by Kevin Meagher
The troubles have ended, but Northern Ireland’s culture war is in full swing.
Last week’s vote by Belfast city council to limit flying the union flag above the city hall and a couple of other municipal buildings from 365 days a year to twenty has resulted in a week of rioting, attacks on the police and death threats to moderate politicians of the Alliance party.
Last night a police car parked outside the office of its deputy party leader, East Belfast MP Naomi Long, was set on fire by a loyalist gang – while an officer was still inside (thankfully he escaped unhurt). There was also rioting in south Belfast, causing the police service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to deploy water cannons (which have never been used in Britain).
A trifle of an issue for most Britons, the decision over the flag was, for a loyalist community that famously paints its kerbstones red, white and blue, a decision that cut to the wick. Loyalism, a creed that is filled with suspicion and the narrative of betrayal – both real and imagined – now believes the Fenian hordes are banging at the gate.
One by one their cherished citadels fall. Stormont, that bulwark of unionist ascendancy, is now home to a power-sharing arrangement that sees unionists sit down not only with Catholics, but former IRA men.
The “right” of their loyal orders to parade (never march) through predominantly Catholic areas is now curtailed by the hated parades commission, (surely the British state’s most idiosyncratic quango?)
Now Belfast city hall has gone the same way: de-Britishised, as loyalists see it, by the removal of the flag. In this see-saw calculation, for nationalists to win, unionists must have lost. Whether it’s the flag, Orange parades or jobs, they are a people whose overwhelming sense is having come down in the world since the days of Edward Carson’s boast that he was creating a protestant parliament for a protestant people.
Loyalists – paleo-unionists – are right to sense the dying of the light.
The sacrifices of the Somme, (including four VCs on the first day for men of the 36th (Ulster) Division), used to exemplify the lengths protestants were willing to go to for to the British crown. But it’s a collective UK memory that has faded with the passage of time; diluted too, with the growing recognition that tens of thousands of other Irishmen also fought for Britain, for a diametrically opposite cause.
Decisions like the Belfast flag vote are inevitable. The equality strand of the Good Friday agreement was always going to be a hard sell for working-class Protestants. Power-sharing has a big downside if you have traditionally held all the power, doubly so if you spent five decades abusing it.
Of course, rows over the flying of a flag are unfathomable to people here in Britain. David Cameron was right when he once said that erecting flagpoles in our gardens is not something we go in for. Hence the reason why people are looking askance at goings on across the Irish sea this week.
No-one in British politics cares very much about Northern Ireland these days. Truth to tell, they never have. For the first fifty years of Northern Ireland’s 90-year existence a unionist political establishment gerrymandered its way to electoral and political dominance, brutalising the Catholic minority population in the process. For the next twenty-five years the place was a war zone.
Then came the peace process and devolution, the price of which is that Northern Ireland now feels even more different – and farther away than ever. Apart from shadow Northern Ireland secretary Vernon Coaker, you will struggle to find any reaction at all to the events in Belfast from across the British political establishment. Downing street is silent.
This disinterest is compounded by the shifting cast of characters involved. Times have changed. It’s not Catholics rampaging through Belfast. It’s not republicans setting fire to cars and attacking the police. And it’s not the IRA setting fire to the offices of a rival political party and making death threats to councillors and a member of parliament.
So loyalism has found itself in a strange place – as its more sophisticated operators realise. Weak and splintered, unionist politics does not adequately represent working-class protestants any more. Some loyalists even look on enviously at Sinn Fein’s success in galvanising working-class Catholics to their cause.
But as the Shinners reinvent themselves, they, in contrast, are left leg-humping a Britain that has long forgotten them. Of course it doesn’t help that loyalism is now a creed that rejects the rule of law, democratically taken decisions and lacks basic respect for the authorities; precisely the qualities it has always espoused.
It is, in those terms, hardly loyal at all these days.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut