Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now
Saturday 25 March 2023 Dublin: 7°C
# Protests
Timeline: How the flags drama unfolded in Northern Ireland
It began with a vote and ended with burnt-out offices, dozens of injuries and arrests, and a sense that a fragile peace had been disrupted.

IT BEGAN WITH a late-night vote at a local council.

By the end, more than two months later, dozens of people had been injured and more than 200 had been arrested as protests became an almost daily occurrence. Politicians had their offices burned out and their homes threatened; local businesses were forced to beg for business; and all the time, accusations flew about who exactly was to blame and whether their grievances were legitimate.

The protests about the flying of the Union flag over Belfast City Hall tore open a simmering tension among loyalists in Northern Ireland unhappy with their perceived marginalisation.

What started about as a protest about symbols and identity ended as a messy and violent clash over class and politics – and a question about whether the issue was being hijacked by people who just wanted a fight.

The council vote that kicked things off

The protests began before the meeting of Belfast City Council on 3 December had even ended. At that meeting, the nationalist-controlled council passed a motion significantly decreasing the number of days the Union flag flew over the building.

After 107 years of flying every single day, the flag was now to be flown for just 15 designated days during the year.

The motion itself was a compromise by the Alliance Party. The original motion put forward had called for the flag to be removed completely, arguing that its removal would create a more neutral and equal environment in the city. However that was seen as a bridge too far for some moderate councillors who saw the move as potentially increasing tensions in the city.

In the end, councillors voted by 29 to 21 to accept the compromise motion of 15 days, bringing the council building in line with what happens at Stormont, where the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive meets.

DUP councillor Christopher Staflord told the BBC there was “absolutely no excuse” for the violence which broke out outside the meeting – but added:

Those who started this debate should have known from the outset that it would stir up tension and cause division.

Other councillors took a different view. Marie Hendron of the Alliance Party said that the council had shown its commitment to a shared future with both Sinn Féin and SDLP voting in support of the Union flag for the first time in their history.

The protests begin immediately

Police officers guard Belfast City Hall as a mob approaches after the vote on Monday 3 December (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)

A crowd of around 1,000 had gathered outside the Council building for the vote and unrest soon broke out after the result of the vote became known.

A group of loyalist protesters tried to force their way into Belfast City Hall while councillors were still meeting. At least fourteen PSNI officers who were part of a heavy police presence on the night were injured, as well as a photographer for Associated Press and a security guard working at the City Hall. The violence spread into a nearby neighbourhood with bricks and bottles thrown at a Catholic church and a bus was hijacked.

The protests dispersed by around 10pm, but began again the following day –  and the next and the next.

In an indication of what was to come, many of the protests began peacefully but frequently ended in confrontations with PSNI officer. Some of the protests became running battles. Protesters began throwing bricks and projectiles at police who responded with water cannons and plastic bullets. At one protest outside the City Hall a week after the vote, some protesters burned a tricolour.

The protests became a daily occurrence and almost settled into a pattern.

Politicians are targeted

The police car which was petrol-bombed with a PSNI officer inside (Image: Screengrab)

As tensions ran high, the clashes spread outside of physical confrontations. A number of politicians had their homes and offices attacked. Alliance Party MP Naomi Long received a death threat and was advised to leave her home.  A petrol bomb was thrown at an unmarked police car in Belfast which was guarding Long’s office. A PSNI officer who was in the car was lucky to escape without injury, the PSNI said afterwards.

A Sinn Féin councillor on Belfast city council also received a death threat.  As the protests began to get worse, bullets were sent to the homes of a number of councillors, MPs, MLAs, and at least one journalist. Almost all were intercepted.

SDLP councillor Claire Hanna had shots from a high-powered ball bearing gun fired at her home, hitting the front windows and door.

The protests begin to change after Christmas

Loyalist protesters converge on Belfast City Hall on Monday 7 January (Photo: Paul Faith/PA Wire)

After a slight lull around the Christmas period, the protests came back – and they had changed. PSNI officers were now coming under sustained attack. Some protests were still taking place but increasingly the clashes with police were more closely resembling a mob.

On 6 January, the head of the Police Federation of Northern Ireland spoke out and said loyalist paramilitaries had hijacked the flags protests.

“[I have] absolutely no doubt whatsoever that this violence is being orchestrated by loyalist paramilitary organisations, and primarily by the UVF,” he said, adding that they were using it as an excuse to attack police.

This paramilitary group have been holding the local community to ransom.

The previous night 18 people had been arrested, more than 30 petrol bombs were thrown at police, as well as ball bearings, fireworks and masonry, and three attempted vehicle hijackings were reported.

One church minister told the Belfast Telegraph that many young people were taking part in “recreational” rioting.

The first three weeks in January saw some of the worst riots.  On 14 January, around 1,000 protesters marched on Belfast City Hall, many carrying large Union flags. Hours later, unionist and nationalist rioters threw projectiles at each other as police attempted to calm tensions.

Meanwhile loyalist leaders repeatedly emphasised that the protests were caused by the increased marginalisation of loyalists – in particular working class loyalists – in Northern Ireland society.

“I’m a hundred per cent sure [these protests] happened spontaneously,” Willie Frazer of the Ulster People’s Forum which began to be at the fore of many of the protests told the Daily Telegraph.

The flag was the final straw in the continuing erosion of everything we see as British.

Protesters began to tack a different tack: in mid-January: they began to hold road blockades at pre-ordained times, stopping public transport and stopping people from moving through the protest in what was called Operation Standstill.

The backlash

People campaign for peace in Belfast city centre to express their opposition to the protests (Photos: Paul Faith/PA Wire)

The backlash against the ongoing protests began soon after they became an almost daily exercise. Around 1,000 people took part in a cross-community Peace Gathering (see above) in Belfast city centre, as campaigners demonstrated their opposition to the recent unrest.

Some people in Belfast began Operation Sit-in, organised through Twitter and Facebook, encouraging people to frequent local businesses which had been damaged as people stayed away from Belfast city centre.

Moderate politicians continued to call for an end to the violence.

Simmering down

The issue around the actual flying of the flag was, in many ways, a misnomer. Sinn Féin had put forward the issue saying that people had complained about the Union flag being offensive and intimidating – but the actual number of complaints received was just six.

Further, two-thirds of people who visited Belfast City Hall said they had not even noticed there was a flag, according to a survey carried out by the council, and just 8 per cent were unhappy with it.

The violent protests have died down in the past week or so. At the end of January the PSNI and the Ulster People’s Forum met for what was described as a “frank and constructive dialogue” about the protests and agreed an end to the road blockades.

The running battles with the police have levelled off, with one report in the Irish Times suggested that the policing bill for the protests comes to more than £15 million.

The flag itself may have just been the spark that lit the fuse – but in doing so, it exposed a small but vocal section of young, working class unionists who say they are increasingly marginalised by the changes in Northern Ireland, but whose tactics are more focused on violence than conciliation.

Main image: Paul Faith/PA Wire

Read: Nearly four-fifths of NI voters would choose to stay in UK >