Current Affairs Politics

Crisis? What Crisis?


British Unionist protesters besiege the offices of the liberal Unionist Alliance Party in east Belfast, Ireland 2012 (Photo: The Five Demands)
British Unionist protesters besiege the offices of the liberal Unionist Alliance Party in east Belfast, Ireland 2012 (Photo: The Five Demands)

Peter Robinson, the DUP leader and regional Joint First Minister of the North of Ireland, recently claimed that Irish Nationalism was in “crisis” and that his party could reach out to “Catholics” in the north-east of the country, a statement that was greeted with loud acclaim from the British Unionist minority in Ireland and their fellow travellers in the British and Irish media.

Unfortunately for Peter hard on the heels of his grandstanding speech comes the news that Belfast City Council has voted to remove the British flag from its permanent position atop City Hall, a once unassailable bastion of British (mis-)rule in Ireland. Now Unionists are turning on each other in a vicious round of the blame-game with the “liberal” Unionists of the Alliance Party feeling the pressure from both the mainstream and extreme of their community.

The latest from the Guardian:

“A young councillor in Northern Ireland has been forced to flee her home because of Ulster loyalist threats against her for voting to reverse the policy of flying the union flag at Belfast city hall 365 days a year.

After a night of violence in the city, Alliance councillor Laura McNamee, 27, said she believed hardline loyalists who abused her on Facebook are linked to the Ulster Volunteer Force in east Belfast and were picketing her party’s constituency headquarters in the east of the city.

McNamee and several party colleagues have been warned of threats against them by a new extremist loyalist faction enraged over Belfast city council’s decision on Monday night to only allow the union flag to be flown for up to 20 designated days.

The 29-21 vote in favour of changing the flag-flying policy provoked a riot in the grounds of city hall that left 15 police officers injured, at least one council security guard hurt, and an Associated Press photographer beaten over the head by a police baton.

The loyalists opposed to any change in the flag policy are targeting prominent Alliance members because the party holds the balance of power on the council. It was their compromise motion – that the union flag would be still be flown on top of city hall on days such as the Queen’s birthday – that led to the union flag no longer being a permanent fixture on the council building.

The Alliance representative, who was elected to council two years ago, said she has been told members of the militant East Belfast Battalion of the UVF were orchestrating the violence and the intimidation.

She confirmed that it was “highly unlikey” she could return to her home for the foreseeable future and would spend Christmas elsewhere.

While condemning the violence outside city hall on Monday evening, mainstream unionist politicians have continued their verbal onslaught on the Alliance party.”

Crisis, Peter? What crisis?

4 comments on “Crisis? What Crisis?

  1. Willie Davison

    The events of Monday night, though ostensibly about the flying of a flag, weren’t really about that at all : what was going on was electioneering and the flexing of political muscles, a kind of political virility display: Primary School playground stuff really. Sinn Fein thought this would go down well with their electorate, make them look as if they hadn’t gone soft, in the wider context of their enthusiastic participation in the Assembly and Executive, all paid for by U.K. taxpayers. The S.D.L.P. , though probably not too bothered, were keen to out-green Sinn Fein. The Unionists thought it would be popular with Working class voters, particularly in East Belfast where they want to regain the Westminister seat lost to Alliance.
    That less than 1,000 turned out to protest just proves how much of a non-issue this is for most people. Most unionists and nationalists quite frankly could not give a toss: in the old Paisleyite days a crowd of thousands could have been mustered on an issue like this, with people travelling to be there. Now what do we get : a few fanatics, Loyalist paramilitaries (despised and hated by most in the unionist community) and early teen hoodies, the sort of people who turn up in the hope of a bit of recreational rioting. That so few turned out probably shows that the Unionists miscalculated the level of working class support they could muster. Most working class people and the middle class burghers of East Belfast, both Protestant and Catholic, will not have been impressed, both by Monday’s activities and the threats to an Alliance Councillor : Naomi Long’s position as M.P in East Belfast has probably been strengthened.
    On a wider level, whoever was responsible for what in the past, we are where we are and I believe the onus now rests with Nationalist Ireland to persuade unionists to join it. This will be a monumental task and will be hindered by continued Dissident activity. The psychology of the unionist community, little understood by Nationalists, is based on their position as a religious/political minority on the Island and by the fear this engendered. This fear was three-pronged : fear of violent Nationalism , fear of the Catholic Church, fear of a worsening of their economic position. The Provos campaign confirmed the first fear, the recent plethora of reports re the activities of the R.C. church confirmed the second, economic meltdown in the South confirmed the third. As time passes the first fear will melt away (Dissidents willing), the Catholic Church’s loss of influence will lead to a diminution of the second, the last will take longer to solve.
    Some of this fear was quite elemental, almost primitive : an anecdote will give you a flavour. My maternal grandmother was born in 1894 at the top of one of the Antrim Glens, her background was poor and remained so, as my grandfather was a landless farm labourer. Her relationship with her immediate neighbours, who were Catholic, was good. As an old woman in the early 1970s at the start of “the troubles” she said something during a visit which has stuck with me ever since : it was along the lines of “Catholic folk are all right, but if there ever was a United Ireland Protestants would be starved.” As a Grammar School boy, who thought I knew everything, I laughed inwardly at this statement, it invoked a bizarre image of food supplies being cut off to Protestant districts. What was important was not that this was ever likely to happen, but that she believed it would happen. The Provos campaign just increased this fear and played into the hands of someone like Paisley, who knew only too well how to exploit these feelings.
    Northern Nationalists and Unionists are more like each other than any other people on earth : in the present context of power-sharing understanding will grow and the old fears and phobias will gradually die away : this will probably take generations to achieve. Despite what people say in polls, I don’t believe there is any appetite in the South to interfere with this process. On visits South, outside the big cities and touristy areas, a Northern accent usually evokes unfriendliness, they really don’t like us much and are happy to let us get on with it, as far as they’re concerned the problem has been solved for the foreseeable future.
    Apologies for boring you at such length, but as I don’t think we’re ever in danger of reaching a consensus, I’ll leave it there.


