When 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.