Week long protests.
Twenty-seven officers injured (and counting).
Bricks and other missiles thrown.
Cars set alight.
Alliance Party offices attacked.
Homes of Alliance Party Councillors attacked.
Thirteen people arrested.
Belfast Christmas Markets suspended.
…Because of a flag.
Loyalists are throwing their toys out of the pram over restrictions introduced on the flying of the Union Jack over Belfast City Hall, and today with all their shouts and protests they are literally ruining Christmas.
Of course the sane, balanced, right-thinking among us will immediately realise how ridiculous all this is, but for the die-hard Loyalists taking to the streets and launching a campaign of violent protest the City Council’s decision to raise the Union Jack on designated days only, is “an attack on their cultural identity”. They are so dedicated to maintaining the importance of their cultural identity that they set fire to Tricolour to prove how serious they are.
It’s difficult not to make light of the situation (Oh come on, a Northern Irish story, of course there’s going to be a ‘situation’ or two along the way) when you look at the seemingly ludicrous basis of all the trouble, but the severity of this bump in the political road in Northern Ireland can’t be ignored either.
Anyone from Northern Ireland will understand the important part flags have to play in our little state – they fly from lampposts, mark curbs and gable walls in every town and village, they tell us where we are safe, and were we aren’t necessarily so.
It’s a strange, and frankly embarrassing, thing to admit in 2012, but it remains the truth, there are still areas of Northern Ireland where people of a certain religious or political background have to watch their back, that they avoid wherever possible, where they are simply not welcome. It’s been bred into us, an underlying fear, however unfounded, that grips us when we suddenly find ourselves in the wrong part of town or in the wrong pub.
Even here in Liverpool I still get a knot in my stomach when the Orange Order march through the city centre. The beat of a Lambeg drum and my fight or flight reaction goes into overdrive. Thankfully there does not appear to be as much ‘fight’ as there once was. I know in my own home village the 12th of July sees a mass exodus of those who don’t wish to celebrate it, flight is the safer alternative. It’s a compromise.
Northern Ireland is a state built on compromise, and all this flag nonsense is just one more step necessary for the peaceful cohabitation the majority now hope for.
Nationalists at Stormount originally requested the flag be taken down from Belfast City Hall permanently, but compromised for a restriction to designated dates only. Unionists claim Nationalists, and the agreeing Alliance Party “should have left it alone” rather than, as Sammy Wilson so finely put it, “open a Pandora’s box” of trouble.
Diplomacy aside for a moment, if Nationalists had “left it alone” every time there was a risk of tension or violence in Northern Ireland Catholics would still be living as second class citizens in a land occupied by a foreign government, policed by ruthless militant paramilitaries and raising young men and women simply to put them in the ground with a flag draped over their coffins.
But that is the reality of it. A great many people have died in the name of politics in Northern Ireland, it has taken decades just to get the opposing sides to sit down at the same table and simply communicate, whole communities have been destroyed and still struggle to recover economically or emotionally from the devastation of ‘The Troubles’. But for the majority, ‘The Troubles’ are now in the past. After the murder of police officer Ronan Kerr in April last year, the two communities of Northern Ireland came together to tell the paramilitary organisation responsible “Not in Our Name”. A dramatic change in attitudes from the No Surrenders and Tiocfaidh ár lás of olden days.
I can understand the personal importance a flag can hold in creating a sense of cultural identity, I hang a Tricolour from the wardrobe door in my bedroom here in Liverpool, but in the grand scheme of things, for Loyalists to suddenly declare ‘No Surrender’ over the flying of a piece of coloured cloth over one building in one city is just as ridiculous as it sounds.
A thirteen year old boy was arrested during the violent protests this week. He would have been born the year of the Good Friday Agreement, the same as my little sister and I’m proud to say that she is practically oblivious to the political divisions of her homeland. She is an ordinary teenage girl concerned only with regular teenage stuff and the usual petty problems of school, friends and family, just like the majority of thirteen year olds in Northern Ireland. It’s a reassuring sign that actually, despite the current situation, we are still making progress.