‘Faceless Book’ – Street Farce – and Protest Folly

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It had the feel of farce – one street play in many such scenes that a senior loyalist is calling the creation of ‘Faceless Book’.

As the City Hall flag row continues to spill out and over the streets, he admits himself he doesn’t know who is organising the protests, and yet he is part of them; a puppet to use his own description.

On Monday evening, he was some miles away from where I stood on a busy junction, a stone’s throw from the Europa Hotel where the road was blocked.


Loyalist protest at the City Hall in Belfast


The traffic travelling down towards the city centre from Shaftesbury Square was stopped in its tracks.

Buses were parked; an ambulance had to make a detour down a side street and car drivers doubled back trying to find a way out of this particular protest jam.

As I watched, it took a while for the police to arrive – too long for the police to arrive – and then they came with lights flashing and sirens sounding.

It was a dramatic entrance to this street play, but then there was a pause, when nothing seemed to happen.

Next came two loudspeaker warnings advising protesters to clear the road.

A young girl stood with her back to the line of police riot shields and argued with local men trying to persuade her to leave the road after more than an hour of protest.

In the end, she stormed off, swearing and throwing her flag to the ground.

Then the police moved the protesters back; back off the road and towards Sandy Row.

What I watched had neither rhyme nor reason, other than blocking the road.

It was confused, confrontational; lacking any sense of control.

What’s happening on the streets is not going to run the flag back up the City Hall pole, but who in political or community leadership is going to tell the protesters that?

The tail is wagging the dog.

Even the loyalist, who puts these protests down to the anonymity of organisation on ‘faceless book’, stood blocking a road on Monday night.



When I got home, I sent a number of tweets to the PUP leader Billy Hutchinson.

In Monday’s Daily Mirror he described what is happening as a “small ‘r’ revolution, which has seen people, unscripted, gathering in numbers to reclaim their political voice”.

He wrote about this being “a salvo to a system which they feel increasingly detached from”, and added:

“As a leader of a unionist party which owes its lineage and existence to grassroots sentiment, we understand the frustration – indeed, we feel it.”

The messages I sent to him on twitter were as follows:

  • These big issues of flags, culture, identity marching need talked out – not fought out on the streets;
  • Watched protest near Sandy Row. No strategy, no point or purpose other than blocking road. Ambulance struggled to get through;
  • Community/political leaders know protests won’t change City Hall decision. This needs dialogue, not this dangerous street play, and
  • Watched kids being used in a protest tonight they know nothing about. This needs conversation, not street confrontation.

Not long afterwards came news of arrests elsewhere, including kids aged 11, 12 and 13.

Who and what has introduced them to this street madness that lacks leadership, strategy and a realistic goal?

All of this needs a cross-party and cross-community conversation and sooner rather than later.

It needs to happen before someone is seriously injured or killed

The City Hall decision came as a result of a vote. That’s the way and reality of politics.

There are, however, questions for republicans.

Why the need to post a film of the flag coming down?

Why the need to play that political game of winners and losers?

It brought this observation from the loyalist Jackie McDonald.

“Why would anybody do that if it wasn’t to infuriate the loyalist community?” he asked.

“This is rubbing the PUL community’s nose in it,” he said.

So, republicans need to think seriously about this, and, somehow, a conversation needs to happen; not inside the narrow frame of one community, but across the communities and on a range of difficult issues that have been ignored or parked.

This place needs to learn how to live with itself, and a high politics and peace needs to find its way to the ground.

There are issues on which this divided community are still at war and another generation is being polluted and poisoned in the play.


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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process and contributed chapters to 'Reporting the Troubles' and 'Brexit and Northern Ireland: Bordering on Confusion'.


  1. What we are seeing, is what a senior north belfast loyalist has also termed the emergence of ‘laptop loyalism’, and the ‘street plays’ you refer to are being conducted by these ‘internet warriors’ without adequate consideration to the violence or consequences that invariabely comes with it.

    If there is a legitimate and articulated voice behind this, not only is it being lost in the dangerous interplay between protest and violence, but it cannot hope to ever be heard or responded to either.

