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. 

By , Correspondent

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    A protester draped in the Union Flag stands in front of Belfast's City Hall Dec. 8. At least eight police officers were injured in Northern Ireland overnight in riots, which followed several nights of violence, provoked by a decision to remove the British flag from Belfast City Hall.
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Six nights of riots, death threats issued against politicians, and a constituency office set alight. Welcome to the "New Northern Ireland."

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.

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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.

Feeling disenfranchised

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.

Clinton visit

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.

John Kyle of the Progressive Unionist Party, a small political party linked to the loyalist UVF, says working-class unionists are alienated from both wider society and wealthier unionists, and feel their right to express their British identity is under assault from all sides.

"If you take away the opportunity for social development, all that's left is your culture – and whether middle-class people like it or not, [the] working class [loyalists] like parading," he says. "I have never known there to be such emotion and anger."

Mr. Kyle questioned claims the violence was organized by the UVF.

"This is a Tahrir Square moment; it's a Facebook reaction. It's organized by social networks and is an authentic response, albeit aided and abetted by people who want to cause trouble," he says.

Remains unsettled

As reported in the Monitor in September, despite a power-sharing government, a 16-plus-year peace process, and the political isolation of armed dissident groups, Northern Ireland remains unsettled with frequent outbursts of street violence, particularly during the summer months when Protestant fraternal organizations take to the streets to parade, often to the chagrin of Irish nationalists. 

It's all a far cry from the euphoria of the late 1990s when the guns finally fell silent. Since then, talk of a return to "normality" has never been far from the lips of politicians and commentators – it just never seems to quite happen.

Northern Ireland's First Minister, Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), told his party conference in November many Catholics were disenfranchised because they were represented by "left and far-left policies," taking aim at the SDLP and Sinn Féin.

Mr. Robinson went on to say he was "the leader of a party that seeks to represent the whole community [and was] not prepared to write off over 40 percent of our population as being out of reach", implying conservative Catholics could and should vote for his party. This is highly aspirational, given his party has historically been the voice of unionist resistance to accommodation with nationalists.

Economics over national allegiances?

But with two largely conservative unionist parties – the DUP and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) — the same could be said about Protestant voters. All Northern Irish parties are alliances of left and right, though nationalist parties do tend to tilt leftward and unionists rightward.  It remains an open question whether economic policy can or will overtake national allegiance in the privacy of the voting booth. This week's violence suggests not.

Both the DUP and UUP distributed leaflets condemning the proposal to quit flying the flag in the run-up to the vote.

Back on the ground, the recent conflagration was avoidable, many say.

Mick Fealty, who runs the Slugger O'Toole political discussion website, says the flag motion should never have brought to the table.

"What we've got here is a situation where two cultures carry two different sets of values. British culture, which is actually the sovereign culture, is seen as provocative," he says.

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