On Monday 3rd December, 2012, the Social Democratic & Labour Party and Sinn Fein members of Belfast City Council voted only to fly the union flag over the council halls on 20 designated days during 2013, with support from the Alliance Party. This vote was reached as a result of a compromise brokered by Alliance; the nationalist SDLP and Sinn Fein, who wish to eventually reconcile and reunite Northern Ireland with the Republic, wished to remove the flag altogther, whilst the unionist Democratic and Ulster Unionist Parties wished for it to remain there constantly.
Less than twenty minutes after the motion was passed, the unionist and loyalist protesters outside the building became violent, attacking opposing nationalists and republicans and police officers alike. Since then, the tensions have only escalated, with senior members of loyalist paramilitary forces such as the Ulster Volunteer Force (the paramilitary responsible for the majority of republican fatalities in the time of the Troubles, before the Good Friday Agreements) reportedly stepping in to orchestrate violent protests themselves. Roads have been blockaded, cars burnt out, police attacked with Molotov cocktails and Alliance Party members such as MP Naomi Long have had their houses and offices targeted by vandals.
Sectarian violence in Northern Ireland has never completely disappeared; and whilst a quintessential English Brit like myself, with my Westminster privilege and chronic apathy to most everything, cannot for the world see why it’s worth kicking up such a fuss about the situation, to those who have seen the political, geographic and economic conditions of their homes rapidly shift before their eyes in mere decades, the spectre of constant division, reunification, rebellion and disagreement must be a frightening one. Perhaps this explains why an event as seemingly insignificant as the removal of a flag has sparked such tensions.
I can’t help but feel, though, that this doesn’t really offer anywhere near the justification one would need to open fire with a lethal weapon at a police officer, as one 38 year-old loyalist has been arrested for doing, suspected of attempted murder. If you’re a ‘loyalist’, surely the one group of people you’re not going to be kicking off at are the police that are there to protect you?
Martin McGuiness has openly said that should the Scottish National Party have their way in 2014, and win a ‘Yes’ in a referendum on independence, he would be eager to see a similar question posed to the Northern Irish by 2016. Bearing in mind this is a man who eschewed the car bombs of the Provisional Irish Republican Army for the ballot box long ago, it doesn’t seem to be a winning argument for loyalists to be going round dragging Belfast back into the 1980s.
Unionists may not want to see their culture ‘die out’ in Northern Ireland; but at least to an extent, it will die out. As older generations disappear and youth are born into a culture of reconciliation and peace with the Republic of Ireland, and of steadily increasing trends toward sovereignty in the rest of the British Isles (see the SNP’s absolute majority in Holyrood and Plaid Cymru’s third party status in Senedd, 3 members behind the Conservatives), the memories of the Troubles will (hopefully) fade, and children will ask why their nation is separated along arbitrary borders.
The saddening questions that have to be asked here is whether some grace and understanding on the part of British politicians years ago may have stopped this unnecessary divide from ever happening, and whether loyalists genuinely believe that the tides of opinion moving against them (in this case, at least) will be stopped by the bullets and bricks of old.