Why are the flag protests still going on?

Loyalists march in Belfast waving British Union flagsWhen I first posted on the flag controversy I argued that the issue was not one of identity or culture or any supposed rights attaching to either of these but one of intimidation; as clear as day from the moment protesters attempted to get into the City Hall as the vote was taken. In fact it was clearer even earlier when the two main Unionist parties put out leaflets in East Belfast in a transparent attempt to prepare for the ousting of the Alliance Party MP.  Unionists had already supported flying of the flag on designated days, and not every day, in Lisburn and presumably the protesters hadn’t then noticed any loss of identity or culture.

As the protests have continued their intimidatory character has become more obvious: from preventing people getting to hospital to attacks on political representatives to attacks on Catholic homes in the Short Strand area of East Belfast. As the violence has increased the number of arrests by the police has fallen. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has stated that it is not possible to arrest those flagrantly breaking the law which is, of course, an open incentive to continue to do so.

The numbers involved have been relatively small, the core rioters have been youths and the PSNI have pointed to individuals in the paramilitary UVF as being responsible for organising the rioting. The protests, even the ‘peaceful’ ones, have been characterised by sectarian displays.

The political organisation behind the protests, in so far as it exits, is composed of marginal, relatively unknown figures or individuals with little political credibility. Their call for a return to direct rule by the British State was seen as confirmation of their marginal status and further betrayed their sectarian objective and its lack of any democratic content.

While unionist politicians have attempted to rationalise and defend the motivations of the protesters these have been exploded by the actions of the protesters themselves. So they hold up the union flag demanding ‘Hands off our Flag’, with the ‘our’ underlined. In other words the union flag is a Protestant flag and is to be defended as a sectarian symbol.

Having originated in an opportunist attempt by unionist politicians to unseat the Alliance Party the issue was initially held up as one of the right to fly the union flag 365 days a year. The acceptance by republicans that instead it could fly on the Queen’s birthdays (she has two) or the Earl of Wessex birthday etc. etc. is held up as a stunning denial of Protestant cultural rights and identity. As if understanding the absurdity of this, spokesmen for the protesters and others have listed a catalogue of grievances of which the flag issue was ‘just the straw that broke the camel’s back.’ All grievances have been blamed on republicans and nationalists.

This list includes unemployment, educational disadvantage and a supergrass trial that threatens to put some leading UVF figures behind bars. The latter is reported by some journalists as the real reason this organisation continues to keep the protests going. None of these are the result of action by, or the responsibility of, nationalists and republicans. Unemployment, educational disadvantage and poverty are the responsibility of the State from which they wish to be directly ruled and the worst areas for social and economic disadvantage are still by and large Catholic.

The idea that Protestants are unable to express their Britishness, which the more it is expressed the less those who are British recognise themselves in it, is risible. As we have said ‘Hands off our Flag’ is an expression of sectarianism, and they still want it 24/7/365 irrespective of all the other complaints.

So what we have then are relatively small protests involving mainly youths and a hard core of Loyalist paramilitaries some of whom might be facing serious criminal charges in the not too distant future. The political leadership of the protests is extremely weak and is denounced by all mainstream unionist leaders, if only for party political purposes – the Democratic Unionist Party now claims it is the target of the protests, how ironic.

The complaints of the protesters are blamed on those with nothing to do with their grievances and their demands vary over time and are in turn incoherent and contradictory. We are asked to feel their pain as they attempt and often succeed in widespread and sometimes random acts of intimidation on everyone else, regardless of religious background. There is no doubt that the vast majority of the population is fed up with the protests and there is limited appeal for incoherent violence. Many, like the State itself, have assumed, and still assume, that they will burn themselves out.

So how come the protests are able to continue? The most immediate answer is the one we have mentioned. The police have let them. It is assumed by many that once the protests are over the PSNI will quietly round up the miscreants but there is limited reason to assume this. The Chief Constable, fresh from conferring legitimacy on the political front of the UVF by attending and speaking at its conference last year has really said they can do nothing now to stop them. However the loyalist paramilitaries are thoroughly penetrated by the British security services and have in the past been financed, armed and provided with intelligence by them.

