The recent issues playing out on our streets are clearly more complex than a flag.
The Socio-economic explosive:
The ‘flag-issue’ has undoubtfully 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.
In Health our communities remain susceptible to high mortality, suicide, drug-dependency and mental health rates, combined to a lower than average life-expectancy. These stark facts are compounded by the emergence of post-traumatic-stress-disorders as a residue of the conflict.
In Education the underachievement of our youth continues to ensure a failure that will dictate and determine the life chances of what is our successional generation.
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.
In Environment dereliction and deprivation remain rife, and more pronounced, particularly on interfaces and within isolated communities.
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.
It is important to reflect that these reforms advance with the full consent, concerns and input of our political representatives.
These Westminster so called reforms ought to take cognisance of the fact that we are an area of the UK still emerging from conflict and dealing with the particular legacies of that conflict. We would argue these changes have to be tempered to take account of Northern Ireland’s unique set of circumstances.
Under the terms of the GFA in the section on a proposed Bill of Rights it is underscored that any legislation should be informed by the particular circumstances obtaining in Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile, on a policy front the lack of co-ordinated programmes and action plans to address poverty is itself indicative of the failure of Government and an abdication of their inherent responsibility. Indeed, the UPRG have made several calls (as yet unanswered) for the setting up of a dedicated poverty task force to address deprivation and poverty across all working-class communities.
Many believe that the whole Union-Flag issue has unnecessarily distracted from political delivery at a time when the whole spectrum of social injustice continues to adversely impact on all working-class communities.
This flag débacle is taking place in the midst of recession and the tightening squeeze of austerity, with what many see as inadequate delivery in regards to health, education, employment, investment, environment and social welfare.
These social-injustice issues that have come to the surface themselves bring additional layers of complexity into the issue, and this has served as a fertile environment for the forging of inward looking and regressive mindsets.
These factors are the socio-economic explosive that lurks within the restless undergrowth of our new society.
It is also important to acknowledge, that these are all working-class phenomenon, which are not determined by religion. Indeed, many of these issues predated the Good Friday Agreement, and not some new phenomenon.
So why have these issues erupted in and been confined to the Loyalist section of our community, when these are issues that impact across all working-class areas?
To understand this, we must consider two complicatory factors that have made one community more susceptible than another.
The Political Vacuum:
Clearly, with Sinn Fein ensconced in Government, Republicanism has been able to successfully translate ‘feet on the street into bums on the seat’ and have had enough ‘actors’ accessed to that political ‘stage’ to dictate and determine how the ‘political play’ develops and proceeds.
As a consequence of Sinn Fein now being an integral part of what has always been referred to as the ‘State apparatus’ there is a creeping reluctance within that particular community to be seen to challenge the State in relation to social-injustice issues. For the Republican constituency, to publicly challenge what their representatives are or are not doing would de facto, be seen as a criticism of the party. One of the fall outs could be to damage the ideological umbilical cord.
In contrast, the ‘flag issue’, as it has become known, has been further compounded by an underlying representation issue that is currently expressed as a democratic deficit within Loyalist communities in particular, that does not exist in Republican ones.
Indeed, it is evident, according to voting-returns and poor electoral turn-outs (with some areas varying between a low 12-30% return), that a section within Loyalist communities simply does not vote, or similarly feels that they have nothing for which to vote that adequately reflects their interests. This fact itself evidences a disenfranchisement with politics, and disenchantment with delivery on the social justice agenda.
The poor electoral turn-out itself is a major factor that has ‘set the stage’, and has afforded others enough ‘actors’ on that stage to dictate how the political play is directed. In this context, we must all share the responsibility for the current issues, without resorting to apportioning all the blame conveniently elsewhere, and begin to shoulder what must be understood as a collective responsibility.
In this context, there has been a failure to strengthen representation between our elected representatives and the Loyalist working-class Unionist electorate, in 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.
Indeed, there are clearly many within Unionist working-class Loyalist areas, that not only feel that they do not have a voice, but also that they cannot be heard, or feel no one is listening to them.
Whilst some elements within Unionism and Loyalism are undoubtfully embracing that challenge and forging new relationships, that has seen improved delivery, others have been too slow to grasp the challenge and remain to be convinced, and there are still those who downright refuse to consider that the Loyalist community can have a viewpoint, voice or articulate thought to share.
However, the accredited protest-vote to dislodge Peter Robinson to the benefit of the Alliance’s Naomi Long, should have served as a warning shot to Unionism that all was not right at its democratic tail.
Unionism did not listen then, but it MUST now!
The challenge is for Unionism now is to reconnect to that democratic tail…
Indeed, the problem with the body-politik is that there is a top tier, no discernible middle and an increasingly restless undergrowth.
The UPRG continues to state that, ‘the best way to express your Loyalism is to exercise your democratic right!
