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DUP and UUP fanned flames of violent flag riots but lost control

Research from Queen’s says the parties did more than anyone to heighten tensions.

Loyalists confront police in the 2012 unrest.
Loyalists confront police in the 2012 unrest.
Image: PA Archive/Press Association Images

A DUP AND UUP pamphlet drop of 40,000 leaflets did more than anything to inflame tensions ahead of violent flag protests in Belfast in December 2012.

A study by Queen’s University Belfast entitled “The Flag Dispute: Anatomy of a Protest” says that the leaflet drop had a “catalytic effect” on the protests.

Furthermore, the research found that the role of social media during the unrest was “less important than has sometimes been speculated.”

The protests followed a vote by Belfast City Council to restrict the flying of the Union flag at the City Hall to 18 designated days each year.

The vote led to a riot and four months or protests in which 160 police officers suffered injuries and £21.9 million was spent on policing.

The study sought to carry out an analysis of the events and suggest ways of the improving the political and policing response.

The research looked at the political involvement in the run up to the protests and judged that the UUP and DUP had stoked tensions ahead of the City Hall vote:

There is no doubt that the 40,000 leaflets distributed by the DUP and the UUP had a catalytic effect in the run-up to the City Hall vote. It was this more than anything else which inflamed the mood at that point. Following the first riot however the political parties found the campaign had slipped out of their control.

“While they tried to regain the initiative by launching the Unionist Forum, their influence was very limited,” the report added.

The research found that the numbers actually involved in the protests were actually relatively small but that they had a significant degree of non-active support.

“Even in the protest heartland of east Belfast no more than 1% of the populations participated in the demonstrations,” the report reads.

“However there was considerable tacit support: a poll taken in mid-January showed that despite the violence and the losses to traders, 46% of unionists thought the protests should continue.”

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Social media

The report found that the role social media played in orchestrating the protest was overplayed in some quarters.

The research says that “Loyalists used blogs and Facebook to exchange news and build a sense of solidarity” but that “the more significant mobilisation came through the dense social networks of the loyalist community.”

The actions of paramilitaries was examined as part of the research with the authors saying both the UDA and UVF were involved in the protests, but “not as is sometimes assumed”.

“They were not executing a plan, or controlling the direction of the protest,” the report concludes. “Mostly it was an unhappy time for both organizations and served to exacerbate existing tensions within their ranks.”

The research was carried out by the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s  and was funded by the Community Relations Council and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

PHOTOS: 29 PSNI injured after latest night of violence in Northern Ireland >

Read: PSNI encouraged by latest union flag protest in Belfast >

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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