    • In response to your initial points I might offer that in a shared city, divided between Irish and British communities, the institutions of the city itself must be shared – and be seen to be shared. The flag of one community atop Belfast City Hall was not sharing. Either both flags should have flown side by side or none at all.

      Sinn Féin favoured the compromise offered by the Alliance Party, it was the SDLP who demanded the complete removal and reluctantly compromised at the last minute.

      I would hope that Unionists, now that they have their compromise, would be willing to see the Irish flag flown atop the city hall during the celebrations around St. Patrick’s and the commemorations around Easter Week. That is if power-sharing is to be a reality and not just fine words.

      I’ll accept your views about the Alliance Party and what happened in east Belfast over the last couple of days.

      In relation to the various campaigns by Resistance Republicans I agree. Counter-productive and unnecessary when other means exist to pursue Republican objectives, be they political, social or cultural. They should stop.

      The greatest loss to independent Ireland was the counter-balance offered by the Protestant churches to the insidious and acquisitive influence of the Roman Catholic church in the early 20th century. The loss of 20% of our people left Ireland a wounded nation. We loss the genius, intelligence, pragmatism and high ethics of many in the northern Scots-Irish and Protestant communities.

      Do Unionists ever wonder why the RC Church took the Irish Free State side during the Civil War and were so opposed to the Irish Republic throughout the Irish Revolution and beyond? And why so many middle- and working-class Protestants and the off-spring of mixed marriages were in the ranks of the Republican movement during that period?

      The power-hungry Roman Catholic hierarchy, the old corrupt Irish Parliamentary Party and the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy were the unexpected (if temporary) winners of the War of Independence. And we still live with the after-effects of that disastrous result.

      My own experience of how northerners are viewed down south is the opposite. I’ve usually seen a warm greeting once people’s positions are sussed out (vis-à-vis Nationalist or Unionist).

      Thanks for your contribution. No consensus is needed in a frank, but I hope polite, exchange of views.

      Take care.


  2. SoS,

    Interesting post above. I saw the below over on the Guardian’s site.

    Look, having had some time to think about the whole thing I particularly feel that working class unionists/loyalists are getting a bum steer here, and I try and make this sound the least patronising as I possibly can. The guys running this whole matter on their side have wiped their hands and are trying to say ‘hey, all we want is a protest, you guys went too far, for shame,’ and that’s nonsense tbf as they surely had an inkling this would happen, we all did ffs!

    Now that the matter has been largely resolved (and yes everyone, well aware of the fall out with the Alliance in East Belfast) the real question is; what next then and what I mean by that is will we see the North that is part of the union with a Catholic/Nat majority happy to take the Queen’s crown yet gutting all unionist symbolism out from the inside so as to make it a place that they are happy to live in culturally speaking or will it be something very different? Watch this space I suppose…


    • In the initial stages I suspect that is exactly what is going to happen.

      “Northern Ireland” will assume a position of “joint sovereignty” between the Irish and British but from the inside out. The Irish community will simply divest the place of those things they find objectionable, pare down those they can compromise on, and drop in those they favour. Essentially the greening of the north.

      Eventually we will reach a stage where a tipping point will be reached and we simply slip over into the Belfast Agreement in reverse. A regional legislature and executive in the north-east of the country administrating an area along present geographical lines (or altered ones), with a regional police service, limited judicial system, and various other bits and pieces to satisfy the remaining British minority community. But all within a reunited Ireland. The actual tipping over may be dramatic in terms of reactions north and south, Ireland and Britain (less so the latter), but the afterwards may be quite humdrum.

      That Guardian article has certainly drawn plenty of hostile or cynical reactions if the Comments are anything to go by. The mantra seems to be “what goes around comes around” or “karma is a bitch”. What’s that old Latin expression? Sic pilum iactum est.


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