Martina Devlin: The divided North needs to wrap itself in a flag of a different colour
Published 17/01/2013 | 17:00
OPERATION We'll Show You has kept the flagellation issue rumbling into its seventh week now. And that's getting on for seven weeks more than this manipulated bout of civil unrest in the North should have been allowed to continue.
The trouble, orchestrated by gangsters masquerading as loyalist leaders, ought to have been addressed immediately. Because although the rioters are far from articulate and their behaviour is self-destructive, their disengagement with the peace process is genuine.
While there is no sign of the disturbances escalating province-wide, it's in the general interest to negotiate a solution quickly. The rioters are dangerous.
Not because of what they are doing, but because of who they are: when someone with a grievance has no education to speak of, no job, no wealth and nothing to lose, he or she becomes formidable.
Violent protests could drag on for months until linking up with the marching season. These people were weaned on a 'no surrender' identity.
No doubt loyalism feels endangered, although its greatest threat doesn't arise from the prospect of being sold down the river into a united Ireland – many people in the Republic prefer Northern Ireland tucked away behind the Border – but from being amputated by Britain.
The rioters' dilemma is that the more primitively they behave, the less British they appear in appalled eyes across the water. Donning a mask and throwing a brick at a police officer may make a non-entity feel like somebody, but that somebody is not a representative British citizen.
However, the disturbances are about so much more than a flag, or a diminished sense of identity, or even the loss of the whip hand.
Leaving aside the recreational rioters, all of the above factors feed into the disillusionment spilling from rioting loyalists – manipulated for their own ends by self-interested UVF hoodlums.
A convincing case has been made that a forthcoming supergrass trial is the underlying motivation behind UVF direction of the riots, giving the forces of law and order a not-too-subtle hint about that court case.
Whatever the catalyst, solutions need to be found: firstly to end the disturbances and secondly to neutralise grievances. The rioters may be a tiny proportion of the population, but these few are damaging the Northern Irish economy and reputation.
A return to flying the union flag over Belfast City Hall for 365 days a year – the status quo revisited – is untenable. It would reward rioting and would erode democracy because the decision to reduce the number of flag days was taken following public consultation, a debate and a vote.
Challenging the vote has to be via a legal route, not by acts of illegality such as blocking roads and indulging in mocking laughter when a pensioner pleads to pass through the barricades to visit his wife in hospital.
Another suggestion – sending the British army on to the streets to end the thuggery – would press the nuclear button. It's better for the PSNI to deal with law and order, backed by additional resources when crisis looms.
Nevertheless, something has to give. Regarding the flag, a compromise solution could be offered.
Begin by addressing misinformation: the mistaken belief that the union flag was banned. (Technically it should only be known as the 'union jack' when it flies from a ship.) Highlight all the days when it does fly from City Hall and invite interested parties along to receptions where they can see it there at the top of a flagpole.
Next, since a flag is meant to be a force for unity, not division, some consideration might be given to agreeing on a compromise banner acceptable to the majority, which could fly morning, noon and night if people so wish.
How about devising a new flag, without any baggage from the past, to identify Northern Ireland? Make it a cross-community project and put someone with a track record of interacting with loyalism in charge of the scheme – candidates of the calibre of Senator Martin McAleese.
The chosen strip of material may end up like 'Ireland's Call', tolerated rather than loved, but that's preferable to flag deification and flag burning.
NOW, other fault lines need to be tackled. The riots highlight how politicians have grown comfortable in Stormont and remote from a sector of their community. And doesn't that have a familiar ring?
Rioters believe nationalists are getting preferential treatment, hiving off the bulk of money for social housing. They see nameplates in Irish on streets, Tricolours flying from blocks of flats. And they have a suspicion their former leaders are too chummy with their erstwhile enemies in Sinn Fein. Long-held, traditional fears of a sell-out are bubbling under the surface.
More effective than policing solutions is to get people off the dole, foster cross-community interaction and invest in desegregated schools.
The future doesn't hinge on keeping people apart, but integrating them where possible – or at least showing them the dividends from living side by side. Since the peace process, peace walls have mushroomed to divide communities in Belfast, when surely the long-term strategy should be to render them unnecessary.
The riots have trained attention on the North again. Let that focus move on to removing peace walls rather than flags.