Belfast Flag riots – Unionists unite to reject conciliation for sectarian dominance
John McAnulty is a former Belfast city councillor. During a debate in the council chamber he referred to the British flag as “the butcher’s apron”, a reference to that state’s murderous imperial history. For saying that out loud he received death threats from the same murderous loyalist gangs behind the current mobilisations in Belfast. This is his analysis of what’s happening in the north of Ireland. It was written for the Socialist Democracy website.
“They are taking everything” proclaimed a Belfast loyalist, marching back from the trashing of the city hall, with a minor detour to attack a Catholic church: “Our marches, our murals, our bonfires – even the flag!”
The audience would have had difficulty in avoiding a tear or two if not for the fact that local councillors had voted on an amendment by the moderate unionist Alliance party, not to ban the Union Jack, but simply to stop flying it every day. Their sympathy might also have been constrained by the fact that the speaker was draped in the butcher’s apron and if thousands of symbols of British imperialism were not decorating the street behind him and public spaces across the North.
In fact the loyalists have a whole suite of flags, ranging from the union Jack to Orange flags, to regalia of death squads to pride of place for the Israeli flag, admired because of the bloody way the Israelis deal with opposition.
But the loyalist love for the British flag does not extend to all emblems. It is not so many years since there were mass scenes of sectarian hatred in the inner city loyalist enclave of Sandy row. The demonstrations, led by unionist assembly ministers, were based on the rumour that an Irish tricolour had been privately displayed inside a flat.
One of the significant precursors of the troubles was the Divis Street riots of 1966. Republicans mounted an election campaign and displayed a tricolour inside the election office. The Stormont regime had passed a law – the Flags and Emblems Act – that effectively made the display of the tricolour illegal. Ian Paisley took his first step on the road to power by threatening to lead a loyalist mob onto the Falls Road. The police saved him the trouble by attacking the office themselves. The outcome was sustained rioting that was only suppressed by imposing a state of siege in the area.
This is not some historical anecdote. The flags are in everyday use as expressions of dominance and as ways to threaten Catholics and discipline Protestant workers and their use has wide immunity from state intervention. The loyalists are declaring that society in the north of Ireland will continue to be dominated by assertions of loyalist supremacy.
The loyalist demonstrations are actually quite small. What has caused the crisis is the fact that they are not alone.
The unionist parties, led by Peter Robinson, carried out a hate campaign against the Alliance party in east Belfast – Robinson’s constituency base – involving a forged Alliance document. Unionists uttered formal condemnation of violence followed immediately by accusations of Alliance provocation and demands that the flag be re-instated. A “compromise” proposal was made that the flag fly constantly at the side of the city hall. Unionist ministers promised to compensate by an increased frequency of flag-flying at the Stormont assembly. When the relatively moderate unionist Basil McCrea said that the compromise should stand there were calls for his expulsion.
When the protests escalated to involve arson attacks on Alliance offices, attacks on councillor’s homes and death threats that extended to the local Alliance MP, the unionists, supported by Sinn Fein, refused an immediate recall of the Assembly.
The political complicity was endorsed by the role of the state. The police adopted an historic strategy known as “now boys now”, the phrase local cops use to calm down people they agree with, – a conciliation of loyalism that contrasts sharply with confrontations where republicans are beaten into the ground.
The application of this doctrine meant that a relatively small group of loyalists were able to briefly take over the centre of the City and trash the city hall. In later demonstrations bands of a dozen could deface political offices while standing within feet of the police and a slightly larger group of around sixty were able to torch a local Alliance office.
This policy of conciliation extends to the coverage by the local press, who often do not report the sectarian attacks accompanying the protests and frequently base any criticism on the PR effects on inward investment rather than on their sectarian and reactionary nature.
The burning problem here is that conciliation is not a response to loyalist revolt. It is the other way around – the loyalists, supported by the Unionist Party and the DUP, are revolting against conciliation.
So we have over a decade of offering a continuation of Orange marches, if only they will tone down the triumphalist sectarianism. We have Sinn Fein mobilising every year to police nationalist areas and blanket protest. The Shinners line up with the police to suppress trouble spots. The British, EU and Irish government rein down millions in bribes on the Orange Order.
The end result is yet more sectarian insult, openly supported on the street by Unionist ministers. The Orange leaders earn their money by saying they are sorry if some nationalists are upset and that local lodges are free to speak to their victims if they feel like it.
In the middle of the Orange demonstrations the paramilitary UVF organise riots in North Belfast. Weeks later chief constable Matt Baggott is guest of honour at the Progressive Unionist Party – front group for the UVF.
The city hall vote, which involved Sinn Fein voting for the display of the British Flag, which, rather than weakening British control in the North of Ireland, cements it, a vote which was intended to tone down sectarianism rather than challenge it – this vote has blown up in the face of the organisers and yet again thrown the long-term future of the bogus peace process.
One result of the present conflict was an exposure of the hidden mechanism of conciliation – a semi-secret procedure only made evident when UDA “brigadier” Jackie McDonald, himself the recipient of endless bribes from the Irish government, announced a loyalist withdrawal. The “flags protocol” involves local meetings between loyalists and republicans to restrict the frequency and type of flags flown at interfaces. The negotiations are again liberally lubricated by state bribes and are self-evidently designed to formalise sectarianism, not to oppose it.
A Journey together?
In the aftermath of the Orange debacle Sinn Fein dispatched their President, Declan Kearney, to London to complain about the unionist double-cross. “We are all on a journey together” he intoned. The unionists, he said, were struggling to keep up.
This fantasy only exists in Sinn Fein’s head. It is true that they are on a journey, as with many other former national liberation movements, they have moved from opposing imperialism to the role of willing henchmen. The same is not true of unionism. Back in charge of the administration in a sectarian colony, their only concern is to recreate the repressive prison camp that existed here before the rise of the Civil Rights Movement.
While no-one can say what the resolution of the present crisis will be, the mechanism is clear. Steps will be taken to conciliate loyalism and further bribes thrown in their direction. The difficulty will be to stop short of simply erecting the flag again, humiliating Alliance and Sinn Fein and undermining the credibility of the peace process. In no case will the routine everyday of naked sectarian intimidation under the cover of the British flag be questioned.
The process has been going on for years; conciliation – loyalist revolt – a shift to the right – more conciliation – more revolt – more shift to the right. As with all processes of movement it requires energy and the fuel is provided by a steady erosion of the credibility of Sinn Fein.
As George Galloway said about the fall of Mubarak; “there is a straw that breaks the Camel’s back – if you knew which straw it was you wouldn’t put it on.” The grip of Sinn Fein is still strong. The culture of corruption and bribery rules. But that last straw exists, and at some point it will be put on the camel’s back.