Monday, 2 December 2013

Retrospective: Last year's Flag Riots in Belfast

Just found this piece in my system today. It was displaced by the editorial about Pope Benedict's resignation just before going to press:

Observing the Riots

I picked up The Irish News a couple of days into the New Year to cast an eye over events in Northern Ireland. I was shocked to see the headline “Shoot Tagues” on the front page. A tague is a derogatory word for a Catholic and the quote came from Twitter. But the disgusting term conveys the spirit which has been apparent in East Belfast and other loyalist areas of Antrim since early December. And for those out there who believe integrated schooling is the answer, the Twitter account holder was a graduate of one of these enlightened establishments.

Belfast City Council voted to restrict the flying of the Union Flag to 15 designated days on 3 December. The motion was proposed by Sinn Féin and the SDLP and supported by the Alliance, enabling the vote to be carried. This triggered a serious of ongoing riots by loyalist thugs since then which has caused much injury to person and property since then, not to mention the cost to businesses in Belfast which will lead to economic hardship to a great many people in the medium term.

Belfast City Hall

The loyalist enclaves in the North have become a powder keg which has not greatly improved since the Peace Process began. In fact, it has worsened. The best demographic group to be in to gain employment in the North is to be female, rural and Catholic. Correspondingly the worse situation to be in is male, urban and Protestant. The lowering of the Union Flag over City Hall by a bunch of Fenians (this is applied to Irish nationalists by this community) and their sympathisers is a red flag to this group, to whom it seems that Sinn Féin delivered goods to their counter-parts in republican enclaves in Belfast in ways their own politicians have been unable to do for them. It does not take much to ignite a conflagration among unemployed working class young men with chips on their shoulders.

There is an ugly sense of déja vu here. The troubles we all remember began with loyalist mobs attacking the Catholic Short Strand district in 1969. This happened again, with a group of special needs children under siege in St Matthew’s Church hall in the enclave. Police officers have been seriously injured and even First Minister Peter Robinson’s car was stoned, indicating how far he has come since his invasion of Clontibret in 1986. However it is hard to sympathise with Unionist politicians. A previous generation of loyalist paramilitaries were fired by Rev Ian Paisley’s preaching; the source of much discontent now lies in unionist rhetoric. Respectable unionists are always quick to put distance between themselves and trouble.

Peter Robinson in 1984
Peter Robinson now

The scary feature here is continued rumour of consolidation of dissident republican groups. No one imagines the North will flair up again, but we cannot take the Peace Process for granted. Sustained rioting by loyalists does not help. If the security forces cannot protect nationalist areas, someone else will. That is a variable none of us can afford to see happening.

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