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Behind the flag row

December 07, 2012

AS Ulster loyalists torched offices belonging to the non-sectarian Alliance party, bombarded police with missiles and bottles and threatened to turn Belfast City Hall into a slaughterhouse this week they were oblivious to an apposite event south of the Irish border.

On the day hardline loyalists — angered over Belfast city council’s decision to only fly the union flag (the flag of the United Kingdom) on designated days such as Queen Elizabeth’s birthday — moved their violent protests to the highly symbolic town of Carrickfergus, the Irish Republic introduced its sixth austerity budget in a row.

While the extremists saw the end of a policy of flying the union flag 365 days a year as an existential threat to the union itself, the financial and political realities in Dublin said otherwise.

Irish budget day showed how bankrupt and dependent the Republic is on the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the EU to fund the social welfare system, hospitals, schools and public services.

The idea of the Republic absorbing Northern Ireland in a unitary state seems economically far-fetched. The cost would add 15 per cent to the Republic’s public spending, which even in the Celtic Tiger boom years would have been a shock to the system.

So, in reality, the row over the UK’s flag on top of the City Hall in Belfast is more about an inter-communal squabble over symbols. Why then do unionist politicians employ incendiary language, denouncing the Alliance party this week as a “delivery system for Sinn Fein”, and loyalists riot and burn over a policy that does not alter the status quo?

Professor Peter Shirlow, from Queen’s University Belfast, who has spent over a decade mapping sectarian patterns across Northern Irish society, believes loyalists see red concerning double standards of nationalists. Shirlow points out Sinn Fein and the less nationalist SDLP recently voted to retain naming a children’s playground after IRA hunger striker Raymond McCreesh in Newry.

The Alliance party began 2012 in the crosshairs of the dissident republican terror groups because their leader, David Ford, is Northern Ireland’s justice minister. As part of the ongoing disputes in Maghaberry prison, for which Ford has responsibility, supporters of Continuity IRA and new IRA prisoners picketed Alliance’s HQ in Belfast’s University district and later smeared it with excrement.

Now Alliance is in the sights of hardline loyalists because the party was able to implement one of its core policies: to make parts of Northern Ireland, including council buildings, neutral venues for both communities. It was Alliance councillors, who hold the balance of power at City Hall, whose councillors were critical of taking down the union flag while ensuring it will still fly on 20 key days of the year.

This compromise did not satisfy mainstream unionist parties or the more extreme elements connected to loyalist paramilitaries. But, they ignored a key fact that the unionist electorate only has itself to blame for the growing representation of nationalist councillors in Belfast. Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson has called for an end to demonstrations around the flag flying, as loyalist protesters mounted road blocks in Belfast. — The Guardian, London