    However, if we cut underneath what is currently playing out on the street, many would acknowledge that there appears to be 3 particular emerging issues that are inter-linked and thus inter-dependant, as all these issues have all come to the fore in relation to the ‘flags’ issue, which is the overlying surface concern, yet under that surface clearly there are other concerns, no less important about ‘representation’ and ‘social-injustice’, about ‘identity and culture’ etc. The unfinished business of our peace-process!

    And the reality is these will never be heard, not unless the ‘laptop loyalists’ and all the hangers on adhere to the Mitchell Principles, that ushered in the Good Friday Agreement, and express a commitment to democratic and exclusively peaceful means of resolving political issues, and thus renounce and oppose any efforts to use force or threaten to use force.

    We have all heard the analysis in recent days, too often, that Republicans get all their concessions through violence, and thus violence somehow pays is an assessment many would make. Yet the reality is, it is the very act of giving up of violence that has propelled them on a trajectory into power and influence and which has allowed them to make ‘political gains’ at what many see at the expense of identity and culture.

    Nevertheless, we must also acknowledge the frustration and anger that this decision has generated in the Unionist/Loyalist community, but it is important that this frustration and
    anger should remain expressed within a peaceful and democratic manner.

    it is politics that created this mess, and thus only politics can solve it…

    1: The Flag issue:
    The attempt to remove, and decision to restrict, the Union flag from flying at our City Hall, has:

    1.1 No impact on social-justice

    Whilst the whole spectrum of social injustice continues to adversely impact on working-class communities, in the midst of recession and the tightening squeeze of austerity, when there is already inadequate political delivery in regards to health, education, employment, investment, environment and social welfare; politicians, elected to govern on all our behalf, supposedly to make our quality of life better, decide in their wisdom to concentrate on……FLAGS! The reality is that a flag, or the absence of it,will not put food on peoples table. They need to deliver on the issues that will make a difference to peoples quality of life

    1.2 A damaging impact on efforts at reconciliation

    In the same breath as proposing to remove the Union flag, Republicans claim they want to reach out to Unionists and reconcile with them, and this decision will hardly progress that
    prospect. Indeed, the wallowing, the vindictive attitude, the arrogance, by Republicanism, was there for all to see. Many would now question where these attributes fit within an ‘authentic-reconciliation’ initiative…

    1.3 Not delivered compromise

    Republicans further have the audacity to claim that restricted flying on designated days is some sort of historic ‘compromise’ with Unionists. Yet a compromise by its very definition is something that is negotiated and agreed and this is clearly not the case.

    1.4 Went against the terms of the Good Friday Agreement

    This decision certainly denies a fundamental fact of the Good Friday Agreement. That is, the existence of Northern Ireland as an integral part of the UK. The Common Sense
    document, the UPRG’s 1987 blueprint for power-sharing, clearly set out the parameters of what is possible regarding settlement and what would be deemed as a step too far:

    “Whilst we have no doubt that compromise and accommodation can be reached between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, it is impossible to compromise on the
    existence of Northern Ireland itself – it either exists or it doesn’t. At present it exists and is a part of the United Kingdom. This situation may not be the whole-hearted wish of everyone in the province but must be recognised to be the wish of most.” (UPRG: Common
    Sense Document 1987)

    1.5 Facilitated a return to the politics of sectional interests

    The question on many peoples’ minds is: is this not the same type of unregulated, unwarranted and contrived actions that Republicans/Nationalists used to accuse Unionists of whilst in governance? That they delivered for sectional interests and against the wishes of, and without the mandate of, a significant section of citizens?
    If so, then Republicans are displaying all the signs of the old arrogance that they would readily accuse successive Unionist Councils of.

    1.6 Ignored the civic-voice

    The consultation received approximately 17,000 responses, with the vast majority of these in favour of retaining the national flag. Furthermore, surveys among staff are understood to have identified that the proposed changes would impact on relations within the working environment that is the City Hall and across the City. 92 % of visitors surveyed that gave no civic-mandate for either removal or restricted flying, leaving a small 8% against the flying of
    the flag, therefore a decision was taken to support the views and opinions of just 8% of people. To ignore the civic-voice is hardly democracy at work !

