Six days of riots erupt in the 'New Northern Ireland'
A motion in Belfast to stop flying the British Union flag year-round touched off the riots, but the issues run deeper.
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Six nights of riots, death threats issued against politicians, and a constituency office set alight. Welcome to the "New Northern Ireland."Skip to next paragraph
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The cause? A motion passed Monday night by Belfast City Council to stop flying the British Union flag 365 days a year. The motion, brought by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labor Party (SDLP), to stop flying the flag altogether was defeated, but a compromise measure, brought to the table by the liberal Alliance Party, suggesting the flag be flown on 18 to 20 state occasions annually was passed. The compromise motion brings City Hall into line with government buildings such as Stormont, home of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Violence erupted immediately: approximately 300 pro-British loyalists immediately attacked Belfast City Hall, at the time hosting a Christmas market, breaking their way in using bolt cutters. In a confrontation with police, at least 19 people were injured, including 18 police officers and Associated Press photographer Peter Morrison.
Clashes have continued every night since, including serious violence, with police claiming it is orchestrated by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) paramilitary group. Homes and offices of the Alliance Party have been attacked and one Alliance lawmaker, Naomi Long, received a death threat. Police have charged 19 people since Friday.
Peter Shirlow, professor of conflict transformation at Queen's University Belfast, says the loyalist working class feels disenfranchised.
"The loyalist community can't make sense of what's happening [in the peace process]. They see it all as a one-way process," he says.
Mr. Shirlow, who has worked with loyalists in research projects, says despite unionism's goal – the maintenance of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom – being strengthened by power sharing, unionists still hark back to their glory days of majority rule.
"In unionism you have a romanticized view of the past: 'There was this nice wee [little] place and then the IRA came along and wrecked it.' Unionism is riddled with fear – the discourse is about future defeat."
There was a tense atmosphere in Belfast city center Saturday afternoon when approximately 1,500 loyalists gathered at City Hall to protest the decision to no longer fly the flag. Although the crowd had dispersed by 3 p.m., violence flared in east Belfast.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was in Belfast Friday, urged calm. Despite being welcomed by politicians on both sides, her appeals fell on deaf ears.