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.

 Sectarian hatred

 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.

 Double cross

 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.


  1. This is the Socialist Party’s take on the riots:

    “Whilst the total numbers involved are relatively small there is no doubt that the issue has acted as a lightning rod for widespread dissatisfaction with the peace process which has built up over time in the Protestant community. There is real and genuine anger among large layers of Protestants. There is a sense that “everything is going in one direction”, that is, Protestants are losing out to Catholics. In the view of many Sinn Fein are pushing too hard for concessions-as Progressive Unionist Party (the PUP is linked to the UVF) leader Billy Hutchinson has argued “Sinn Fein are acting outside the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement”. This is the reason that the PUP have given for reversing their previous conciliatory approach on the flags issue. A banner displayed in the Mount Vernon, where Hutchison works as a community worker, proclaims “North Belfast Against Cultural Apartheid”.”

    The stuff that “the Protestants” believe is completely false as the article goes on to explain. They are blaming ‘the Catholics’ who are sufferings a great deal more than themselves. But not near enough for these vile reactionaries.
    “At the same time many Catholics CONTINUE TO BELIEVE that they are subject to sectarian discrimination. They hold that they are dealt with more harshly by the police. They believe that they are more likely to be poor and unemployed than Protestants. For historic reasons, reasons of geography and because of the RESIDUES OF SECTARIAN DISCRIMINATION, there are still differences between the two communities in economic terms. THE POVERTY RATE AMONG PROTESTANTS AT 19 PER CENT IS LOWER THAN THE 26 PER CENT RATE FOR CATHOLICS. IN THE THREE YEARS TO 2010 ON AVERAGE, 28 PER CENT OF WORKING-AGE PROTESTANTS WERE NOT IN PAID WORK COMPARED WITH 35 PER CENT OF CATHOLICS.”
    So the stuff that “the Catholics believe” is in fact true.
    But nonetheless we must be careful to avoid drawing and conclusion about whose beliefs are right and whose are far-right reaction;
    “The views expressed in each community are sometimes true, or partially true. (well done there, Ciaran !!) Sometimes however genuinely held beliefs are simply not true (surely not!!). The reason that such a complex situation can arise is that there are genuine interwoven grievances on both sides (as bad as each other!!). The real problem is that the peace process has failed to deliver for working class or young people whatever their background. The peace process has failed because under capitalism genuine peace, and real economic advancement for working people, is not possible. Under the structures established by the Good Friday Agreement it is assumed that everyone belongs to one or other of two mutually exclusive communities. Under capitalism all that is possible is a sharing out of political power, and a sharing out of poverty and unemployment.”
    “Whilst all sections of the Protestant community have been affected by the flag issue it finds its sharpest expression in the most deprived working class areas. THE RIOTING AND THE ROAD BLOCKS ARE IN PART A DISTORTED FORM OF CLASS ANGER DIRECTED AT THE UNIONIST POLITICAL ESTABLISHMENT REPRESENTED IN THE ASSEMBLY AND ON THE EXECUTIVE.”
    Class anger my arse. Was it class anger that drove some backward German workers to don brownshirts and attack Jews? Trotsky said they were the “storm troopers of finance capital” and that is what we are seeing emerging in Belfast. Of course it is a lie that the anger is PRIMARILY directed against the Unionist Political Establishment. It is only directed against them because they are NOT DOING THEIR TRADITIONAL JOB OF DISCRIMINATING AGAINST ‘THE CATHOLICS’ to a sufficient degree.
    So there are two kinds of rioters, some are reactionary and some just want to get more jobs by taking them off ‘the Catholics’. There are some who are out and out fascists and some who are only extreme right wing, so they are not so bad!

  2. Thanks to Gerry for digging this up. It’s dreadful but unsuprising. The SP have long been soft on the loyalist murder gangs.

    We can make an analogy with the EDL. Of course it thrives on poverty and resentment but on socialist in England thinks it necessary to make excuses for them. Everyone understands that they have to be defeated poltically and on the streets by mobilising against them. The people organising the flegs protests are like the EDL but they have guns and want pogroms. The Alliance Party liberalism in this article is inexcusable.

    My starting point for an analysis of the flegs protest is what’s normally called the “peace process”. This was a generational defeat for republicanism. The organisation which was held together by a programme calling for the destruction of the northern state and the defeat of British imperialism is now administering that state in coalition with the hard right DUP. This is only made possible by an explicitly sectarian division of power and carve up of the massive grants.

    That section of the Irish working class which has been mobilised on these protests is its most backward and reactionary group. Its street leadership is largely the same people who were were running the loyalist murder gangs. Their international points of reference are the EDL and the Israeli state. The number of Israeli flags in loyalist areas is quite unbelievable.

    Now while it’s true that a flag might not make for the tastiest snack the political programme of the demonstrators is quite clear. They want a return to untrammelled loyalist supremacy and while it’s true that many of them are poor the state’s own data show that 18 of the 20 most deprived wards in the north are Catholic. This craving for the old school Stormont sectarianism isn’t a fringe demand. One of the links below discusses the views of the “social development minister”, a reactionary bigot called Nelson McCausland. His views are those of the flegs protestors and he has a programme to put them into effect

    The union bureaucracy in the north is part of the problem. It runs scared of presenting a political challenge to loyalism and has nothing to say about sectarianism or state violence. It was co-opted by British imperialism long before Sinn Fein.

    Housing was the trigger for the 1968 revolt against the northern state. Council houses were distributed in an openly discriminatory manner. The ground is now being prepared for a new sectarian carve up of social housing as Mc Causland is proposing to abolish the Housing Executive, the body which administers it currently, and hand over publicly owned homes to housing associations. As sure as the sun sets these will be established on a sectarian basis and this is a recipe for the return to the old way of doing things.

    Gradually we are seeing the unravelling of imperialism’s sectarian settlement in the north of Ireland. The flegs protests are the opening shots in a prolonged period of sectarian trench warfare that will get worse as more and more austerity measures are pushed through in a statlet where the political class is bought of by British government grants and a lot of employment is in the public sector.

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