On Monday 3 December 2012, the elected councillors of Belfast City Council voted to fly the union flag on its Belfast City Hall headquarters on 19 designated days, rather than the 365 days policy which had been in place. It may seem like a rather minor amendment to the innocent ear, but in Northern Ireland, it has sparked discontent, which over a month later, still lingers in the city.
The proposal to bring the flag down originated from pro-United Ireland nationalist/republican politicians within the city's council. It faced predictable opposition from the pro-union unionist parties, with loyalists regarding its removal as an erosion of their Britishness. The Alliance Party, Northern Ireland's neutral, non-tribal party, held the casting votes and decided that a designated day approach provided a fair alternative. Prior to formalising its stance, the party had reviewed other UK councils and it should be noted that the designated day policy remains the status quo at NI's Stormont Buildings - the home of the NI Assembly.
Reactions to the decision have however been hostile from Unionists. Passionate speeches echoed around the chamber on that night in December, as many saw it as a case of chipping away at their British culture. Unionist parties had distributed leaflets in advance of the vote, highlighting the Alliance Party's role, claiming it had undermined Northern Ireland's 'shared future'. The desire for nationalist/republican parties to remove the flag was unsurprising in unionist circles, but some felt betrayed by the Alliance Party.
The emotions of the councillors soon poured onto the streets. Outside the Council sitting, as the decision was made, hundreds of loyalists protested outside the Belfast City Hall. While many protests have remained peaceful, a significant number, particularly in Belfast, have however turned violent. Many have hijacked them for their own needs or recreational rioting, an all too popular pursuit in Northern Ireland, in terms of both participation and spectating - rioting which has been reciprocated by some Republicans in East Belfast's Short Strand in recent days. Inspire a generation, eh?
And who are the victims? The Alliance Party was an initial target, with two of its councillors receiving a paint bomb through the window of their Bangor home; the party's offices came under attack in East Belfast, whilst a serious threat has been posed to the lives of Northern Ireland's police service (PSNI) over the last number of weeks.
The other victim is Belfast's Economy. The run-up to Christmas saw huge interruptions in the capital; from roadblocks to rioting, which predictably dissuaded commerce in the city, much to the dislike of traders in the city. The events also played havoc with the city's Continental Market, adding another blot in the copybook of the 'Northern Ireland' brand.
Happy New Year?
Following a Christmas hiatus, the protest has however returned with renewed vigour, in both peaceful and riotous forms. The statistics tell their own tale though: tens of officers injured, over 100 arrests, petrol bombs and burnt out vehicles on the streets of Belfast. Not exactly a Happy New Year.
"Our time, our place" was the tagline adopted by Northern Ireland's Tourist Board for 2012. Sadly however, times have changed very little for the United Kingdom's ugliest sibling. Derry/Londonderry enters 2013 as the UK's City of Culture - a city so culturally divided that its inhabitants, egged on by political representatives, can't so much as agree on its name. This type of behaviour again typifies the province's pedantic, political landscape in a country.
Should we be surprised?
Given the political framework of Northern Ireland it is perhaps unsurprising that such a situation persists. The power-sharing executive is fronted by the ideologically polarised Unionist First Minister, Peter Robinson and deputised by Republican, Martin McGuinness. It's not so long ago that getting their respective parties to talk to one another was an accomplishment.
This is all of course a result of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which paved the way for decommissioning and the new assembly. For some however, there has been a democratic deficit ever since, specifically in working-class loyalist areas. The only inkling of any malaise at the ballot box has however been seen in unionist voting turnout, but in spite of any disillusionment, both the DUP and Sinn Féin still firmly hold the balance of power in their respective communities.
Ulster People's Forum
One body to come to prominence during the protests is the Ulster People's Forum(UPF) - a body with a mixture of ambitious demands, uncorrelated ideas and dubious claims, seemingly representing a small section of estranged loyalists. Its members have been present at many of the protests, though the group has categorically condemned the violence. It has however claimed that the PSNI has been over-zealous in its policing and at one point attributed the increased Catholic membership of the police force a possible reason.
The UPF's plan to protest in Dublin has added another wonderful dollop of petrol to uneasy flames in Dublin, a city largely ignorant to the on-going charade of Northern Irish politics. The group intends to remove the Irish flag from Leinster House, the Irish Parliament Buildings, in opposition to the Irish Republic's interference in the north. What this can or will achieve is extremely unclear, beyond the possibility of an adverse reaction from republicans in the south.
Freedom of speech is one of the wonderful freedoms of democracy and political activism is of course to be admired. Since the initial protests, they has served little but a futile disruption of day-to-day life and an easy excuse for various delinquents to hijack them. And let's not forget this originated from a democratic decision. Perhaps the protesters ought to seek justifiable solutions, reasonable demands and a respectable mandate before they come knocking on the door for change.
The Union Flag returns to Belfast City Hall on Wednesday to mark the birthday of the Duchess of Cambridge. Will the protests stop? For one day, maybe.
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