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The loyalist rioting in Belfast over the council's decision to take down the British Union flag at City Hall highlights the tragedy of modern loyalism - these people are loyal to a world that no longer exists. All the things that the Protestant community in Northern Ireland were traditionally loyal to - the Union, Britishness, the idea of a singular nation called the United Kingdom - have fallen into historic disrepute in recent years. Loyalists are yesterday's men, devoted to yesterday's ideals, flying yesterday's flags, and this makes them pretty much deviants in the New Northern Ireland. Indeed, working-class loyalists are being turned into the pariahs of the peace process, demons against which the the architects and promoters of the peace process might advertise their own superior, post-national, flag-less values.
The transformation of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall into a potentially offensive symbol that should be taken down speaks volumes about both the New Northern Ireland and the state of British national identity in the twenty-first century. The protesting and rioting of the past six weeks was triggered by Belfast city council's decision at the beginning of December to fly the Union flag on just 19 designated days a year, such as royal birthdays, rather than on every day of the year, as had been the case over the past century. The proposal to remove the flag was tabled by Irish nationalist parties, led by Sinn Fein, and was supported by the non-nationalist, non-loyalist Alliance Party. But the discomfort with the Union flag flying in Belfast, and with other apparently problematic symbols in the New Northern Ireland, goes back farther than the council's chat and vote in December last year.
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