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.
The peace process, being patronisingly and obsessively devoted to placating the hurt and stroking the self-esteem of Northern Ireland’s ‘two communities’, has long viewed flags and emblems with suspicion. Under a political system that is singularly focused on ensuring parity of esteem between presumed-to-be fragile and/or volatile communities, as Northern Ireland’s post-conflict political system is, flags are imbued with an extraordinary power to offend and upset. Indeed, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement itself, which gave birth to the New Northern Ireland and the Assembly that governs it, addressed ‘the sensitivity of the use of symbols and emblems for political purposes, and the need… to ensure that such symbols and emblems are used in a manner which promotes mutual respect rather than division’. This unleashed ceaseless investigations by officials and quangos into potentially ‘offensive’ displays of flags and emblems, including at Belfast City Hall.
Over the past 10 years, various groups, including the Northern Ireland Equality Commission, have investigated the question of whether and how the Union flag should fly at City Hall. In one hundred-page report titled ‘Policy on the Flying of the Union Flag’, Belfast city’s equality advisers warned that displaying the flag every day could be considered ‘excessive and provocative’; one said that such a regular display of the flag could be seen as an attempt ‘to assert the ascendancy of one community over another’ or as an attempt to ‘acknowledge Northern Ireland’s constitutional position [as part of the UK] in a way that was neither balanced nor moderate, but was intended to give offence to those who opposed it’. In other words, we all know that Northern Ireland remains part of the UK, but do we have to declare that fact in a ‘provocative’ manner? Would it not be better, for the sake of allegedly easily offended nationalists, to be a bit more guarded and meek about Northern Ireland’s ‘constitutional position’?
What is being said in these various tortured, time-consuming, decadent investigations of the impact of flying the Union flag in Belfast is pretty amazing: Northern Ireland should be coy about declaring or even mentioning its constitutional status. Some have depicted the decision to take down the flag from City Hall as a victory for Sinn Fein councillors in Belfast, but in truth it springs from a longer, drawn-out, very strange process of denial of British statehood in the New Northern Ireland, from the modern British political elite’s discomfort with declaring or demonstrating its dominion over the territory of the United Kingdom - even that part of the United Kingdom where its dominion was called into question for many years and which Margaret Thatcher defiantly described as being ‘as British as Finchley’.