Returning to the fearfulness and narrowness of loyalist Belfast after a trip through the magnificent landscapes and massive social contradictions of South America is to come back to earth with a bump. But I had promised myself back in January that I would comment on the (then) recently published report¹ by a group of Queen’s University researchers on the flags protest in Northern Ireland in late 2012-early 2013 because of what it tells us about the current mood in the Protestant, unionist and loyalist community there (and because it went almost totally unreported in the Southern media).
The report does not make for happy reading for those of us who wish to see the North moving towards a more harmonious, less sectarian society. A striking feature of the interviews conducted with loyalists for the research was a common belief that there is a republican agenda to dilute Protestant and unionist culture, and the December 2012 decision by Belfast City Council (proposed by the Alliance Party) to fly the union flag only on specially ‘designated days’ was only the final straw which drove them onto the streets to protest and riot. Although only a tiny section of the overall unionist population actually took to the streets, and despite the violence accompanying many of the protests (and a policing bill of nearly £22 million), there was significant tacit support for them, with 46% of unionists polled six weeks after they started thinking they should continue.
The protesting loyalists saw the relationship between the two communities as “a hierarchical pairing, with unionists now playing the underdog and the Catholic community top dog.” This perceived reversal of the traditional roles in Northern Ireland (despite statistics showing that unemployment and poverty remain higher in many Catholic working class areas) makes them newly resistant to any cross-community exchange. “In the interviews we conducted the issue of Protestant/Catholic reconciliation did not arise unless raised by us,”said the researchers.
Instead, all the emphasis was on building unionist unity and imbuing young people with a deeper awareness of their unionist identity and history, with not a scintilla of understanding that a harmonious future for Northern Ireland must involve seeking some common identity with their nationalist neighbours. One cannot overstate the insecurity and fearfulness of these working class loyalists. In another, smaller study of the impact of the flags protest in the small mixed-religion town of Garvagh in County Londonderry², authors Will Glendinning and James Wilson concluded that the young protesting loyalists “see no purpose in conflict transformation as their cultural identity is built on a glorification of sectarian conflict, and they reject democratic politics as ‘it did not stop the flag from being ripped down.”
The view of a group of female flag protesters quoted in a third study³, this time of the impact of the protest in north Belfast, seemed to sum up the new depth of the community divide: “The idea of a shared future is one which doesn’t include unionists and loyalists. It is more about protecting their (republican) identity and one that will only see us (loyalists) as continuing to lose out.” Irish unity is no longer the principal threat, it seems, but republican determination to achieve equality within Northern Ireland.
The impact on community relations has been damaging. The Corrymeela Community’s director of development, Susan McEwen, noted that the UVF in Belfast had banned young people in some loyalist areas from going away to a Corrymeela-organised cross-community event over the 12th July Orange parades period, on the grounds that “it was sectarian to take young people away over the Twelfth because we were denying them their culture.” Debbie Watters, assistant director of AlternativesNI, a restorative justice project in the loyalist Greater Shankill area, said that cross-community work, if it takes place, was now much more difficult. Up to the time of the flags protest the young people she worked with didn’t see things “through the lens of the past” – now they do.
The Queen’s researchers point out that “within the loyalist community the most frequently voiced concern – or at least the most anguished – is the sense that ‘noone listens to us’. Any long-term planning of community relations must attend to this key reality.”
However the desire to be heard is not accompanied by any desire to listen to the nationalist community, or any willingness to acknowledge that nationalism has also had to make compromises during the peace process. The loyalist story is one of unending, one-sided loss for their people. “We have found nothing to challenge the analysis put forward by [Orange leader] Rev. Mervyn Gibson, that the peace accord was never sold to the loyalist community by the main unionist parties, and instead they are constantly warned of the dangers they face.” This is what unionism has been preaching for the past century and more: that they are surrounded by enemies who are constantly encroaching on their embattled northern fortress (or, more recently, their shrinking strongholds within that fortress). It is not a message that lends itself easily to the concepts of partnership and equality, let alone reconciliation.
The Queen’s researchers finish with two ‘modest recommendations’: firstly, they want a re-assessment of so-called ‘single identity work’ in Protestant and unionist areas – the kind of work that builds on unionist identity to give those communities the confidence eventually to engage with their neighbouring Catholic communities. They want a review of the efficacy of this work to see to what extent it is “moving people towards a reconciliation with those of the other tradition.” They stress that Northern Ireland will remain within a “power-sharing dispensation” and all communities (including the loyalists) must recognise and learn to live with this reality.
The second recommendation is much more ambitious. It is for the creation of a ‘shared vision, a people’s peace plan’ under which people who work in community relations, peace building, cross-border, ecumenical and reconciliation work take ownership of building a new, non-sectarian society in the North from the ‘tribal’ political parties, notably the DUP and Sinn Fein, who are for different reasons less than interested in this kind of extremely difficult but absolutely vital work. The most uphill part will be with the loyalists, but “without their involvement the passions that ignited the flag protests are likely to flare again.”
The Queen’s team end on a positive note. They point to two success stories in dealing with divisive symbols in the North’s recent history: the successful implementation of the Fair Employment Act’s 1989 code of practice prohibiting the display of flags, emblems or graffiti in the workplace; and the inter-party agreement on the six-flowered flax plant (one flower for each northern county) as the symbol for the Northern Ireland Assembly. Even in the beleagured North history can move, albeit in infinitesimal steps, towards a more harmonious future.
¹ The Flag Dispute: Anatomy of a Protest. Paul Nolan, Dominic Bryan, Clare Dwyer, Katy Hayward, Katy Radford, Peter Shirlow, Queen’s University Belfast.
² Flagging it Up. Will Glendinning and James Wilson, Church of Ireland St Paul’s Parish of Errigal and Desertoghill
³ Flag and Protests. Jonny Byrne, INTERCOMM