a few thoughts on the protests (part 2) – why are they happening?

Loyalists Protest on the Shankill Road 03A 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.

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9 thoughts on “a few thoughts on the protests (part 2) – why are they happening?

  1. Hi Dave,

    I’m not so sure getting loyalist communities to buy in to ‘Non-violent approach to protest’ seminars / workshops will achieve anything now.
    Although these were very beneficial in North Down and Ards, they are unlikely to assuage the increasing anger felt by many loyalists.
    What has been emerging within loyalist communities is the ability to recognise that those ‘unionists’ who sit in Stormont are prepared to sell out their own people and communities for the sake of keeping their jobs. Also these same Stormont ‘unionists’ have sought the support of some factions within loyalist paramilitarism to try to stop others from expressing their discontent and acting upon their right to freedom of speech. The flag protestors in Belfast have numerous issues they rightfully protest about. For example, in East Belfast Naomi Long (SF /Alliance) asked loyalists to support her for Westminister only to knife them in the back. I wonder will she keep her seat next time around?
    The flag protestor across the Province have nuerous other concerns, as has been said, it is not just a flag issue.
    In light of all of this I very much doubt the DUP will achieve too many gains in both Council / super Council elections or at the next Stormont election.
    The flag protestors rightly or wrongly, depending on the foot you kick with, are making it clear to the wider public that they are no longer going to sit back and to quote Ruth Patterson (DUP Councillor Belfast City Council) “just put up with it”, having our culture, traditions, heritage and identity eroded away by the nationalist socialist agenda, supported by the DUP and other spineless unionists who haven’t got the strength to stand up and say “No” to Sinn Fein and their sycophant abettors within the SDLP, Alliance, DUP and UUP.
    Peaceful protest is both valid and necessary however if that right to protest is removed then what alternative do the protestors have? You are correct to say PUL communities are feeling they have gained nothing from the GFA. I helped carry out research on this and with the help of John Hamilton at BULB, Dr John Kelly Fingerprint Learning, we produced a report and accompanying DVD (Beneath the Mask and Imperfect Peace) highlighting that the sense of undervaluing and political abandonment would inevitably lead to the frustrations spilling out onto the streets of our towns and cities. Alas the prophecy is being fulfilled. I call on people to peacefully protest (you know how effective it was in North Down) but at the same time I call on the politicians to take heed, you will reap what you have sown!

    • Thanks for your reply Tatty. You make some very interesting points. Who are the Loyalists (and Unionists) who voted for Naomi Long going to vote for in the next election other than the big two Unionist parties? The problem is, as you know, there is little choice. If you don’t see the DUP gaining ground, what do you see happening? Would also love to hear you thoughts on the People’s Forum if you are willing to share. Totally agree that your research on Beneath the Mask DVD was a wake up call for Unionism that wasn’t heard or if heard was not acted upon. (For those who haven’t seen it http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l3rX6TbIRNg)

  2. Having reached adulthood in the West of the Bann Orange/Black tradition, I continue to wince at our seeming inability to find a voice or device to express explicitly the fears of our community. The local squire and the Church permitted parades and demonstrations to mark their privileges and property. The yeomanry were equipped and shielded in the defence of their lands and prosperity. Never were the lower class expected to react in any form other than the physical.
    An educated new generation of young people learned to speak after WW2. Nationalists invested their gifts in their community and its political aspirations. Unionists were expected to heed the bidding of their elders, to fight because it was right to enjoy advantage over a perceived threat to the Ascendancy’s grip on the economy. The scales fell off our eyes. We emigrated. I am one of the few who wanted to return to a role in society at home.
    Year after year, we stood in the Demonstration field and celebrated exclusivity. The towns burned around us. Young men queued to join uniformed organisations, state legal and otherwise. Every life lost was a hideous waste.
    Now, privilege is gone. The elected elders of the Church and State sneer at a people who no longer have a reason to swagger. They no longer have a usefulness, except to return one of our own sort at the ballot box. A people with few words and diluted symbolism are bursting with an anger and frustration at their loss. Nothing can ever replace it.
    My point is that at last the people have had enough of a patronising elite, the sterile and hypocritical class, who embody every teacher, cleric, solicitor, and employer who has treated them with contempt. Why? Because the Unionist is no longer of any economic worth. I still shudder at the memory of that vacuous feelgood campaign held after the GFA. “Would it be great if it was like this all the time?” Please.
    And Thankyou for your considered insight.