    1.7 No legal standing

    Senior Council in the EQIA identified that there was a “low risk” of a discrimination case, and also that “the policy of flying the Union flag at the City Hall every day is prima facie legal”. Indeed, legally, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement all political decisions have to have significant cross-community support to be implemented, yet here we have a Council decision that didn’t have that threshold of valid cross-community support. Obviously the same legislation does not apply to Councils in regards to decision making, as
    that which applies to Parliament buildings in Stormont?,

    1.8 Delivered an anti-democratic decision

    Some Republicans also have the bare-faced cheek to claim that this was democracy in action.
    Granted, it had democratic overtones in that it was a majority vote taken at Council level and was democracy as it is understood in pure numerical terms, but when you scratch
    beneath the thin veneer of this, the undertones was the rejection of a civic-voice in their consultation exercise that clearly wanted the flag retained, so they in effect ignored and undermined the underlying wider civic-voice.

    You do not consult, receive the answer you don’t like, and then implement against the findings anyway…

    1.9 Facilitated a return to zero-sum politics

    There was a vindictive gloating by some in the Republican community who saw it as ‘victory’.” Indeed, Key individuals in Republicanism, who frankly should have known better, where “behaving like little kids through social media as they wallowed in the defeat of ‘Unionism’ ” This reaction itself is hardly a reconciliatory gesture, and has in essence exposed the true face of Republicanism, as being engaged in the zero-sum politics of the ‘victor’ and the ‘defeated’.

    1.10 Damaged community relations

    The decision to pursue the removal of the flag from city hall and other council buildings, despite warnings of the likely consequential impact on community relations, was foolish and provocative. Those who talk most about building community relations have by their actions in the council substantially damaged relations across the city.”

    1.11 Damaged the grassroots peace-process

    It certainly doesn’t seem like anyone in the Republican/Nationalist or Alliance camps has given any serious thought to how this will play out on the street, as the big picture tends to invariably play out locally in Northern Ireland politics.
    There is anger over what many now see as Republican ‘playground-bully politics’, and the power-plays of the political process and the power-plays may invariably impact on the peace-process as it is experienced at the grassroots, which has made significant progress in recent years.

    .1.12 Exposed a change of strategy and tactics

    This represents a noticeable change in republican strategy, with many now believing that Republicans have consciously ditched the peace-process phase, declared it defunct, as it is now being seen as both counterproductive and constraining of their wider ‘political-project’, and having forsaken this particular element, that is deemed as holding their political project back, Republicanism are now forging on regardless with all the political weaponry at
    their disposal.

    1.13 Facilitated dissidents within the Loyalist community to become re-animated

    Many since expelled and sidelined from the Loyalist mainstream, have now found themselves propelled to the fore of the recent protests/riots, and have thus been afforded a dangerous level of credence. Republicans have thus disregarded the impact of this
    decision on Loyalist communities and indeed the wider peace-process, by giving dissident-elements the luxury of a ‘convenient-cause’ to construct a dangerous foothold over this issue within the community landscape.

    1.14 Exposed systemic failures;

    This decision has exposed:

    a) abject failures at the heart of civic-governance

    b) fault lines in the peace-process.

    2: The ‘Social-Injustice’ issue

    The flag issue has exposed the often-ignored underbelly in relation to the full spectrum of Social-injustice, that continues to adversely impact on all working-class communities, and has left those who already experience their lives at the edges and margins of society, feeling even more disenfranchised, neglected and discarded. This itself is compouned by a lack of representative leadership on a political level.

    2.1 In Health;

    Our communities remain susceptible to high mortality, suicide, drug-dependency and mental health rates, combined to a lower than average life-expectancy; and these stark facts are compounded by the emergence of post-traumatic-stress-disorders as a residue of the conflict

    2.2 In Education,

    The underachievement of our youth continues to ensure the failure of our young people, and condemns them to an aspirational poverty that will dictate and determine the life chances of what is our sucessional generation.

