Apparently there were 43 illegal roadblocks in Belfast on Monday night. In a bar with Christmas lights on the ceiling, a hundred yards from a City Hall not flying the Union Jack, most drinkers were glued to their smart phones. The man beside me was scrolling through the #flegs hashtag on Twitter. (So was I.) His friend was trying to work out if his bus was running. In the end they decided to share a taxi home.
That night, in East Belfast, a firebomb was thrown at a police car outside the constituency office of the local MP. Naomi Long is the deputy leader of the Alliance Party, which came up with the compromise solution to the problem of the Union Jack on Belfast City Hall: the flag will now fly on 15 designated days a year, not continuously as it did until last week.
Sinn Fein’s support for a British flag having any presence at all on a government building on the island of Ireland could have been interpreted as yet another co-option of republicans into a state they spent decades trying to violently overthrow. But many unionists didn’t see it that way. As councillors were voting in City Hall on 3 December, angry loyalists gathered outside. They have been on the streets ever since.
Earlier this week a protest timetable was circulated online. It seems to be genuine: on Tuesday, an hour after a demonstration was scheduled to begin at Mount Vernon, a loyalist estate in North Belfast, I was forced to make a U-turn on the nearby Shore Road, an arterial route into Belfast, which was blocked by around 25 protesters with Union Jack scarves tied across their faces. Behind them, a row of battered white PSNI Saracens kept a safe distance.
Billy Hutchinson, the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, which is aligned with the Ulster Volunteer Force, has called the unrest ‘a revolution with a small r’. The PUP and, to a lesser extent, the Ulster Political Research Group, the public face of the Ulster Defence Association, have been on the streets. But many of the demonstrators seem to be recent online recruits, organised by a new group calling itself United Protestant Voice, which sounds like a throwback to the 1960s or 1970s.
After a protracted text message conversation, one of the leaders of the protest at Belfast City Hall on 3 December agreed to be interviewed by email. The council’s decision to remove the flag was, he said, ‘like someone stabbing you through the heart’. The 32-year-old, who lives on the outskirts of Belfast and asked to remain anonymous, is a member of the Orange Order and the Democratic Unionist Party. In the weeks leading up to the vote, he set up a Facebook page called ‘Save Our Union Jack (City Hall)’. More than 1500 people signed up.
Most of the protesters are young men from Protestant areas, where educational attainment is low and employment scarce. The perception that their culture is being eroded is pervasive:
We had the UDR, that British Army Regiment was Disbanded, We had the RUC changed to the PSNI, The Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast was Changed to the Royal Hospital but even that isn't welcomed they want the Hospital renamed again. The Royal Mail they want changed to the Northern Ireland Postal Service, Anything British they want removed.
Unionist leaders aren’t exactly trying to allay such fears. A statement released by the Ulster Unionist Party this week claimed that there ‘is a fundamental issue regarding the chipping away of people's identity as British citizens’. Basil McCrea, a liberal UUP MLA, has lost his party’s whip for his ‘lack of self-discipline and teamwork’ after he suggested that taking the flag dispute to Stormont was a ‘stupid idea’.
The loyalist angst seems misplaced. The 2011 census results, released on Tuesday, show that only a quarter of Northern Ireland’s resident population define themselves as Irish; 40 per cent self-identify as British. A recent Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey found that 52 per cent of Catholics wanted to keep the Union and only 35 per cent wanted Irish unification.
The Union may be safe for the time being, but loyalists’ grip on the past is looking less secure. The Pat Finucane Review – which found ‘shocking’ evidence of state collusion in the murder of the Belfast solicitor – raises more questions than it answers: why was Finucane not told about threats to his life? Was the killing authorised by the RUC or MI5? How was it possible that, in 1985, 85 per cent of UDA intelligence came from the British security forces? Meanwhile, the PSNI Historical Enquiries Team is investigating a number of Troubles deaths linked to loyalist paramilitaries.
On the streets of Northern Ireland, the protests look set to continue. There’ll be another rally in Belfast tomorrow; demonstrations are also planned on the mainland at council offices in Margate, Glasgow, Fife and Livingston. ‘We will not Surrender to Republicans within this county,’ my loyalist contact wrote. ‘Our flag will fly again 365 days a year over Belfast City Hall.’ A seasoned Northern Irish political analyst who has worked with the Progressive Unionist Party predicted that the unrest would last until Christmas. ‘What happens in the New Year is the big question.’