Turmoil over the issue of the flying of the union flag has now continued across Northern Ireland for six weeks. The protests, blocking of roads and frequent rioting began on 3 December when Belfast City Council voted to fly the flag over City Hall on seventeen “designated days” only rather than 365 days a year. Since then there have been protests almost every day-including a small protest on Christmas Day itself.
On some nights as many as 80 roads have been blocked. Nearly one hundred police officers have been injured in the rioting. The police have used water cannon and fired potentially lethal plastic bullets and over one hundred protesters have been arrested. On January 11th protesters launched a wave of road blocks dubbed “Operation Standstill” which effectively brought Belfast to a halt for two hours with nearly all buses off the road. On January 12th the fiercest rioting yet left 29 police injured.
The fact that protests have continued for 40 days has confounded many observers and politicians. It is true that the numbers involved in the protests have decreased over the past six weeks. The largest marches to the City Hall have involved one or two thousand protesters, but most roadblocks in local areas have drawn many fewer onto the streets. Some have pointed to the relatively small numbers involved-compared to the 200,000 who demonstrated against the Anglo-Irish Agreement outside the City Hall in 1985, for example- as evidence that the issue is only of concern to a layer of Protestant diehards who want to go back to the past.
It has also been pointed out that the rioting has been confined to a few areas. This is true to an extent. The worst violence has occurred in East Belfast where the local Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) appears to be acting independently of the central UVF leadership. There has been rioting in a number of other areas however, especially Carrickfergus and Newtownabbey.
A “thin layer of unionism”?
It is not just nationalist politicians who have tried to minimise the extent of the disquiet in Protestant areas. Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader, and First Minister, Peter Robinson has stated that the protestors now only represent a “thin layer of unionism”. Robinson’s party played an important role in kicking off the trouble when it and the second largest unionist party, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), together circulated 40,000 leaflets on the flag issue in the run up to the City Council vote. Now the leaders of the main unionist parties are trying to regain control of the situation. They are desperate to simultaneously play the card of sectarian division, in order to maintain their vote, but also wish to play the role of responsible bourgeois politicians seeking to provide stability and social peace.
In a similar way, the newspaper which is most widely read in both communities, the Belfast Telegraph, has argued that Northern Ireland is being “held to ransom” by the renegade East Belfast UVF commander. The Telegraph to an extent represents the views of the business owners of Belfast who are concerned that their profits are being hit by the unrest as shoppers stay away.
To play the down the significance of what is happening is to completely misread (or deliberately misrepresent) the situation. Whilst the total numbers involved are relatively small there is no doubt that the issue has acted as a lightning rod for widespread dissatisfaction with the peace process which has built up over time in the Protestant community. There is real and genuine anger among large layers of Protestants. There is a sense that “everything is going in one direction”, that is, Protestants are losing out to Catholics. In the view of many Sinn Fein are pushing too hard for concessions-as Progressive Unionist Party (the PUP is linked to the UVF) leader Billy Hutchinson has argued “Sinn Fein are acting outside the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement”. This is the reason that the PUP have given for reversing their previous conciliatory approach on the flags issue. A banner displayed in the Mount Vernon, where Hutchison works as a community worker, proclaims “North Belfast Against Cultural Apartheid”. This confused slogan does touch on a certain truth. Sectarian forces on both sides are essentially in favour of what might be termed “cultural apartheid”, or a sharp division between the two communities. Ironically, those who erected the banner are as much in favour of this division as those they criticise.
Extreme right winger Jim Allister of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) has condemned Sinn Fein’s “aggressive cultural war”. Jim Allister’s party is small but this assertion rings true for many more Protestants than those who are prepared to directly support him. Many Protestants, including many of the majority who do not belong to the Orange Order and similar organisations, feel that their “right to march” has been curtailed too often and in too many places. Many feel that they are often prevented from expressing their cultural identity, for example through the wearing of poppies around Armistice Day. Many also feel that the economic and social benefits of peace have gone overwhelmingly to Catholics.
Failure of Good Friday Agreement
At the same time many Catholics continue to believe that they are subject to sectarian discrimination. They hold that they are dealt with more harshly by the police. They believe that they are more likely to be poor and unemployed than Protestants. For historic reasons, reasons of geography and because of the residues of sectarian discrimination, there are still differences between the two communities in economic terms. The poverty rate among Protestants at 19 per cent is lower than the 26 per cent rate for Catholics. In the three years to 2010 on average, 28 per cent of working-age Protestants were not in paid work compared with 35 per cent of Catholics.
The views expressed in each community are sometimes true, or partially true. Sometimes however genuinely held beliefs are simply not true. The reason that such a complex situation can arise is that there are genuine interwoven grievances on both sides. The real problem is that the peace process has failed to deliver for working class or young people whatever their background. The peace process has failed because under capitalism genuine peace, and real economic advancement for working people, is not possible. Under the structures established by the Good Friday Agreement it is assumed that everyone belongs to one or other of two mutually exclusive communities. Under capitalism all that is possible is a sharing out of political power, and a sharing out of poverty and unemployment.
Whilst all sections of the Protestant community have been affected by the flag issue it finds its sharpest expression in the most deprived working class areas. The rioting and the road blocks are in part a distorted form of class anger directed at the unionist political establishment represented in the Assembly and on the Executive.
It is important to identify the underlying causes when any particular issue erupts on to the streets in Northern Ireland. It is also important to distinguish between those who join protests out of a sense of betrayal and anger and forces which are consciously reactionary and are seeking to take the working class back to a bleak past.
Ulster People’s Forum
Whilst the protests have been in large part spontaneous, and have been mainly organised through social media, a leadership has emerged over the past weeks and is attempting to assert itself. On January 3rd the “Ulster Peoples Forum” (UPF) was launched to represent this new layer. Willie Frazer was elected as its spokesman. Frazer has been a strident voice for loyalism for some years, especially in rural areas. He came to prominence through the organisation FAIR (Families Acting for Innocent Relatives) and the “Love Ulster campaign” and in the recent past been associated with the Traditional Unionist Voice. The possibility of Frazer standing in the Mid-Ulster by-election (caused by the recent resignation of Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister from his Westminster seat) has now been raised.
The UPF has adopted t