At a time of rising unemployment, welfare ‘reform’, and an economic situation that’s continuing to deteriorate, what is the issue that has brought people out onto the streets and caused public disorder? Of course – a disagreement about flags.
So we’re doing the time warp again in Belfast – or are we? It’s not that simple and as I've said before, it’s an issue that matters enormously to some. This piece in the Belfast Telegraph has had hundreds of comments.
It’s worth remembering, though, that the protesters were a small minority. I’d like to see a poll carried out to get some idea of the percentage who support the responsible decision made by our councillors. Significantly, the party able to broker the compromise agreement, the Alliance Party, isn't unionist or nationalist and so is not dependent on votes from one particular community (just as well, looking at the reaction in East Belfast which today has included a councillor having to leave home for her own safety). I was pleased to see that the nationalist parties backed the ‘designated days’ proposal rather than abstain or put forward an unwinnable alternative proposal. In contrast, unionists backed an option that would not only have been subject to legal challenge but would also have continued an unacceptable act of territorial and cultural marking in an increasingly diverse city.
Although my preference would be for a civic flag, I do think the ‘designated days' option is correct because it recognises the importance of the Union flag for some. However, to be returning to the debate by suggesting a flag over the cenotaph is equally counter-productive. It has taken a long time for nationalists to be able to acknowledge their relatives who fought in world wars and anything which prevents this community from participating in acts of remembrance should be avoided.
So what of the protesters, outside city hall and in Inner East Belfast? Last night’s violence, along with intimidation of Alliance councillors, reveals a deep anger at something important having been taken away. We have to ask why people who, I suspect, come in the main from less well off areas of the city feel so strongly about the issue. There is a deep sense of disenfranchisement and powerlessness behind the violence which needs to be addressed – which of course in no way excuses it.
The Protestant working class has suffered from the sectarianisation of politics in Northern Ireland because it has no coherent, strong political representation. This doesn't have to be a unionist or loyalist party and in my opinion shouldn't be. We saw the consequences of that lack of voice last night, I suspect not for the last time.