Where does the flag protest go from here?

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Is this going to be east Belfast’s winter of discontent?

It is not insignificant that east Belfast is the epicentre of the Union Flag protest.

The leaflet at the heart of the Unionist protest over moving to designated days for flying the Union flag on Belfast City Hall, was aimed at Alliance deputy leader, Naomi Long MP.

Furthermore there is a UVF satellite in east Belfast, some members of which have been involved in the disorder on the streets.

Chief Constable Matt Baggott was unambiguous on this. He said “some members of the UVF in East Belfast as individuals have been increasingly orchestrating some of this violence.”

A car burns in the Castlereagh Street of east Belfast this evening following a loyalist protest.


The leader of the Progressive Unionist Party Billy Hutchinson has appealed to those UVF members to walk away from violent protest and he has asked to them to join the quiet ‘revolution’ on the streets of east Belfast.

As stated above the east Belfast UVF is a satellite of the mainstream Ulster Volunteer Force.

Naomi Long’s office has been a magnet for angry protesters in the East of the city for weeks. Is this an accident? No.

She won that Westminster seat from First Minister Peter Robinson who sadly found himself in a domestic crisis, side by side with attending difficulties.

The DUP intention is to unseat the Alliance Party MP come the next Westminster election.

Naomi Long appears to be growing in stature by the day on the airwaves but will the flag protest militate against her potential for retaining her Westminster seat? Who knows?

There are those who will now vote for her and those who regret having voted for her.

Making her the target of the ‘flag protest poster’ was blatant in the sense that she is not a Belfast City Hall councillor but was deliberately placed on the dart board of convenience by the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party because her party went part of the Sinn Féin road in proposing the flying of the Union flag on designated days.

Initially the flag protest was fine as long as it remained peaceful.

Bringing people out onto any street is always risky, however noble one’s cause is, and working class Protestants are claiming to have been abandoned and neglected educationally, socially and economically.

Alex.Kane has pointed out on eamonnmallie.com nothing has changed. He contends it was always the same with ‘big house Unionism.’

The flag protest has ended up in the wrong terminus.

The police with whom Protestantism and Unionism historically identified are now being nightly subjected to waves of missiles, petrol bombs, masonry, smoke bombs etc cascading down on them.

Sporadic outbursts of stone throwing by Nationalists from the Short Strand on the Newtownards Road only serves to exacerbate the situation.

Danny Kennedy, Minister for Regional Development paints an unsettling picture “the politicians have lost control. There is a lawlessness element on the streets.

“Twenty years ago if the two Unionist party leaders made a statement asking Loyalists to stay off the streets it would be obeyed.

“It’s a worrying fact. It’s a new fact in Unionism and Loyalism that that doesn’t happen – there is that constituency which says things have gone too far and nobody is standing up for what we stand for.”

Prominent Loyalist Winkie Rea said “Unionists are all over the place like headless chickens. Unionist cooperation is achievable but unionist unity is not. There has to be fully inclusive unionist cooperation.”

Former Ulster Unionist Party leader Reg Empey is very pessimistic right now “I have never seen it worse. It is not about flags. That was the lightning conductor – there are the inquiries, Bloody Sunday killings being re-opened, Finucane, and the rôle of the Historical Enquiries Team worrying some people.”

“We have a toxic cocktail” said Mr Empey.

Asked if the Unionist Forum is the panacea to address loyalist concerns Reg Empey added:

“There is no point having a Forum unless you can deliver out of it. A lot of the things are not deliverable.”

An attack on a police car outside Naomi Long’s office in east Belfast some weeks ago scared the horses at leadership level in mainstream Unionism.

PSNI officer in Castlereagh Street of east Belfast this evening following a loyalist protest.


Having backed the Union flag protest and having directed their anger at the Alliance Party, Peter Robinson and Michael Nesbitt, knowing the genie was out of the bottle, couldn’t put it back.

They respectively found their own Assembly members defying them to take part in nightly flag protests.

They moved to do what all administrations do when blindsided – they announced they would set up a Unionist Forum to facilitate those feeling alienated and holding any grievance against the current political edifice/régime at Parliament Buildings.

It has been down hill all the way since then for Robinson and Nesbitt.

They are at a loss as to what to do.

The protesters’ loose alliance, ‘The Ulster People’s Forum’ has snubbed the leadership of mainstream Unionism so far. That could change.

A senior DUP source holds to this view about the Loyalist flag protest:

“People want to draw a line in the sand. There are people who are fed up with the endless concessions to Sinn Féin and who want to see some confidence being built in the Unionist community.”

All of this places Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt, the two leaders of mainstream Unionism in an invidious position.

Inertia obtains at the same time as a chasm has opened up in the Executive on the back of the flag row with SDLP, Alliance and Sinn Fein ministers leaving the floor to the DUP and Ulster Unionists.

In the words of Reg Empey “the tectonic plates of five/six weeks ago in the Executive have shifted.”

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About Author

Eamonn Mallie

I am a regular contributor to discussion programmes on TV and radio both at home and abroad. An experienced political editor and author specialising in Politics, Security and 20th Century Art.


