I’ve split my thoughts on the protests into two categories: This post (part 1) will ask the question, ‘what is going on?’ Part 2 (to come) will address ‘why?’ But, for now, I want to think about what is actually happening. We know that since December 3rd there have been multiple, sustained protests against the decision to stop flying the Union flag at Belfast City Hall 365 days a year. The majority of these protests have been nonviolent but, as we’ve become accustomed to in our part of the world, a minority who use violence have grabbed most of the headlines.
It seems clear these protests are motivated by a multitude of factors (which I will try to outline in part 2). But, firstly, who is behind them and why? I should make clear at this point that this is only my opinion but it would appear to me there are four elements at work in the protests and they all have different agendas:
Firstly, and by far the biggest group, are the progressive elements within Loyalism. They have made it clear they may be pissed off at the flag vote, but they are determined to use any influence they have to keep things nonviolent. They have called for restraint and unarmed resistance. They deserve great credit for this. In this group I would include the UPRG, the PUP, and others. This group are, generally speaking, fully supportive of the peace process.
The second element involved are anti-Good Friday Agreement and anti-peace process Unionists. These are the old-school traditional Unionist types who are now represented by the TUV. If they had their way, the Northern Ireland Assembly would be abolished and there would be a return to direct rule from Britain.
The third group are autonomous elements within Loyalism who don’t respect the mainstream leadership and don’t care for keeping it nonviolent. Their identity is still informed by a conflict mentality. We can conclude from the mixed messages from the PSNI about paramilitary involvement that they are acting without the support of the paramilitary leadership.
The fourth and smallest group are right-wing extremists (BNP types) who are trying to hijack the protests to build support for their own agenda. Mainstream leaders will be too smart to associate with them as they know they will discredit their campaign but that doesn’t seem to have stopped them trying.
Like I said, this is just my opinion. I may not have described it accurately or I may have missed something important. Let me know if you think I have.