Both here and abroad, there is no doubt that a flag is an important representation of culture, history and national heritage.
Tensions often arise over the flying of flags, and to think the matter trivial would be to overlook the importance of the flag, particularly in certain locations. One such place is Northern Ireland, a country long divided over cultural differences, and with a history littered by violence. After a number of years of relative peace, unrest resurfaced last week when violence was sparked over the flying of the British union flag in the capital city, Belfast.
Northern Ireland has been a source of contention since the early 20th century, and to a lesser extent, for several centuries prior to that. After its partition in 1921, Ireland was split into the British-owned north and the independent south. Conflict immediately erupted in Northern Ireland between Nationalists desiring the complete unification of Ireland, and Unionists or Loyalists, preferring to remain under British rule. The dispute saw its peak from the 1960s to the 1990s, during a period commonly known as “the Troubles,” whereby extensive clashes between civilians, opposing paramilitary groups and British security forces resulted in more than 3,000 deaths.
The 1998 Good Friday Agreement and subsequent St. Andrews Agreement in 2006 have brought a general degree of unity among the political parties in Northern Ireland, and as a result there has been little trouble in recent years. However, the social cleavage remains in the region where Nationalist and Loyalist sentiments still run deep, and cultural affiliations remain potent. Think of Northern Ireland as sitting on a fault line where sporadic rumblings rekindle tensions, albeit for a short period.
The disruption currently taking place finds its source in a decision last week by the Belfast City Council to fly the union flag on only 20 designated days throughout the year, as opposed to the previous practice of flying it every day. The move came in response to Nationalist calls to take the flag down altogether and the decision was seen as a compromise between the two sides. Immediately following the decision, protests began outside the city hall which have since escalated into violence. Dozens of protestors and police have been injured, numerous arrests have been made, and attacks and threats have been directed at city councillors and local members of parliament.
Flags are a particularly important symbol in Northern Ireland, where streets are often strewn with the British union flag or the Irish tricolour, depending on what part of town you find yourself in. The Unionists see the council’s move as an affront to their cultural heritage, and part of a continued effort to chip away at the ties between Northern Ireland and the British homeland.
The recent violence has been condemned by leading Unionist parties in the government who insist that such behavior does little for the overall Unionist cause. Meanwhile, the Alliance Party, the middle-ground political group that brought forth the initial compromise over the flag, has been targeted by threats and violence, including a death threat to East Belfast Parliament member Naomi Long. In the most recent incident, a firebomb was thrown into a police car outside Long’s office building. Fortunately, the female police officer in the car was unharmed, and the egregious act will perhaps serve to bring some sobriety to the escalating situation.
The current trouble should not be taken as a sign that tensions are being revived in Northern Ireland. Sporadic violence has broken out on several occasions since the two peace agreements, and this is not the first time a dispute over flags has erupted. Certainly, division remains very potent beneath the surface in Irish communities, and will for as long as people hold onto the images of the country’s violent history, not to mention the politicization of the Catholic and Protestant religious traditions.
However, there is something to be said about the composition of the protestors: almost entirely working class males below the age of 30. The trouble may in large part be a reflection of a culture of violence among maladjusted young men in inner cities, particularly as that generation will have little or no recollection of the original troubles from decades ago. Social groups will always seek to define themselves by what they are not, and clinging to historic differences is an almost inevitable tool of this self-identification process.
But the movement stands largely in contrast to what has been an increasingly amicable collaboration between opposing political parties in recent years. Therefore, while it is important to keep abreast of genuine political and cultural grievances, particularly in an area so historically delicate as Northern Ireland, much of the recent violence should be treated as little more than criminal activity which should be condemned by the government and from which the authentic Unionist movement should disassociate itself.