Loyalists: the pariahs of the peace process

The rioting over the Union flag illuminates the tragedy of modern loyalism: these people are loyal to a world that no longer exists.

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’.

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No doubt some Sinn Fein people are taking credit for having pulled down ‘the Butcher’s Apron’ at Belfast City Hall, in a pathetic pantomime substitute for their old fight to eject Britain itself, not just its flags, from Ireland. But in truth, what has happened in Belfast speaks to today’s profound crisis of British national identity. If you take the New Northern Ireland’s determination to protect its allegedly wilting peoples from ever clapping their eyes on a symbol they don’t like and mash it together with the broader British elite’s ambiguity about the Union and pseudo-cosmopolitan disdain for the old ideals of nation states and territorial integrity, you end up with this most peculiar spectacle of officialdom voluntarily winding in its Union flag in what has long been considered the major British city of Belfast. This isn’t a victory for Irish nationalism so much as it is hard evidence of the British elite’s sovereign sheepishness in the modern era.

In the name of ensuring respect for cultural diversity in Northern Ireland, a whole new swathe of new authoritarianism has been introduced to govern the display of flags and emblems. It used to be illegal, under the 1954 Flags and Emblems (Display) Act to fly the Irish tricolour anywhere in Northern Ireland; indeed, in the 1960s, in the run-up to the war of the 1970s and 80s, there were numerous run-ins between loyalists and nationalists over the latter’s flying of the Irish flag. Yet today we have the far worse situation where any flag - not only Irish but British, too, and also community or paramilitary flags - can be removed on officialdom’s whim. So the Parades Commission, set up to monitor all marches, has the authority not only to determine when and where people can gather, and how much noise they can make, but also what flags they may display. The Police Service of Northern Ireland has, in the words of one report, ‘developed a protocol for monitoring and removing flags’. The PSNI can basically take down any flag it considers ‘provocative’ in the context in which it is being flown - and that includes, bizarrely, the flag of Northern Ireland: the Union flag.

The Irish tricolour was banned in the 1950s in order to squish nationalist sentiment and preserve British authority over Northern Ireland; today it’s worse: all flags are susceptible to being banned in the name of squishing any strong sentiment, whether overly republican or overly loyalist, and of preserving the rule of the neutral and stiflingly politics-flattening, passion-policing peace process. The end result of both the old war on the tricolour and the new war on anything waved with passion is the same: the state assumes the authority to dictate to people how they may express their ideals and their allegiances, under the guise of needing to keep the peace / prevent others from feeling offended.

Strikingly, the context in which a flag is flown - that is, the intent behind the flying of flags - is key to whether it will be demonised and potentially banned by the authorities. So while equality quangos have decreed, in their infinite wisdom, that it is permissible to fly the Union flag at Belfast City Hall for 19 days of the year, they are far less comfortable with the flying of the Union flag in working-class loyalist communities. One equality expert advised officials that there is a ‘world of difference’ between displaying the Union flag at City Hall and displaying it on lampposts or at leisure centres (shudder) in loyalist communities, because in those communities it is used to indicate ‘sectional community allegiance’; apparently these ‘contentious displays’ of the Union flag, where it acts as a ‘badge for community or political allegiance’, are seriously worrying.

In short, the Union flag becomes problematic when the people waving it actually believe in it, when the people who erect it actually feel something - possibly even allegiance - towards it. That, apparently, is when the flag becomes dangerous, a provocative symbol that could cause offence and ignite conflict. What is really being said here is that loyalists, especially working-class loyalists, are a problem because… they are loyal; because they are loyal to the Union flag and the Union itself when others - politicians and opinion-formers - are far more grown-up and thus cavalier about such trifling matters as national identity and sovereignty. Working-class loyalists are looked upon as deviant and dangerous today because they still believe in things that most others do not: Britain, Britishness, the British flag. The fact that even the Conservative Party, which last year celebrated the hundredth anniversary of changing its name to the Conservative and Unionist Party, can look with disdain and disgust upon the ‘thugs’ now fighting for the right to hoist the British flag above the apparently British city of Belfast reveals so much about politics today and about the profound crisis of British national identity in the modern era.

The demonisation and alienation of Northern Ireland’s working-class loyalists is clear from the absolute dearth of criticism of what is currently being done to them. They are being subjected to the sort of state authoritarianism that would cause outrage if it were targeted at British middle-class students. They are being shot at with plastic bullets; water cannons are being used against them; they have been told by police to expect ‘the knock at the door’ as round-ups and arrests are carried out; the Parades Commission is considering banning some of their future pro-Union flag marches; Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein has claimed that the marches are being led by terrorists and drug dealers, the same thing that was once said about marches in nationalist communities. Attacked by the police and criminalised by observers, simply for calling for an allegedly British city to fly the British flag - the weirdness of this situation deserves more interrogation than it has received thus far.

Written off by the press as tracksuit-wearing thugs and demonised by politicians as ‘relics’ from the past, working-class loyalists are being turned into living symbols of what will happen if the peace process fails. They are being held up almost as zoological exhibits of what becomes of people if they refuse to embrace and obey the post-political, post-national rules, morals and authoritarianism of the peace process. With no real or future-orientated dynamic to it, the peace process needs demons that it can juxtapose itself against, flashbacks to an ugly past it can condemn, and working-class loyalists now play that role. I have never supported loyalists’ political cause, being firmly committed to the idea that Irish people rather than British officials should govern Ireland, but this week a loyalist protester held up a placard that I could definitely get behind: ‘End police brutality.’ Let’s expand that: End the peace process, too, and the division, demonisation and authoritarianism it has nurtured.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

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