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.
I started reading this extensive tome feeling a certain affinity with the thoughts being expressed, as the situations are similar or worse in most Nationalist areas.
But then he regressed to the usual loyalist complaining, crying, whingeing – the whole world’s against him.
He can’t seem to understand that the GFA gave people here the right to equality of esteem, and if they feel themselves to be Irish, they should be entitled to express it.
Buy yourself a packet of Kleenex, John, grow up and get a life!
i refer you to first section: “these are issues that impact across ALL working class communities”; and last paragraph “an acknowledgement that there are other identities”
i think in those contexts, i wont be drawn into a competition of whose community is worse, as competing to be the worst, is itself based on the theory that the sqeaky wheel gets the grease
thanks for your response nevertheless…
A well written article.
RE: The Union Flag issue. It will be the Union Jack and not the Tricolour flown on designated days. So the reality that NI is under British and not Irish jurisdiction is officially acknowledged by this fact. But the flag doesn’t need to fly every day to acknowledge NI is under UK rule. That’s merely a Loyalist obsession which no Nationalist needs pander to.
and is the need for investment, jobs, improved health and political represntation also a loyalist obsession?
many would call it social justice, democratic rights, economic and social inclusivity…
“Is the need for investment, jobs, improved health and political representation also a loyalist obsession?”
If the Loyalists want to protest for more investment, jobs, etc.. John, then they should get themselves over to England and protest outside Westminster. That’s the parliament Loyalists give their allegiance to. Politicians in London are the ones who determine how much money is given to the province. Why no big protests over there about poor conditions in Loyalist areas if that’s the main issue?
The Union Flag protests, at their core, were about Unionism/Loyalism losing political power in Belfast city which they’ve literally had for centuries. No clearer manifestation of the demographic shift has been seen in Belfast before and the natural reaction of Loyalism to their insecurities about the future is to spit the dummy out.
personally, i dont like the politik of who can spit the dummy the furthest. i find it reprehensible.
i agree that power is undoubtfully a part of the representative/citizen paradigm and the ability to exercize power is still part of all our psyche, and my question is ‘ are we to make the same mistakes of our past?’ (To use power as a battering ram to crush aspiarations, identiy etc.
it wasn’t right then, it shouldn’t be right now!
Very interesting and thoughtful article. As a southerner with no political affiliation other than voting for which optical party I perceive to be living the least, I am always struck by how proud loyalists are of their heritage. The only thing that has always perplexed me is that what can be called the “siege mentality” of a number of the loyalist community. Would loyalists not find themselves more at ease knowing that the majority of us down South are not eyeing the North as part of a land grab and too find the Sinn Fein style of politics distasteful. Would it be fair to say that loyalist are more of a threat to themselves and perhaps finding common ground with other political entities on this island as a whole would secure the loyalist way of life into the future?
i understand the concept of voting for the one that you perceive to be lying the least, and im sure many subscribe to that scenario, unfortunately!
We have something similar, although it can be compounded by who waves their particular flag the most.
The removal of articles 2 & 3 by the Republic, in terms of territorial claim, has indeed given confidence to Unionists, and maybe a wider constituency beyond that, whom although they may not easily identify with the Union concept, realise albeit reluctantly that in terms of pure socio-economic benefit, it ensures a better quality of life for them and their children.
That itself is progress!
The existence of a ‘siege mentality’ is a historic connection still ingrained in the PUL psyche, from the siege of derry etc, and can still be often enacted when they feel insecure, uncertain, or under attack. (a circle the wagons response)
Northern Ireland has a growing and maybe distinct ‘regional identity’ that emerged under the latest census, with 21% describing themselves as ‘Northern Irish’. Indeed, i know both protestants/catholics, Unionists/Nationalists who placed themselves in this bracket.
The fact that you refer to no particular Southern affinity to the Sinn Fein politik, simply re-enforces the existence of distinct regional identities and the internal settlement we inhabit under the GFA as being the correct architecture for settlement.
However, i believe Loyalism/Unionism should be selling their case better in the South, as from a socio-economic perspective, the Celtic Tiger has become rather muted lately, and the ground is fertile for the merits of Unionism or rejoining the commonwealth.
I thank you for your response, and would particularely like your thoughts/insights on these issues?
It is a shade of Unionism that has been left sucking the hind tit.
I also come from North Belfast and I count myself lucky to have been given the opportunity to engage in conflict resolution.Republicans are light years ahead of this shade of Unionism in so many ways,and perhaps a starting point is focusing on how we bring this forgotten shade into the feeding trough.Conflict resolution programs/skills saved me.Its only fair that we throw all our energies into making it work for them.
education is the key to our future Raymond, couldnt agree more!
