back against the very real injustices being inflicted upon our community as part of the so called ‘peace process’.  and surely that should highlight the need for a change in strategy.

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