What’s in a Flag? | Alan Conway


Alan Conway considers the recent upheavals in Belfast that threatened to spill over on to our own front porch.

The ‘protests’ that have erupted in Belfast, and across the six counties in recent weeks, as well as the suggestion that the protest may be brought to Dublin, are mired in misunderstanding and misinformation. Up until recently the Union Flag has flown every day of the year above Belfast City Hall. This is despite it not being the norm for government buildings, be they in Belfast or London, and entirely a result of a Unionist majority membership of the Council. It can be imagined that during the good days of the 60s or 70s this was a way of reminding elements of the population of ‘who ran the show’; things have changed greatly across this island since then, and few places more so than Belfast.

Protest NightThe motion received cross party support, from Sinn Féin and the SDLP to Alliance Party (who only in recent years have taken the East Belfast Westminster seat from the DUP). The idea behind the motion? Simply to reflect what the latest census data tells us is the case in Belfast. The flag is still to be flown on the designated days of the year it flies in all government buildings across Britain and the North, and there has been little talk of raising the Tricolour next to it.

The response to the motion, however, is the most interesting facet of this tale. Firstly, we have seen masked gangs take to the street in the most carefully orchestrated shows of strength seen in the city for quite some time. It has become clearly apparent that the protestors are not a ‘spontaneous uprising’ of British patriots, as some would have us believe. Statements from the PSNI themselves have made it quite clear that the organisation of these ‘protests’ is in the hands of members of the Ulster Volunteer Force. Up to 70 members of the PSNI have been injured as a result in recent weeks, including in attempts upon the lives of the very officers seeking to restore order. What respect can such individuals have for a flag, when they have so little for officers of a force primarily made up of individuals loyal to it?

The point is further illustrated in the response to the protests from England itself; when former Conservative MP and Minister Edwina Currie states,
‘You’ve got hoodies in Belfast wrapping themselves in the Union flag, hiding their faces with masks and you just think “Ugh! Do I want to be associated with that? Is that my Britain?” No, it isn’t. I think they’re mad’,
then perhaps it is time to consider just how exactly best to express your allegiance. Further, the human cost of this reactionary riot has been sad and heartfelt. Small, local business struggling to trade, and in one instance a man attempting to visit his ill wife in hospital being greeted with cackles of ‘Cheerio, cheerio, cheerio’ by these ‘political protestors’.

The Short Strand

The response to these protests within mainstream Unionism has been the same as it always is. Key leadership figures have paid lip service to calling for an end to protests, but have they put in the time and hours in the communities to facilitate such a cessation? The answer has broadly been no. Until such a leadership is offered, working class Unionists will continue to be plagued by politicians who simply use them as a pawn in their own political maneuvers. All the while, issues that created the tension to allow an explosion of political activism in the 70s are failing to be progressed, and in some cases, actually regressing (see a mutual respect of culture and housing as two main issues).
The contrast between mainstream Nationalism and its constant condemnation of fringe elements, with the silence of Unionist leaders, particularly in relation to the recent attacks on the North Strand, cannot be understated. Elements within both communities seek a regression – however, it is only the political elite of one that is facilitating it.

Finally, there was the suggestion that these protests could come south to the doors of the Dublin parliament itself. Given the debacle that was Willie Frazer’s ‘Love Ulster Parade’, it was clear from the first iteration that there would be issues with such a parade going ahead. Now it appears it has been postponed, and is unlikely to take place in the future. All sides have a role to play in bringing about a peaceful resolution to the challenges currently faced in the north of this island, but it would be far more constructive if we can convince our own Tánaiste, Éamon Gilmore, to visit and engage with the effected communities during his visit north this month, than bring rioters back onto the streets of Dublin.

Edwina Currie quote courtesy of An Phoblacht.