  3. This is mostly nonsense. If the premise that working/non-working class Protestants have not experienced a peace dividend because the middle classes have grabbed it all, then surely the same must apply in w/c Catholic areas. Really – what has loyalism given up that they should have been allowed to keep?
    They have of course given up their political representation because not enough loyalists voted for them. They failed to realise that both main unionist parties could care less about them. Had they built the political machine that republicanism did, they would have a stronger voice. They’d still be poor and unemployed as Catholics are but their representatives would live among them. As for lack of educational attainment, this is about parental support and lots of hard work. Both of these seem to be improving the lot of many poor background Catholics.

  4. I find it somewhat odd when someone dismisses as nonsense the content of something seemingly on the basis of something the author hasn’t actually said or based on a presumption that the blogger.is ignorant of political, economic and social issues beyond the immediate context/reference point of his blog. I would suggest it might be more prudent to check this out with the author before jumping to conclusions as there is a risk that otherwise any nonsense might lie closer to home.

  5. First, I apologise if I gave offence with the use of the word nonsense. However, I stand by the rest of my comments. To suggest that anyone should have expected that there was more of a peace dividend coming to poor areas in NI other than peace itself is surely to lose sight of what was agreed. Nowhere in the GFA is anyone promised prosperity! They were promised that politics would become “normal” and that systems would ensure that no one community could make laws that the other community disliked (and that premise presumes there are only two communities which I’ve always disputed). Prosperity (in the form of a reasonably paid job) would only arrive if “foreign” investors thought they could make profits from the efforts of the workers here and that their equipment and ex-pats were safe.
    Like many catholics, I am really at a loss to understand what evidence there is to suggest that protestant culture is/has been eroded. Once again my question is; what has loyalism lost that it should have been allowed to keep? Please give me a real answer someone and not that continual drone I keep hearing about “we’ve given too much”, “we’re now second class citizens in our own country”, “we can’t walk the Queen’s highway anymore” and “we’ve lost our police force”. Working and non-working class people on both sides are the second class citizens and if the St Patrick’s display is anything to go by then any right thinking person would place restrictions on sectarian marches (please don’t attempt to call them anything other than that). Losing a police force? No, we all got a better one, one that each group in this society can identify with including those people who are not from the two tribes.
    Like most people in this place I grew up in a working class environment. When I say poor, I mean poor. The way out of that was work. Not the shipyard or Mackies you understand because it had been made clear to generations before me that these were places where my sort would not be welcomed. Two choices stood in front of me – either accept life on the dole as many others around me had and did or work to change that. Fortunately for me I chose the second option. Not at 16 as I was too busy throwing bricks and bottles at police, army and other poor people who happened to live across the main road. Later, much later, when I woke up to the fact that I was responsible for my future and no-one was going to hand me a comfortable life. With regard to the “flag”, like almost every other catholic I know (even some shinners) the union flag flying above City Hall did not in any way negatively impact me. I really hadn’t even noticed it and even if I had, so what! This is a British city and what would you expect to see flying above the civic building other that the British flag. I have to be honest though and tell you that the ‘Ulster Says No’ banner did bug me.
    My final point, if anyone is still reading. As someone who has supported any attempt to create a working class middle ground (Alliance doesn’t do it for me) I really despair when I read research and commentary that gives succour to the anti-democratic in our society. If loyalist working class activists are clear that there are genuine grievances and that these can be addressed while not eroding the rights of others, please, please, please organise properly. Create the party that the DUP and UU aren’t. I suspect that no “third way” will ever emerge because – – well because this isn’t really what it’s all about. Tatty (above) gives the answer to that when he says Naomi Long knifed loyalists in the back. If anyone seriously thought that electing Ms Long (as a protest against the Robinsons) would result in a lightly orange coloured MP, they must be bonkers. Tatty!, this is called democracy. If you don’t like it, vote for someone else. If the flag decision was wrong, challenge it in the courts, under Section 75 or vote the perpetrators out next time and overturn the decision.
    Thank you for allowing me a say. We may never agree but I enjoyed reading what you all wrote.

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