More on Flags Protest

Posted By: November 26, 2013

The Unionist/Loyalist/Protestant” flags protest” lumbers on … and on. It is costing millions of dollars and causing a PR nightmare for unionism.Ordinary people in England are totally confused. In England the Union Jack is used sparingly and soberly — like the Stars and Stripes in the United States — as befits the National Flags. But in Belfast, Unionists use the Flag as an excuse for everything : druken binges, rioting and very  “un-British” indignities.

Here a Belfast columnist reflects on ” the saddest effects” of this sorry spectacle .


Fionnuala O’ Connor. Irish News ( Belfast). Tuesday, November 26, 2013
EVEN those who try hard to screen out all local news know the “flags protests” began a year ago next week. The effects on unionist politics, the Alliance vote, on the residue of loyalist paramilitary organisation and on policing are all still developing, and worth watching. But the saddest effects are probably the least measurable.

A total of 260 people in Belfast have been convicted in relation to loyalist public disorder, the PSNI says. They have charged or “reported” 560 to the Public Prosecution Service for possible charges. Round numbers, those, perhaps neatened up, but still: 560 people is a sizeable slice of a modest-sized city. Say every charge affects another one or two family members or partners, which is surely a modest estimate. Who knows what that amounts to in terms of displacement, disquiet, fear and bitterness, relationships disrupted, in streets and families where even before this past year few had high hopes for themselves. The probability is the ripples spread farther still, though most if not all of the focus has been on a few exhibitionists who did the bulk of performing to cameras and microphones. Even using their names in print seems an unhealthy thing to do now, unkind to them, and yet for reporters looking for spokespersons on the streets the alternative was often near-wordless abuse and aggression. Some media comment calls this kind of assessment sectarian, snobbish, “classist”: a stern judgement, but with no follow-through in the shape of alternative reports. No amount of contrarianism, political correctness or wishful thinking can turn inarticulate agitation, organised by deliberately faceless and nameless individuals or ad hoc groups, into any kind of movement with political aims.

We have been here before, with loyalist paramilitarism. The saddest aspect of this past year has been the phenomenon of innocents, or semi-innocents, feeding themselves into the sausage-machine of CCTV, hours of police time, then the courts.

Making sad excuses for throwing sticks and stones or petrol bombs or denying any such offence, those charged have processed through Belfast courts week by week, explaining their presence in the middle of disorderly crowds as because they were drunk, looking for their friends, simply curious, occasionally as trying to stop the disorder. “A man knocked unconscious by a water cannon as he danced on top of a police Land Rover has been jailed for five months…after a ban on an Orange parade going past Ardoyne… seen pulling others out of the way so he could get at police…regrets his actions but has little memory of it as it happened amid a 12-hour drinking binge.”

Same day, different case: ‘Belfast Crown Court was told that police footage showed the defendant throwing stones at police and nationalists over a five-hour period. The defendant, from the Shankill Road but whose address was given as “of no fixed abode”, had his face covered for most of the day.”

As the waves of disorder foamed up, wavelets of unionist political ambivalence built up behind them and then trickled away into today’s pathetically muddled message. At the weekend’s DUP conference this came across, part spoken, part implied, as “it’s your right to protest but please don’t be violent this time – and you do know that it won’t put the flag back every day because more nationalists than unionists vote in Belfast now. So vote for us. Oh please.”

As far as the public have been told, purported efforts to provide alternatives to rioting have developed little further than the announcement of grand titles, the nominal leaders of unionism posing for the cameras with folders under their arms. If the forum that Peter Robinson described last January as “the most representative group in the unionist community in half a century” has had envoys in the courts – should we count that honour guard for Ruth Patterson? – they have kept it quiet. But the collateral damage goes on. Batches of photographs of “suspects” keep coming.

When the PSNI released 150 more last Monday they were open about their hopes, as the anniversary looms, of deterring repeat performances. These images came from the twelfth, and from August 8 and 9, the riots when loyalists tried to break up a nationalist parade. Hot summer. So hoodies and baseball caps, some in twilight, appear alongside the topless, tattooed and sunburnt. Some middle-aged to elderly, most in late teens, 20s to 40s. Laughing, yelling, chatting on a mobile shaded by a Union Jack visor, throwing something, wielding a stick: almost all painfully identifiable.

Most of unionism just looks away.