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6 January 2013 Edition

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Flags furore: If it wasn’t so serious it would be laughable

• The DUP and UUP leaderships cannot duck their responsibility for stoking the Union flag protests and attacks

As Peter Robinson finally called in mid-December for an end to the protests, a number of his own MLAs snubbed his authority by still joining in and encouraging protests.

AN EDDIE IZZARD sketch on YouTube seems to sum it all up.

The British comic is sending up British colonialism. The Brits just come along stick a flag in the ground and the country (whatever country, regardless of its original inhabitants) becomes part of the British Empire because they have no flag of their own. And these natives should jolly well think themselves lucky!

Belfast and its outlying towns have become a bit like that since 3 December, when Belfast City Council voted to fly the Union flag (aka the Union Jack) not every day but on 17 designated days, the same as at the Assembly at Stormont.

Violent, threatening mobs have taken to the streets, sticking flags in everyone’s face and telling us we should be grateful for the experience.

The vulnerable Catholic populations throughout north Belfast, from Ligoniel to Carnmoney, where loyalists have decided to hoist flags on lampposts outside their homes, know exactly what it means when unionist politicians describe these actions as “peaceful protests”.

Masked gangs are erecting flags outside Catholic churches. And interface areas where people have worked so hard to make life better for the inhabitants are now being marked out as ‘unionist areas’ as flag after flag (including UVF flags) is strung up.

The ‘leaderships’ of the unionist parties, who played the Orange Card in the run-up to the City Hall vote by distributing 40,000 leaflets on flying the flag (not on jobs, housing or the Welfare Reform Bill), are now frantically trying to duck their responsibility in whipping up tensions as unionist mobs block roads and force Alliance Party councillors out of their homes. The blame for the rioting and violence is laid at the doors of Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Alliance Party.

The DUP’s and UUP’s refusal to stand up and show a bit of real leadership is breath-taking.

As Peter Robinson finally called in mid-December for an end to the protests, a number of his own MLAs snubbed his authority by still joining in and encouraging protests.

Unionism’s leaders are talking out of both sides of their mouths on this one.

Unionist political thinking

But what has to be the most worrying aspect of this whole affair is the narrowness of unionist/loyalist political thinking.

Clearly the thinking behind the DUP/UUP decision to target the Alliance Party, starting with their bogus leaflet in Alliance colours talking about the Union Flag being ripped down, has proved to be a strategic blunder.

Their initial support for ‘peaceful protests’ that saw masked gangs coming onto the streets to intimidate and threaten was also a bad judgement call.

It has to be said, though, that the media has played its part by constantly referring to protests and protesters when, in reality, these were gangs of balaclava-wearing bullies taking over the streets as the PSNI often stands and simply watches.

However, it is the attitude, and political manoeuvring, of the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP), now led by former UVF prisoner Billy Hutchinson, that shows up the dearth of a political strategy that gives any direction to working-class loyalists.   

Quoted in the unionist daily News Letter, the PUP East Belfast Councillor Dr John Kyle reveals thinking that turns progressive political thinking on its head:

“For some in loyalist communities their life opportunities are very restricted, with few employment opportunities, sub-standard schools, educational under-achievement is endemic, their disposable income is very limited, and when their life is very grim their cultural identity becomes increasingly important.

“If you attack and undermine that then it strikes at the very heart of their identity. They see their culture being gratuitously attacked.”

So rather than organise the working class to demand their rights from the state or identify the reasons as to why their life opportunities are limited, the PUP instead encourages them to engage in jingoistic flag waving. One flag, one culture, one way of looking at the world.

school-flags• Newly erected Union flags are placed outside Catholic schools by loyalists (Mercy Primary, Mercy Secondary and Holy Cross Girls’ School)

In an address to the Desmond Greaves Summer School in August 1994, Dr Luke Gibbons, even way back then, identified the real issue for unionists in respect of culture and identity.

“Britishness,” said Gibbons, “in its formative period was expressly anti-Catholic which meant disenfranchising the native Irish population.”

Gibbons went on to address the issue of loss for unionists of their “British identity”.

In remarks that go to the heart of what we are dealing with now, he said:

“The loss of their British identity is often presented as the basic fear of unionism. This is not in fact the key issue. The difficulty once more would seem to be one of accepting Irish people, and by extension Irish culture, as equals.”

If the idea of equality and parity of esteem are lost on the unionist leadership then we shouldn’t be surprised at the reaction of mobs whose notion of superiority is constantly being reinforced.

It sure beats real political leadership.

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