At City Hall

Susan McKay

‘Disgruntled. That’s the word.’ The man was explaining how loyalists felt as they launched into the seventh week of their street protests. ‘The Republicans have got their foot under the table now and they are out to destroy everything that is British. Everything has turned full circle. Our culture is being destroyed. They are getting all the jobs and all the good houses … The politicians up at Stormont are trying to rosy it all up as if we all love each other. They should shut Stormont down. They’ve forgotten about the working people.’ He himself was unemployed, and so was his wife. A young woman with a child in a buggy tucked a Union flag around the child’s knees. I asked a young man why he was wearing a black balaclava. ‘’Cos it’s cold,’ he said. Another man said they had to hide their faces because Republicans were taking photographs of the loyalists and passing them on to the police. ‘People have lost their jobs over it,’ he said. A straggle of teenage boys, their tracksuits shawled in Union flags, came out of the KFC with steaming cartons of chips. ‘Look,’ said one of the women admiringly. ‘He has a flag on his hood.’ There were only about fifty people. I asked what would happen next. ‘We walk down to the City Hall for a rally,’ someone said. A skinny boy of about ten beside him piped up. ‘And then we riot.’

The loyalist protests outside Belfast’s City Hall began on 3 December, after the DUP and UUP distributed forty thousand leaflets around the constituency of the Alliance Party MP Naomi Long. The leaflet claimed that in a forthcoming debate on the flying of the Union flag over the City Hall, her party would be backing the Sinn Féin and SDLP position that the flag should be ‘ripped down on all but a few days’. Belfast’s council used to be a bastion of Unionism. When Ian Paisley led a campaign to wreck the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 the council hung a vast banner reading ‘Ulster Says No’ across the front of the City Hall. The Union flag was flown in front of its great wedding-cake dome 365 days a year. Currently, however, there are 24 nationalist and Republican councillors, and 20 Unionists. Alliance, with six representatives, holds the balance of power. The SDLP and Sinn Féin moved that the council should cease to fly the flag. Unionists said no to any change in the status quo. Following a lengthy public consultation, and in keeping with a recommendation by the Equality Commission, Alliance proposed a compromise by which the flag would be flown on 18 designated days a year, as is already the case at Stormont. The SDLP and Sinn Féin accepted the compromise and the motion was passed.

The iconic image of the mayhem which followed – circulated on YouTube – was of a small, fierce woman in a hoody. A protester smashes a pane of glass in a door into the City Hall. She races up, peers through the jagged hole and shrieks: ‘No surrender!’ It is a shout I grew up hearing. In my home city of Derry, loyalists roar it as they celebrate the annual burning of an effigy of Lundy, the city governor who wanted to compromise with the enemy when Derry was besieged by the Catholic forces of James II in 1689.

In the weeks that followed the council’s decision there were riots, the attempted murder of a policewoman, death threats to Naomi Long, attacks on the homes of other Alliance representatives and the burning down of Alliance offices in loyalist Carrickfergus, where loyalists also stormed a council meeting. The disturbances spread across the North. The police arrested dozens of people, including several 11 and 12-year-olds. By early January, traders were estimating losses to the local economy of up to £15 million; policing the protests had cost another £7 million. By contrast, Dublin had its best retail season for four years as Northerners drove south to shop. The Northern Ireland tourist board had pumped millions into advertising in 2012, the centenary of the launch of the Titanic, and a massive visitors’ centre modelled on the ship was opened beside the old slipway in the now idle old Harland and Wolff shipyards in which tens of thousands of Protestants used to be employed.

The poorest working-class Protestant areas in Northern Ireland were the places where loyalist paramilitarism flourished, and it is clear that they have not prospered as a result of peace. Nor have the equivalent Catholic areas, however, and dissident Republicanism is now stirring. In fact official figures for income, employment, health, education and other measures show that eight of the ten most deprived wards are in nationalist areas.

The avowedly cross-community Alliance Party has always been regarded as the ‘nice’ party, thoroughly middle class with a heartland in the affluent Gold Coast of Co. Down. Naomi Long is different. From a working-class Protestant background, articulate and passionately anti-sectarian, she accused Unionist leaders of starting the trouble in a bid to unseat her. The Alliance councillor Noel Williams called the protests a ‘full frontal attack on democracy’. Long said they had the ‘dynamics of a pogrom’, and reminded those involved that they were wrapping themselves in a flag under which people from Northern Ireland and elsewhere had fought against fascism.

The results of the census were published in the middle of all this. The news was not soothing for Unionism. For the first time, the Protestant community had fallen to below 50 per cent of Northern Ireland’s population. Of the North’s 1.8 million citizens, 48 per cent are Protestant, 45 per cent are Catholic and the rest are of different religions or none. The border areas are overwhelmingly Catholic. The Protestant population is ageing, and there are more Catholic schoolchildren. Just 40 per cent of those polled said they were solely British, with 25 per cent saying they were solely Irish and an intriguing 21 per cent stating they were Northern Irish. Other factors – including the tendency of Protestant students to go to Britain for their tertiary education and not return, while their Catholic counterparts tend to stay at colleges in Northern Ireland and don’t leave – indicate that the shift in power at Belfast City Council is just a foretaste of what is to come. One of the placards carried by a loyalist protester read: ‘Democracy doesn’t work.’

The crowd at City Hall was small – a thousand at most, nothing like the 200,000 Paisley raised in the same place in 1986 to oppose the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Police officers stood in riot gear along ranks of white Land Rovers and some officers filmed protesters, who filmed back on smartphones. Some of the protesters yelled at them: ‘Fucking fenian lovers.’ Following recommendations by the Patten Commission, the police recruited significant numbers of Catholics, which some protesters thought explained their ‘bloodlust’. The rally ended with the singing of the national anthem, the special loyalist version that includes ‘no surrender’ in the rising two-beat gap between ‘God save the queen’ and ‘send her victorious.’