‘Loyalists must learn how to make the ballot-box work because weaponry (or violence) is no longer a viable option. We must learn to utilise the ballot-box to maximum effect because dividing unionism is not the way to do that, as some would have us believe.’
It must be recognised that the same representation issue, or democratic-deficit, clearly does not exist in the Republican community, where representation has been closely forged, underpinned with and intertwined within a working-class based politik. This presents a complicatory factor underlying the social-injustice issue and consequently how it is experienced differently within Loyalist communities in comparison to republican ones, where the same political disconnect clearly does not exist.
The identity fuse:
In terms of identity, we must acknowledge that there are many in the Unionist/Loyalist community who perceive the ‘Flag issue’ as the continued erosion of their British identity, experienced and felt through the removal of the Union-Flag and expressed through protest.
Indeed, it must also be understood, that for many in our communities, the removal of the Union-Flag is interpreted as being simply the latest event in a back-catalogue of Republican moves to erode and reject all aspects of the British cultural identity to which we subscribe.
Indeed, there are many who would still refer with anger and resentment to the former Sinn Fein Lord Mayor Niall O Donnghaile failing to hand out a certificate to the young Army Cadet. That is still taken as a personal insult to the protestant community and the values to which it subscribes;
Similarly the naming of a park by Newry City Council in honour of the IRA man Raymond McCreesh, that glorified the Republican sacrifice offends . The same respect or dignity for those who have defended their communities on the Loyalist side or indeed through loyal service in State Forces would not be afforded. We have which witnessed with their open hostility to the British troops homecoming parade and their constant denigration of Loyalists with expletives that portray thuggery.
Now we have the absurdity of emergent sound-bites towards boycotting Orange owned businesses being professed in the midst of this: add to this the continued failure to accommodate the Loyal Order parades as a valid expression of cultural identity, one-sided inquiry processes that focus exclusively and overwhelmingly on all other ‘armed-actors’ and events outside the Republican sector (despite Republicans being responsible for the majority of conflict related deaths and injury). This sustains a particular mindset within our community, that identifies with the historical connection of an identity under siege.
We could not fail to acknowledge at the same time that there is no doubt that Republicans will also have their own back-catalogue lodged in their memory.
The Union-flag decision will no doubt have a damaging impact on efforts at reconciliation. The reality for many in our communities is, 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, and their complicity in it, will hardly progress that prospect. Indeed, many would point to the vindictive attitude and arrogance displayed by Republicanism in the aftermath of the decision as being incompatible with the core values of reconciliation, seeing it as an anti-reconciliatory gesture and a return to a zero-sum politics. Many within the Unionist/Loyalist community would now question where these attributes fit within an ‘authentic-reconciliation’ initiative.
The credibility of republicanism’ s reconciliation initiative and dealing with the past agenda, has been further damaged by their hierarchal victim concept that has recently emerged, as exposed when Republicanism apologised for the murder of a Garda officer down South, yet they have conspicuously failed to offer similar apologies to the RUC widows here. No one in our community can claim to understand how a murder committed on a member of the security forces in either jurisdiction is different, despite their insistence that the border is non-existent.
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.”
For many in our community, the removal of the Union-Flag is interpreted as a denial and subversion of this fundamental constitutional fact despite the fact that this existence of Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom, was recognised, negotiated and agreed under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, and reinforced through the principle of consent.
We also have to remember; that many young Protestants from our communities are currently serving in the British Army with pride in current theatres of war in Afghanistan and Iraq etc. People from Northern Ireland have fought and died under the Union-flag across multiple generations of families. Thus this particular flag has many notions of identity and sacrifice attached to its significance that are extremely emotive and which cannot be discounted.
Whilst many would acknowledge that the decision had democratic overtones, in that it was a majority vote, and was democracy as it is understood in pure numerical terms, it is also clear that the un-democratic undertones were the rejection of a civic-voice in the consultation, with the vast majority of staff, visitors and the wider public clearly wanting the flag retained or advocating no change, thus providing no civic-mandate for removal upon which to act.
This decision in effect ignored and undermined the wider civic-voice in what prides itself as a civic-chamber. In a democracy, you do not consult, receive the answer you don’t like, and then implement against the findings anyway.
The decision to pursue the removal of the flag, despite warnings of the likely consequential impact on community relations from the First Minister Peter Robinson, was not only foolish, but also to many provocative, and helped create a situation that contains the potential to substantially damage relations across the city. Despite these warnings, no community impact assessment was undertaken by Belfast City Council to measure the possible ramifications of such a decision, despite there being a tension monitoring framework in place to facilitate this process. This was a basic failure on behalf of Belfast City Council that has so far been overlooked.
Of course, we all know that Republicans have always worked in phases throughout the conflict, best encapsulated with the ‘armalite and ballot box’ phase, and this previous reliance on phases no doubt translates into the political arena of today. For many in the Loyalist/Unionist community, this represents a noticeable change in republican strategy and the marking of a new phase, 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.