Fine words indeed John and as an educated lady from North Belfast i can understand and fully relate to your comments. I also have a few thoughts myself and would be keen to have your opinion on them.
You as an individual clearly show an understanding of the issues you speak of, but with the greatest of respect i find it difficult to see the majority of people you claim to represent in North Belfast having the same knowledge of the subject or for that matter understanding the language you use.
Why would North Belfast UPRG issue a statement on their own when, clearly, much more impact could have been achieved if all UPRG branches in the country had released this piece.
Your assertion of the political disconnect between working class loyalists and those elected to represent them would have been true until more recent times, but as an avid follower of loyalist community activism it is clear to me that there are many working class “loyalist activists” who are more than happy to engage with and to challenge their elected representatives on issues impacting on their community, therefore i fail to see why you dont.
You appear to overlook one thing in your desire for open dialogue with Sinn Fein/IRA and that is in dealing with the past. The sorts of disengenuos people you would be dealing with in Sinn Fein/IRA would require the telling of everyone elses truth of the conflict here, except their own !! A step too far i believe for most of your colleagues.
Once again John like your submission, but had to comment on it
I actually agree with you that the language should be tempered in a more accessible format. (Thats needed!) Critique accepted.
The UPRG across other geographical areas also contributed to the opinion piece, and formed a part of those discussions. Indeed South Belfast UPRG described it on twitter as “an enlightening and accurate summary”.
Its not a statement, its an opinion piece, designed and intended to encourage a discourse….
your right again when you say many Loyalists already engage with their politicians, and there is a growing sense at the grassroots of the willingness for political Unionism to engage much further with Loyalism, to reconnect to that democratic tail. Much good work has begun on that, yet much more remains to be done.
i think there is an acknowledgement in there, through various references to het etc, that the current mechanisms for dealing with the past are not fit for purpose, counter-productive to peace-building/reconciliation.
The big question remains ‘what can we put in their place?”
thanks for your comments
a socio economic explosive, placed in a political vacuum, primed with an identity fuse!
I re-read this statement several times and then attempted to analyse it. As I worked my way through it all that emerged after references to current hardship shared by all workers, was a list of grievances.
I kept asking “whose fault is that?”
Answer: it was the Loyalists’ own fault things weren’t working out as they wanted/expected.
They have refused to educate themselves to the implications of the GFA/Belfast Agreement and Human Rights legislation world- Europe- and UK- wide since the 1940s.
They have put their trust in sectarian parties and organisations that told them what they wanted to hear not what reality was in the 21st century.
They have used protestations of “Loyalty” to cover up extreme British nationalism that mainland working-class British have refused over and over again when it appeared under the guiises of the BNP and the EDL.
Their protestations of Loyality seem to mean Loyal in so far as we won’t stir up any civil disturbances or anti-Catholic progroms as long as everyone else does what we want.
Most people are no longer taken in.
I feel sorry for Ulster Loyalists. The tide of history has been turning against them for the past 70 odd years and they are still revere the ideal of “Stormont that was”.
Like Orangemen, they believe they have the right to march where they want, put up and take down flags as they want, prevent (by any means necessary) anyone else from expressing a different point of view.
They have been betrayed by leaders who foster religious fundamentalism, sectarianism and “the Orange Card” .
Like all working class people at present they deserve better leadership. Unlike many other british working class people, they do need a crash course in human rights legislation.
The same outcome time after time – woe is me – everyone else’s fault – especially them Republicans for actually being progressive, educating themselves and adapting to differing conditions.
The desperate need for loyalism to find a scapegoat is cringeworthy when the brutal fact is that it’s the inherent deficiencies in loyalism, and indeed unionism, that has to shoulder the blame. What’s espoused is one-dimensional. Policies that create alienation, poverty and deprivation are deliberately clouded by whipping up hysteria on culture, heritage and an extreme form of nationalism and loyalism seems only too happy to be gullible enough, strung along and cast aside by the British government and Unionist ruling class whenever the string pullers please.
What’s needed is an honest assessment and proper solutions, not the regurgitated rhetoric of themmuns and ‘our culture’ in which honestly parts are incompatible to the 21st Century and an obstacle for any society seeking to be civil and forge good relations.
The old days are gone. Loyalism needs to understand this.
John Howcroft is a former life sentence Loyalist prisoner, community development worker, and North Belfast UPRG representative.who has never worked a day in his life and looks after john buntings drug business. So dont let him fool you