    2.3 In Employment,

    High levels of unemployment are a phenomenon that continues to rage unabated and many have been left unable to effectively compete in the market, where there exists a distinct poverty of opportunity in terms of both job creation and in making our communities employment and investment ready;

    2.4 In Environment,

    Dereliction and deprivation remain rife, and more pronounced, particularly on Interfaces and within isolated Loyalist communities;

    2.5 In social Welfare;

    Reforms are now at an advanced stage, which are anticipated to adversely affect those most vulnerable and susceptible to poverty within our communities. Yet there remains an inability from our political representatives to adequately explain what these welfare-reforms will mean for people in real terms; It is important to reflect that these reforms advance with the full consent and acquiescence of our political representatives, without taking cognisance of the fact that we are an area of the UK that are still emerging from the conflict and dealing with the particular legacies of that conflict which attach themselves, without any regional dispensation being applied to take account of our unique circumstances.

    2.6 On a policy front;

    The lack of co-ordinated policies and action plans to address poverty and deprivation is itself indicative of the failure of Government and a denial of their inherent responsibility.

    3 The ‘Representation’ issue

    The recent flag issue has also been compounded by the underlying representation issue that is currently expressed as a democratic deficit.

    3.1 Poor voting returns;

    The existence of a growing social-injustice, that itself underpins poverty, and which is being experienced across all working-class communities, is compounded by the fact that a significant section within our communities, approximately 48%, simply do not vote. This fact itself evidences a disenfranchisement with politics, and disenchantment with delivery on the
    social justice agenda, where the so called peace-dividend in terms of social justice has not been experienced.

    3.2 Lack of accountability

    there is a growing analysis that a lack of political accountability between our elected representatives and the Loyalist working-class Unionist electorate has contributed to the problem, in the absense of the forging of a participative democracy, where Loyalists can begin to interact with those who claim to represent us, hold them to account in terms of that representation, contribute to the generic decision-making process and influence policy.

    these are just some of the many concerns being expressed…







  3. The only “farce’ is how incredibly out of touch and prejudiced many in our local media have become towards loyal citizens. The protesters aren’t simply expressing some unrepresentative viewpoint, rather one shared by thousands and thousands of decent people who have had it to the teeth with what has been phrased “cultural genocide”, the endless one-way concessions towards Republican genocide, and a conflict-obsessed media who seem to want to bully and isolate loyal citizens, rather than treating loyalty as expected and the norm as it would be in any other respectable modern country.

  4. if there is a face behind the ‘laptop loyalism’ that has emerged, or indeed a rationale articulated voice attached to that face, then it is time for that face to come out from the shadows in which it is hiding and cease to be ‘faceless’.

  5. Define ‘Loyal Citizen’ in the context of our multi-cultural, pluralist United Kingdom?

    Define ‘Loyal Citizen’ in the context of our UK Armed Forces where the Union Flag is not flown 24/7-365.

    Define ‘Loyal Citizen’ in the context of the 4 small regions that make up the Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland) and where by population we are but 3.09%?

    Define ‘Loyal Citizen’ in the context of attempting to murder a Police Officer of the Crown; threatening to kill elected representatives of the Crown; destroying property of the Crown; inhibiting, restricting and intimidating society?

    The violent protests are wrong & shameful.

    The peaceful protests are a democratic right but folly to the reality of the vote to the amendment which took place on December 3rd.

    All protests should end.

    The Union is safe, recognized and enshrined in the GFA until the majority of people, here, wish it otherwise.

    The battle today is one of political wit and insurgency to counter political Republican racism, sectarianism, elitism & denial while at the same time generating investment and social reform for deprived areas.

    Don’t hide, be a part and head on; toe to toe; face to face debate the issues and through strength of argument win for those disenfranchised.

  6. What this needs is not Dialog:
    1. Northern Ireland is the only place I know of where a group of people all be it large or small claims they are at war with the Government who Pays their Benefits and other such things like also not declaring war on them.

    2. If the British Government had declared war on the IRA/INLA and so on then it would have been more incite but also it would be over.

    If they don’t like the Flag of the Governing Country being flown in Northern Ireland then there is a far peaceful solution; move down to the South ah yes thats no Good you wont get as much money down there; here is another solution to keep it peaceful.

    Stop trying to incite which SF & Alliance where doing and work the Fecking Lot of yous to get more Jobs and things going her.

    Here is a Novel idea perhaps all our so call politicians could actually work for the extortionate wadge they all get

    Also I think you should look at the bigger picture here but of course you’s are media people and you will always only look at problems not mentioning that most of the protests where peaceful.

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