Britain Northern Ireland
Wrapped in the flag
The loyalist protests in Belfast have almost nothing to do with politics. That is why they are so alarming
OVER the past six weeks flag-draped protesters have become part of the Belfast landscape. Loyalists arrange demonstrations and road blocks—up to 80 a night—on social media, which means local residents usually know roughly where they will take place. Belfast’s bus company, Translink, tweets rolling updates on which services have been disrupted; taxi drivers get the news from their dispatchers. On days when many protests are expected, rush hour starts early; by evening, normally busy roads are almost deserted.
The protests began on December 3rd, when Belfast city council voted to limit the number of days the union flag is flown over the city hall to about 20 a year, mostly national holidays and royal birthdays. In Northern Ireland the flag has a political meaning. It is not just a reminder that the province is part of the United Kingdom but a visual statement that it must remain so. To many Catholics—who may now outnumber Protestants in Belfast—it is also a reminder of a less equal past. Unionists on the city council voted against the restriction on flag-flying. But few were prepared for what has followed.
Loyalist protesters, mostly from inner-city housing estates, have taken to the streets night after night. Wearing masks and singing sectarian songs, they have all but shut down Belfast’s city centre. On bigger nights, up to 2,000 may be involved. Most are fairly peaceful, although police have been pelted with bricks and petrol bombs (and by blocking roads and covering their faces, protesters are breaking the law). Predicting which gatherings will turn sour is difficult: the protesters appear to have no leaders. Spokesmen occasionally appear, but most are wild-eyed ranters—“headcases”, in Belfast argot.
The unpredictability of the protests is just one of the problems facing the police. Around 100 protesters have been arrested since early December and more than 60 officers have been injured. The police have used baton rounds (plastic bullets) and water cannons against the rioters, but they are treading carefully. As well as hooded thugs, the protesters include old folk and young mothers pushing babies in prams. Senior officers fear that uproar would follow any injuries, so they generally allow the roads to be blocked.
The effect on Belfast’s economy is chilling. Usually busy shops and restaurants are empty on many evenings, while hotels report that people are cancelling their visits.Northern Ireland’s devolved government has recently been trying to boost its economy by luring tourists and foreign businessmen. A glitzy new exhibition centre dedicated to the Titanic (a ship built in Belfast) opened last spring. Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness—the country’s unionist first minister and his republican deputy—visited China in November to drum up business and will soon go back. The rioting is undoing these efforts. Investors have become jumpy, says the local branch of the Confederation of British Industry, a lobby group.
The riots have not yet threatened the peace process. Unionist politicians, even from the once-hardline Democratic Unionist Party, have condemned the violence while defending the flying of the union flag. The protests are less political than cultural—they reflect a sense among poor Belfast Protestants that Catholics are getting everything they want and that unionist heritage is being erased. The protesters appear to have no demands other than restoring the flag, though one hot head has called for a return to direct rule from Westminster—in effect, tearing up the country’s fragile peace. Unionist leaders have set up a forum to talk about flags and other loyalist complaints, but the protesters are not co-operating.
The lack of a clear political motive makes the explosion of loyalist rage more dangerous rather than less. An angry group seemingly beyond the reach of politicians or rational arguments cannot be easily tackled.Northern Ireland’s fragile peace has held only because fierce political enemies have been able to control their constituencies and deliver functional government. If they lose the ability to control the streets, their authority could follow. These disturbances may burn out, only to flare again unexpectedly.
One thing is clear: the cash-strapped Westminster government cannot pour money into Northern Ireland, as it has in the past when trouble has flared. Unemployment, which has doubled since the start of the financial crisis in 2008, is likely to stay high, creating more idle hands. Northern Ireland’s devolved government will have to cope with this problem by itself. It is quite a test.