Loyalists, who have gained little from the peace process, need to relate more through respect, dialogue and culture – Patricia McCarthy and Mick Rafferty
There has been turmoil in Belfast since the City Council voted to restrict flying the Union Jack to fifteen designated days. The vote was a compromise proposed by the Alliance Party. The Nationalists wanted no flags flown at all and the Unionists wanted no change. The compromise has focused Loyalist rage on the middle ground. Alliance politicians have been threatened for apparently taking the Nationalist side.
This decision of the City Council was a democratic one. The issue was first raised at the City Council’s strategic policy and resource committee, on which Nationalists have a majority. The motion for a complete removal of the flag was passed. This went to a full City Council meeting on December 3rd with the compromise proposal being passed.
The Unionists lost control of Belfast City Council in 1997. Since then the balance of power has been held by the Alliance Party. All parties alternately hold the position of Mayor, an arrangement that, on the surface, appears fair and based on power-sharing. However, the eruption of Loyalist rage has demonstrated that, while this arrangement might work within the hallowed chambers of City Hall, it is irrelevant to the lives of people living in working class Loyalist areas.
Mainstream Unionist politicians are out of touch with the realities faced by this class. These Unionist politicians may be their representatives, but they do not represent them. A woman from the Wood Vale area of North Belfast, involved in a Loyalist marching incident earlier in the year, put this contradiction well: “as far as those politicians are concerned, when they want our vote we are Unionist, but if we raise our voices and protest about our identity we become Loyalists”.
At the heart of the present disturbances is what Loyalists see as the persistent surrender of that which represents their identity, to the demands of Nationalists. In reality the vast bulk of these ‘concessions’ were the granting of civil rights to the minority in relation to issues such as discrimination in employment and housing, gerrymandering of voting, and unfairness in educational provision. It is, however, too often still part of the Unionist mindset that these are concessions.
Other concessions they see themselves as making, such as restrictions on marching, are about celebrating their identity. The restriction on flying the Union Jack on Belfast City Hall is seen as the concessionary last straw. The problem for leadership in circumstances like this is that you cannot go too far ahead in accommodating change or the activist on the ground will desert you. Equally if you try to explain the nature of the grievance you will be seen as pandering to the mob.
Some would argue that the problem for the Loyalist working class is that they have lost their privileged position. In terms of access to employment and housing this is partially true. However, the All-Island Deprivation Index, based on the census figures for 2011, found that the most disadvantaged areas in Belfast are the Wood Vale area of North Belfast and the Mount Vernon area on the Shore Road, both Loyalist working class areas. Mount Vernon lies beside Fort William, one of the most affluent areas in Northern Ireland. Herein lie the real contradictions within the Unionist or Loyalist community: the class issue. In reality, there has been no social dividend for the Loyalist working class from the peace process.
If restrictions on the flying of the Union Jack are an issue of erosion of identity, then Loyalist leaders should revisit the path of their mentor, Gusty Spence. He ultimately sought to forge the culture of, in the words of the poet John Hewitt, the Gael and the Planter into some new identity from a working-class socialist perspective. This cannot be achieved in a blind rage on the street but requires, in addition to politics, dialogue, respect and a positive articulation of identity through culture and the arts. This task is, of course, not confined to Loyalists.
Patricia McCarthy and Mick Rafferty are voluntary community activists who have been working with distressed Loyalist communities in Belfast.