A few thoughts on the ‘Loyalist’ protests (part 2): This post aims to ask the question, ‘why are people protesting?’ It is not meant to provide a definitive answer but only to give my perspective on what’s happening and invite others to do the same.
In my view, the protests are not fueled by any one specific reason but by a range of reasons. The flag issue at the City Hall in Belfast may have provided the motivation for the protests, but they are not the sole reason for their intensity or longevity. There are various underlying issues contributing to feelings of dissatisfaction and anger within Loyalist communities. I’ll try to outline what I think a few of them are here.
Before I begin to discuss the reasons for the protests, I’d like to dispel a myth I have heard a few times – it is simply not true to say these protests are about money. They are not about getting funding for Loyalist groups or Loyalist areas (even though both are badly needed). This has been suggested by outsider cynics who are neither connected to Loyalist grassroots communities nor invested in peacebuilding.
So, if the protests are not about money, what are they about? In a general sense, the protests are about a feeling in Loyalist/working class Unionist communities that they have been sold a pig in a poke. People feel the peace process is not working for them. They feel they have lost out. Many Loyalists and Unionists feel like they are being asked to give more than they are getting in return. There is the perception that the peace process, so far, has been largely a political one which has primarily benefited the middle classes and has yet to filter down to grassroots communities (more on that later).
The first reason I’d like to suggest for the protests is that some Unionists politicians (DUP and UU) called for action and protest over the flag issue. If they call for action then they need to take their share of responsibility when it goes wrong. History has shown that you can not call people out on to the streets of Northern Ireland and maintain control over everyone. These politicians would, of course, have known this, but they quickly disassociated themselves from the protests when some turned violent. I wonder why the same politicians did not offer training in nonviolence or unarmed resistance to the protesters? I suspect there are two reasons. Firstly, I don’t think politicians have the leadership or the good sense to think of it. Secondly, as there is no peace money available for it, no one cares. Big name ‘peace consultants’ (who charge £500 a day) and directors of ‘peace organisations’ are not interested in working with grassroots communities unless there is big money available to them to do it (this will be the subject of a future post).
Secondly, 2012 was a very important year for both Loyalism and Unionism. There were a number of centenaries celebrated, including the Balmoral Review and the Ulster Covenant. The Union flag at Belfast City Hall is hugely symbolic to both Loyalists and Unionists, perhaps even more so than at Stormont because it is there that the Ulster Covenant was signed 100 years ago. With this in mind, after a summer of fairly high tensions, the decision to reduce the days the flag was flown at Belfast City Hall from 365 days a year to 18 by Belfast City Council was very badly timed. Many Loyalists and Unionists, who felt they had already compromised a lot in what they felt was supposed to be ‘their’ big year, saw this as a step too far. This poor timing helps to explain why there was not a similar reaction when the same decision was taken over the flag at Lisburn Council or at Stormont.
We also need to understand the protests within the context of what is going on in wider society.
Northern Ireland is still a society coming out of conflict. We’re not there yet. A peace process is by definition a process. It’s a bumpy ride. It’s not an end point. There have been and will be steps backwards along the way. Sections of the media (sensationalist popular tv/radio shows and tabloid newspapers) who paint all Loyalists as the bad guys are ill-informed and making huge error of judgement. There is no doubt there are some Loyalists who haven’t really moved on much since the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), hence the violence. But there are also some Republicans who have not moved on since the GFA. We tend to lump all Loyalists in one box (see previous post) but we go to great lengths to differentiate mainstream Republicanism from dissident Republicanism. The progress made by mainstream Loyalism and its contribution to the peace process has largely gone unacknowledged.
Finally, and the influence of this point is difficult to underestimate, Loyalist and working class Unionist communities have suffered a profound sense of abandonment; politically, economically, and socially. This is what people mean when they say that Loyalist communities have been ‘left behind’. There is almost no political voice that represents Loyalism (the reasons for this are complex). The ongoing effects of deindustrialisation (the loss of traditional working class jobs) and lack of educational attainment (the statistics show that the odds are hugely stacked against kids from Loyalist areas making it to grammar school, nevermind university) mean that not only have things not got better for Loyalist areas since the GFA, they have got worse. Often those who had the capacity to ‘get out’ did, leaving behind those who were unemployed, underemployed, or with little social mobility. Those in positions of power have little motivation to change things because it would mean them giving up the privileges and advantages they enjoy.
Simply put, Loyalist and working class Unionist communities have yet to experience the peace dividend. Until the peace process filters down so that everyone feels the benefits, little will change.