The PSNI has said that around 4,000 have taken part in recent protests and they can’t ‘wade in’, ignoring that single republican demonstrations of greater number have in the past received exactly this treatment. The point is not to demand such repression on loyalists because the forces of the state are clearly not an answer to loyalist paramilitarism.

This immediate answer is also the deeper answer. For all their small size and the opprobrium heaped upon them the protesters are not as isolated as they appear.

It was mainstream unionism which kicked the protests off. Their rank and file political representatives have appeared regularly on the protests and their leadership has endorsed their demands. The loyalist paramilitary leaderships have not disowned and expelled their wayward local leaderships and the unionist political parties and paramilitaries have come closer together, most visibly in the new unionist forum. The nationalist and republican parties have called on these mainstream unionist parties to do the right thing as the peace process deal they have sold themselves into necessitates an alliance with unionism. Coalition government is what they have demanded for decades and they have no other strategic perspective. In this way they are prisoners of their unionist partners in government just as they are now wedded to political support for the PSNI.

So the protesters are tied to the unionist parties by their function as foot soldiers for ‘peaceful protest’, by ideology and their ties to loyalist paramilitaries. The state sponsors these paramilitaries but like rabid dogs are not under total control. The paramilitaries are working more closely with the unionist parties and these unionist parties are in government with nationalists and republicans, who are clinging to them for a solution because they value their role in government above all else, including what being in it can actually deliver.

All this is understood by many people if not in quite the way just explained. There is for example the understanding that if the police went in tough to arrest violent protesters or simply to prevent obstruction of the roads this could trigger wider involvement by paramilitaries. Unionist parties might then row in to excuse, justify and attempt to gain control of the protests. The republican and nationalist policy of hugging these unionists would be put under strain and the potential would thereby be created that the existing careful political deal could unravel. This of course is an extreme but not inconceivable scenario.

It is not that the state forces could not succeed in facing down this challenge because it is still unlikely the majority of the population would engage in open rebellion but the existing political dispensation would come under extreme stress. For the British state there might be no victory.

Should they capitulate to the most rabid expressions of sectarian intimidation they leave themselves open to similar challenge in the future and in the meantime convince the nationalist population nothing has really changed – they continue to live in an orange state where loyalist sectarianism sets the rules. If they win they run the risk of inflicting the sort of defeat on unionism that republicanism has just suffered. This led republicans to giving up their armed campaign, accepting partition, accepting Stormont, supporting the police, disarming and then dissolving the IRA. Were a similar defeat inflicted on unionism where goes the basis for British rule and a separate Northern state?

The existing policy of softly, softly or bribes to the criminals involved is therefore an attractive option, as might some concession on flag waving at the City Hall, except that it works only in the short term. Instead of an immediate crisis a gangrenous corruption discredits the state and eats away at its foundations and its legitimacy.

All this reflects that the population of the north of Ireland is still bitterly divided as is the working class despite the hot air about the new modern Northern Ireland, its peace process and the solving of an 800 year old Irish question.

This does not mean that nothing can be done by those seeking to awake from this nightmare of history but this requires that we also stop dreaming that this nightmare is something other than what it is and speak the truth, however unpalatable. There is no progressive impulse behind the protests. They are entirely reactionary and they should be opposed be anyone who considers themselves anti-sectarian. This opposition needs to be organised and make its presence felt. Only then can a path be chartered out for the many workers, Protestant and Catholic, trapped inside this sectarian state.

1 thought on “Why are the flag protests still going on?