  1. Eamonn – on this day January 8th I remember my old friend David Ervine. It was on this date – six years ago – that he died suddenly, and loyalism lost its most able and respected leader. This place and process still misses him. I remember how he used to always talk about the tendency of people in his community to look at their boots rather than at the sky; to look down rather than up, to think about how bad things are instead of how good they could be. Yes, the loyalist community needs help, but it also needs to help itself. You quote David’s friend Winston Rea on the need for unionist co-operation. What is also needed is unionist/loyalist leadership that begins to think its way out of this mess and involves itself in a serious conversation with all relevant parties in the peace process. We don’t need a sticking plaster fix – we need something more strategic and a structured dialogue that puts the big pieces of unfinished business on the table – the past, culture, marching and how people truly begin to live side by side. Winston Rea – whose background is in our ‘wars’ – now argues that change can only be achieved democratically. That’s politics. The headline on the last article penned by David Ervine was ‘Let’s finish the job’ – and six years later the challenge is to do just that.

  2. John, Lord Alderdice on

    Eamonn, As ever, your description and analysis of the situation is accurate and I think it could benefit from going even further. While the Catholic community as a whole always realized the value of education to help them out of their predicament, and middle class Protestants also valued education for its own sake and to provide opportunities for personal advancement, working class loyalists were usually more impressed with physical force – a difference symbolized by the Provos using their time in prison to improve their educational status while the loyalists came out with more muscles and tattoos. A UVF man told me once – ‘any wee fella round here with specs and a library ticket gets beat up’. I was on the board of governors of a number of schools in East Belfast and in some we had problems keeping teachers because of the abuse they got from parents when they tried to discipline the kids. There is an anti-intellectual culture, which is not by nature ‘Protestant’ – on the contrary in Scotland it was the reformers who developed education for all – but is very prevalent in working class Protestant areas in Northern Ireland, and has been promoted by fundamentalism elements in the churches. This culture leads to young working-class men not making use of the educational opportunities which are available to them and results in dreadful educational under-achievement and a problem of esteem among young men in loyalist areas. The Unionist political parties never did anything to change this situation because they wanted a strong unquestioning following to maintain their political hegemony rather than ask too many questions – education in the end always leads to people asking questions. The result is that when faced with a problem the loyalist community (with some notable exceptions) has not tended to argue their way out of it, but rather to threaten and bluster and their political leaders in the DUP in particular have used that approach over the years – ‘Smash Sinn Fein’ etc. I welcome Stephen Farry’s recent Ministerial work on improving educational opportunities, and I have also been talking to people in the Protestant churches about recently retired men from middle class churches engaging in mentoring and other support and assistance to these youngsters who have little by way of positive role models. Instead of teaching a new generation to riot, we need to be helping them to value educational opportunities. This is not about fundamental change of the educational system or finding large amounts of money, but of changing a negative culture.

  3. I agree with Lord Alderdice as far as his comments about education is concerned. However, I think the implication that Unionist politicians wanted an unquestioning population is simplistic. Rather the problem lies in the Protestant view of the individual. For example it’ s not the church that leads a person to God but rather it’s a transaction between the individual person and God. So it’s down to the individual to grasp the opportunities available and if they don’t, well that’s up to them, the opportunity is there. What we need to change is this viewpoint so that as a community we work to explain the benefits and advantages of education and learning. I myself left school with no formal qualifications but through the Open University gained a degree. The best and most fulfilling experience which I can wholeheartedly recommend.

  4. There is an inward looking, almost incestuous mind set here that is especially insecure in Unionism which battles daily to prove it’s worth as ‘more British’ than the Welshman, the Scotsman or the Englishman.

    Rightly or wrongly on the original intent of the leaflet drop by the DUP-UUP pact (or is it pack), it is now a shining example of political opportunism (against the Alliance Party) gone awry as sinister elements and hoodlums wreak violence using historic ‘physical might is strength’ dictatorship, primarily, on their own people who are to afraid to speak out.

    Leading Loyalists by their very attendance at protests encourage some ‘ceasefire babies’ to prove their mettle and attack police while unfortunate, younger, under educated kids see the same leading Loyalist individuals as the pillars of their community. They are ‘who we want to be, right’ ?

    It has to stop. The only thing it is killing is: trade, investment, business, community, trust, property … if not actual people eventually.

    The future is understanding. Where do we primarily learn acts of kindness, generosity, an open mind, ambition and caring? Within our family and primary school or church organizations (for those that still attend established religious places of worship). If society is to change then we cannot reserve understanding, kindness and so on to family or friends. We
    need to reach out to all the others that are not the same as ourselves and where is that best started…. in our primary education. Integrated education and further education are but one challenge which must be encouraged and rewarded evolving mindsets removing the fear & suspicion.

    Education is not alone. There are other challenges which fuel the fear and suspicion which all need constructively presented to a compassionate, listening ear. The ‘individuals’ who believe in ‘physical might is strength’ need to retire, go away, bow out, discharge what ever you wish to describe it and let those with political nonce go forward unhindered and ‘baggage free’ so they can articulately present the cases.

    All battles today and for the future are political in the agreed democratic structures endorsed on this Island. Engage, debate and engage again. Resolve all issues through power of persuasion, that is the task ahead and one which all must focus on.

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