Northern Ireland’s First and deputy First Minister Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness have called for people to stop protesting over the flag at City Hall, stating it is hurting the local economy. A little ingenuity is needed to stop any further escalation, writes Michael Anderson:
HERE WE GO again – but this time it is different.
Loyalists waving Union Jacks, blocking roads, burning cars and attacking the PSNI with petrol bombs, rocks and evident lethal intent. News reports tell us that the cause of the rioting is a reduction in the number of days the Union flag can be flown above Belfast City Hall. Partisan politicians allege the restriction on flying “the national flag” is evidence of nationalist triumphalism and confirmation of a darker conspiracy to suppress loyalist culture. Unionists avoid the ‘condemn’ word with deft ingenuity as they outbid one another in their denunciations of Alliance.
Business as usual then? Not when one looks more closely – the anger is not with Sinn Féin and nationalists but with the Alliance Party – the traditional voice of moderation and compromise. It is the Protestant MP for East Belfast, and her party colleagues, who are being most vehemently attacked. Unionist internecine repertoires of antagonism are revived and the familiar language of besiegement, betrayal and discrimination are re-echoed.
So who are these loyalists, why they are so angry, and what are can be done to prevent their anger really getting out of hand?
The great fear for Unionists is that the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland will come to be recognised merely as a mere political arrangement – an inconvenient and even somewhat bogus one – and therefore vulnerable to manipulation, diminishment and in the end extinction. External threats tend to unify Unionism, but a special vehemence is reserved for ‘enemies within’ who betray their heritage – similar to the reviled position of the informer in nationalist tradition.
Loyalists suspect the unionist middle classes of putting their interests before that of the union. The loyalist working class however will remain ‘staunch’ and will fight hardest to preserve the Union. Loyalists are deeply suspicious of a deal being done that will “sell them out”. In this they do need to go further back to the truly seismic shock to Unionism of the Anglo Irish Agreement (1985) and the enormous sense of betrayal they felt at Prime Minister Thatcher making an agreement with the Dublin government without the knowledge or consent of the Unionist parties.
Belfast City Hall became the focal point of that dissent – the iconic ‘Ulster says No’ banner that draped the cupola and the mass meeting of 200,000 at which Dr Paisley repeatedly said No, No, No! The presence of the union flag on Belfast City Hall is therefore hugely symbolic – probably more so for loyalists than the tricolour above the GPO is to the people of Dublin.
The late UVF and PUP leader David Ervine put it succinctly when he said that loyalists were “those who were prepared to fight for the Union rather than just talk about it”. Ulster Loyalists see themselves as being a distinct cultural community forged out of a prolonged close quarter conflict with hostile Irish nationalist secessionists. This identity is essentially local but is nested within a wider British culture. The symbols of that link are British institutions, the Crown and (most immediately) the Union flag. In many ways they bypass politicians – both Stormont and Westminster – and owe allegiance directly to the Queen.
Restrictions on culture celebration
Loyalists who feel besieged by nationalist encroachment are vigilant in the extreme about the incremental erosion of their cultural autonomy. Loyalist working class have seen the loss of their shipbuilding and engineering industrial power base and the concrete way in which it was integrated into the Union. They have seen a systematic removal of the Crown symbol – starkly in the case of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The celebration of their culture is increasingly being restricted. The Orange parade at Drumcree was a watershed but it continues with limits on numbers, routes and even the playing of traditional tunes. Each reduction seems irreversible and the momentum unstoppable.
The anger is more that of the hurt of abandonment. The flag is prominent in the community narratives of hard work and sacrifice for the union. Belfast believes that its industrial contribution to WWII was decisive and well recognised by a royal visit by George VI and Princess Elizabeth. It was for this flag that so many Ulstermen and Shankill Road men in particular died on the Somme. The vehemence of the protest and the ferocity of its focus on the Alliance Party for its apparent “collusion” is revealing. Alliance MP Naomi Long (Peter Robinson’s constituency rival) among others is demonised as a “Lundy” (the governor whose intentions to surrender were frustrated by the Apprentice Boys in the siege of Londonderry 1691). She is the proxy for all the anger, resentment and hurt.
What can be done? Alliance has a good record on this issue. When former Alliance Chairman Tom Ekin was elected Lord Mayor of Belfast 2004 he filled the mayor’s office with the flags of the entire EU states – thus obviating the need to remove the Irish tricolour of his SDLP predecessor. Surely a little ingenuity and degree of magnanimity by Sinn Féin would check the sepsis threatened by gestural politics.
Dr Michael J. Anderson is a Political Science lecturer and Fellow at the Institute for British Irish Studies in UCD. His PhD thesis was entitled Identity Change and Power Shift: the Case of Loyalism in Northern Ireland. He has also conducted extensive interviews with the major political and administrative figures in UK and Ireland for the Irish Research Council Humanities and Social Sciences funded Breaking Patterns of Conflict Archive Project for UCD. You can contact Michael at firstname.lastname@example.org.