  1. I took a risk with my mental health last night and tuned into the Nolan television show and what a show it was. I thought I would soon switch it over but I didn’t for it turned out to be about the so called flags revolution. It was like watching a new version of that famous movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a 1975 drama film directed by Miloš Forman that featured Jack Nicholson playing the part of Randle Mac McMurphy a recidivist anti authoritarian criminal who elects to go into the mental ward to escape doing hard labor. In this updated version his part was taken over by Gerry Kelly
    McMurphy’s ward is run by an uncompromising Nurse called Mildred Ratched , who employs personal humiliation, unpleasant medical treatments and a mind-numbing daily routine to suppress the rational thoughts of the patients just like Nolan does..McMurphy finds that the other patients are more focused on Ratched than they are on becoming functional in the outside world. McMurphy (Gerry Kelly) establishes himself immediately as the centre of attention; he his scrutinized by fellow patients including Billy Bibbit , a nervous simpleton , in this version played by the young loyalist born again Jamie Bryson ,Charlie Cheswick a man disposed to childish fits of temper just like the Red Hand Cammando and one time PUP spokesperson Jim Wilson . Then there was Martini who is wholly delusional just like our own like Willie Frazer. There was Dale Harding, a well-educated paranoid; a role ably taken up by Jeffrey Donaldson. Also in for treatment was Max Taber, someone belligerent and profane like a good part of last nights Nolan’s audience. Finally there is “Chief” Bromden a silent American Indian believed wrongly to be deaf and mute just like the the current secretary of State Theresa Villers.

    In the original film version our hero MacMurphy ended up being lobotomized by nurse Ratched before he could make good his escape, in this version Gerry got away in the nick of time.

    Despite the lunatic setting I became determined to make some sense out of it. The first thing is that the new independent loyalists showed themselves to be without any ideas of there own. As soon as Donaldson made a ranting pitch for their support he won them over very easily. His verbal assault on Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party received the loudest cheer of the night from the mainly working class loyalist audience that is supposed to have fallen out of love with the DUP. His proposition that the Belfast City Hall decision to fly the flag on designated days was tantamount to NATIONALIST MAJORITY RULE over the consensus rule of the past is of course laughable. But the loyalists loved it, shouting traitor! and such like at the worried looking Alliance leader David Ford. Jim Wilson even declared it to be the last days of the Alliance Party in Protestant areas. Was this a threat or just a prediction?

    It also emerged that the flags crowd have formed a ten man leadership committee, a committee of the disunited. The set of demands are of course : the flag has to back up over city hall.
    Then one sided investigations about the past have to stop, the demonisation of the security forces of the past has to stop, there must be an inquiry into how the peace money of the European Union was spent. The demand for return to direct rule is not agreed by all on the committee.

    These demand fit well with the known character of the committee: Willie Frazer a self appointed Protestant victims crusader,, north Down Pastor Mark Gordon a reformed glue sniffer turned UDA preacher, Johnny Harvey ex RAF man, Jamie Bryson author of a fiction book called’ Four men had a dream’ a fantasy story about the rebirth of Rangers football club and another called ‘Fifty shades of God’about born again religion.

    These other demands are the ones the British and Irish governments will try to work on to get the violent protesters off the streets. Two things stand out after the flag of course, peace money and likely police investigations. Willie Frazer was filmed on the street arguing with Jim Wilson about attacks on the police. The loyalist gangs are not yet ready to break from the peace process. They really envy Sinn Fein in getting the most out of it and equate Sinn Fein with financial gains, not of course enjoyed by the voters of Sinn Fein because they only ever see and meet Sinn Fein activists. At one telling point during the verbal exchanges Gerry Kelly conceded WE have gained from the peace process then a moment later he said that 36 of the 40 most deprived wards were Nationalist. The UVF most of all want an end to HET investigations, the PUP spokesperson on Nolan stressed as a primary grievance how 89 cases out of 92 are being directed against loyalists. The other half of the disunited committee are Willie Frazer types who are closer to the Traditional Unionist Voice and really do want to bring the Stormont House down, yet they are not so keen on attacking the police and so are powerless without the loyalists gangs..

    Will they continue to protest? YES, but the UVF/PUP is up for a bribe or handouts and may call things to a halt quite suddenly if offered. The others will end up either in the DUP proper or the TUV and on last nights showing there will be no new political party or platform. The young loyalists will stay in there bellicose sectarian bands and come out for the riots whenever they are called up. The save out flag protest will be commemorated every year with a new band parade past some sectarian hotspot. Sinn Fein and the DUP have too much to loose to fall out over this. Sinn Fein will try to help the DUP not to panic – this is the meaning of wanting to talk to the Unionists. In today’s Irish News Tory boy Newton Emerson is much more critical of the inaction of the police than is Jim Gibney The Belfast Traders will get some sort of rate rebate rather than a crude bung.

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