This view was solidified with what appeared to be a vindictive gloating by some in the Republican community who clearly saw it as ‘victory’. Many key individuals, who frankly should have known better, were “behaving like little kids through social media as they wallowed in the defeat of ‘Unionism.'”
This reaction itself is hardly a reconciliatory gesture, and for many has now exposed the true face of Republicanism, seen as being engaged in the zero-sum politics of the ‘victor’ and the ‘defeated’, as we lurch from a consensual politik to one more aligned to and reminiscent of majority rule.
In this context language has clearly become underlaid with perception, interpretation and accusation, pinned down with rigid ideological tacks, that is now perhaps one of our most insurmountable barriers.
The questions on many people’s minds is – is this not the same politics of which Republicans would readily have accuse successive Unionist dominated Councils?
This raises wider questions around the Good Friday Agreement such as – why is our Civic chambers, as an aspect of our wider political architecture, not constrained by the same consensual politics that operate in Stormont, our seat of local power, where decisions have to have significant cross-community support for implementation?
Many are also conscious that the parading-season is fast approaching us, and are anxious that these current issues do not intertwine and play out within that arena, as another aspect or expression of a cultural identity also gets subsumed into that eclectic mix playing out on our streets.
First thoughts on defusal:
Despite the depth of difficulties outlined above, as a principle, there can be no space for the descent into violence.
Whilst we cannot fail to acknowledge the anger and frustration that exist across the Unionist/Loyalist community, nevertheless, it is important that we continue to fully subscribe and adhere to the Mitchell Principles, which ushered in the Good Friday Agreement, and ‘remain committed to democratic and exclusively peaceful means of resolving political issues, and thus we should all renounce and oppose any efforts to use force or threaten to use force.’
In this context, we should all welcome those that have continued to work tirelessly, often at personal risk, and subject to much criticism, in their efforts to resolve the violence which erupted in the east of our City, and also those in other parts of Northern Ireland who continue to ensure that the ability of this violence to migrate has been minimal. It is our view that the time is right to begin to resolve all these issues or at least to set in place appropriate frameworks for doing so. We are also conscious that resolution will only be achieved through a political and social methodology working mutually to address the many issues highlighted.
On the socio-economic front the lack of co-ordinated policies and action plans to address poverty across the socio-economic landscape, is itself indicative of the failure of Government and a denial of their inherent responsibility. The UPRG, have consistently called for the setting up of a dedicated poverty task force to address deprivation and poverty in all working class communities. So far this call has gone mostly unheeded and unacknowledged. This grassroots based demand must now be progressed with upmost urgency.
It is imperative that we also strengthen representation between our elected representatives and the Loyalist working-class Unionist electorate, in 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.
It is our view that the protestors have been heard, however, we are conscious that when people are angry and anxious, it is clear that no one is really able to listen, and the ability to articulate concerns are by consequence restrictive.
In this context, we believe that the Unionist Forum, and the mainstream party structures, represent the most viable mechanisms to have those voices heard more clearly, and are frameworks in which we can begin to initially listen, debate, address and alleviate those many concerns.
This Forum must now move forward with urgency, imagination and vigour.
Whilst ‘one community talking to itself in the mirror’ is a valid and useful starting point, however, it must also be recognised, however difficult to accept, within any power-sharing settlement, the reality remains that we cannot bring real change to all these issues without all partners in Government working together across party lines: that is the real challenge that lies beyond the Unionist Forum.
Whilst we cannot fail to acknowledge that the issue of identity is one of the most emotive ingredients within this broad eclectic mix, and that which is most prone to raising the socio-political temperature, nevertheless, this is an issue that remains key to defusing the situation.
For Unionists, the issue of National-identity has been resolved under the GFA, where we clearly remain a part of the UK, and this fact is further reinforced through the principle of consent, yet cultural identity is still an issue of concern to Unionists.
Whilst we have the equality of aspiration afforded under that agreement to pursue alternative political paths, but not to subtract from the political reality in which we are currently, we remain a part of the United Kingdom, and as such the National-flag should reflect that current political reality, whilst at the same time recognising that there are indeed other identities. At the same time, many within the Unionist/Loyalist community would also have concerns around aspects of our Cultural-identity which cannot be expressed, accommodated or afforded inclusivity.
Let’s be clear, identity, amongst other issues, remains a key aspect of our past, which has currently come crashing into our present, distorting it out of shape, creating an obstruction, and blocking us from moving forward as a reconciled Northern Ireland society.
It is time to map a way out of this before our society implodes…
This opinion piece emerged from the North Belfast branch of the Ulster Political Research Group.
This opinion was informed from a debate with many key community activists from across the North Belfast area.
The purpose of this is to provide an analysis of the complexity of issues that the ‘Union-flag’ has raised, with the view that before we can begin to effectively plot a way forward, we first have to understand and come to terms with where we currently are.