Up on the hill the unionist talking shop was put in place. The most representative unionist group in fifty years, according to the DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson. But what exactly is the purpose of this forum and will it do anything except allow the DUP to continue to make their mark as the leading representatives of unionism? There are no violent scenes in East Belfast tonight so perhaps the forum has made a start in trying to bring in some loyalist voices who think they have been left behind by the peace process. There were reports of some small protests this evening and according to reports on social media more demonstrations are planned tomorrow night. Businesses in Belfast reckon they have lost £15 million pounds as a result of the protests over the decision by Belfast City Council to fly the union flag on designated days only (a subject I touched on yesterday) although it was noticeable that on a Saturday just before Christmas the shoppers had taken over the streets again while the protestors walked around City Hall in what seemed to be a circle, except that it’s a rectangular shape! So there is a major challenge facing not just unionists but nationalists as well.
Sinn Féin pointed out that unionists talking to themselves would not solve the problem of mutual respect for people’s national identity and culture. John O’Dowd said there needed to be an open discussion on how people’s Irishness and Britishness could be respected and valued. He also made the point that unionism needed to face the reality that Northern Ireland has changed since the Good Friday agreement and will continue to change. The SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell criticised the narrow nature of the talks, which are thought to have taken place in DUP offices at Stormont. Like Mr O’Dowd he stressed the principles of equality and parity of esteem and said he believed that if a new accommodation of identities is not at the heart of the conversations then the outcome would be lopsided or one sided and would not lead to a resolution of the issues of identity.
Young loyalists on the streets however from working class areas like Sandy Row have a very different perspective. They see the move to restrict the flying of the union flag as an attack on their Britishness. They have not yet been convinced that Northern Ireland’s constitutional position within the United Kingdom has been secured for as long as the majority wishes it to remain so. They are strongly critical of the folks on the hill, especially the DUP. I will refrain from printing the exact reply I got when I asked a 14 year-old why he was protesting as minor trouble began at Sandy Row last month. No peace dividend for their areas. While the attacks on police cannot be justified, the reasons why young people some not even teenagers took to the streets deserve to be examined. A sense of excitement was one of the explanations put forward. This is a new generation who did not experience the troubles and many were born after the Belfast agreement was signed. There was no one spokesperson for the protestors who could explain exactly what they wanted. William Fraser from South Armagh (the same person who organised the Love Ulster protest in 2006 that led to violence) aligned himself to the cause and talked about bringing 150 protestors to Dublin.
I was sitting in suburban South Dublin when I noticed a tweet about the now on hold Dublin protest that suggested “maybe it’s planned as one of the Gathering events”. My immediate reaction was that comments like that did little to help the situation and I tweeted that it was necessary to address the underlying reasons sensitively. Another person asked why should anyone in the Republic care about helping the situation and claimed it had nothing to do with the Republic how often the union flag was flown outside City Hall. People like these seem to have completely ignored what exactly the Good Friday agreement was about and how it involved a referendum in the Republic (94.4% in favour) and changes to Articles 2 & 3 of the Constitution. Even more interesting was the result today of a redC/PaddyPower.com poll that questioned 1000 voters in the Republic earlier this week about the flags issue. It found that over half of those that expressed an opinion (57%) suggested they felt Belfast City Council was wrong to restrict the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall “as Belfast is in the UK and the flag should be able to be flown there”. According to the figures, in total, just over one-third of Irish voters (35%) believed the Council was right to restrict the flying of the flag, “as it will be flown on specific occasions”. 47% thought they were wrong to restrict it. No view was expressed by 18%. In terms of party support, nealy half (48%) of Sinn Féin voters were in agreement that it was the right decision. An interesting number (44%) of SF voters said it was wrong and 8% answered “don’t know”.
As protestors make plans for a number of demonstrations across Northern Ireland this evening (Friday) at 6pm, it’s reported by RTÉ News and others that the DUP has taken the first step in what may become a legal challenge to Belfast City Council’s decision about the flying of the Union flag. DUP councillor John Hussey has submitted a formal complaint to the Council claiming the decision to end the practice of flying the Union flag throughout the year is in breach of equality provisions. In an alternative to the protests, a number of people are using social media to show their support for a sit-in at a pub or cafe or restaurant around the same time. Ulster rugby fans will also be focusing on tonight’s Heineken Cup match at Ravenhill against Glasgow Warriors (8pm).