11 Jan 2013

Belfast flag protests: cause and effect

Cause: a couple of sustained flashpoints and rioting for a month now in one small part of one small area of one large city.

Effect: millions of pounds of costs in terms of extra policing. Millions going down the drain in the Belfast economy.

There are three examples that have come my way in the past 24 hours.

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I’m sitting in Belfast’s Harlem cafe and restaurant yesterday with a friend who works hard to promote this great city:

“Great to see this place so busy – eh?” I say

“No way,” she sighs. “You’d be lucky to get a table normally without reserving and look at it – lots of empty tables.”

A crying shame given the delicious food and lovely surroundings typical of the new “post-peace” Belfast.

Late last night in the taxi and our driver leans round and says: “Do you realise you’re the first fare I’ve had tonight. It’s terrible. Nobody’s coming out. Friend of mine here – see he’s been driving 20 years in Belfast. Never had a worse Christmas than the one gone by.”


And so to tonight. Just a short distance from the Newtownards Road flashpoint in east Belfast, the Belfast Giants ice hockey team play the Dundee Stars at the Odyssey. They start at 7.30pm.

Several more thousand pounds will be lost as people cannot or will not go.

For 7.30 is slam in the middle of the early evening wave of protests dubbed “Operation Standstill”. Organisers like Willie Frazer predict scores of protests across Northern Ireland – plus one in Liverpool and one in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Mr Frazer said: “I’ve no idea how many of these protests will actually block any roads or if that is the intention. But we intend peaceful protests.”

Operation Standstill

No doubt he does. But they’ve called this Operation Standstill; they’ve timed it for the Friday rush-hour period; and they know fine rightly, as they say here, that calling people onto the streets means disrupting those streets. Do the maths.

The police (PSNI) tactic appears mostly to be to let it happen, to let the streets be shut and hope they’ll get bored and cold and go peacefully.

They usually do. But that going often means moving off to the known flashpoints to actually do something fun and exciting in young lives seriously lacking both: engage in some somewhat ritualised rioting with the police for a couple of hours.

What’s odd is how in east Belfast the splinter UVF paramilitaries have kept it all going for a month. That’s a long time even by Belfast standards, and we’ve seen nothing this sustained for many a long year here.

What’s significant also is that so far, sustained trouble is not happening in any other loyalist areas where paramilitary groups have influence.

Should that change, then the situation becomes far more serious.  But it has not done so thus far. Though even that fact’s obviously of little comfort to Belfast’s restaurateurs, cabbies and ice-hockey players who have a stake and a future, away from the alienated kids who see no future beyond the coming buzz of the next night’s futile streetfighting.

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20 reader comments

  1. Sarah Ryan says:

    It makes me so sad that this is happening to my lovely city and as a result we are getting such bad press when we have worked so hard to heal and make amends. The voice of a minority disrupting normal people who want a regular Friday night without all this hassle, okay we can laugh and have the “fleg” banter which makes light of it all – but really this has got to stop!

  2. Brenda says:

    These are not loyalists blocking the roads..These are Hoods/Thugs/Terrorists, No where else in the UK would this be accepted but in Ulster These Criminals can do what they want.
    The overwhelming Majority of The Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist community have totally rejected these protests which by usual standards have very very low numbers turning out, made up mostly of teenage hoods and mothers with baby’s in prams , they don,t realize that it is there own community suffering the most with this wanton destruction.

  3. Dave says:


    ironically, it was only in last 6 months that my (Southern Irish based) family felt safe enough to visit Belfast again since the 1994.

    Our plans to visit, shop and eventually holiday in Northern Ireland will have to wait a little longer – unfortunately :(

    I can’t imagine how difficult and frustrating t is for those who are trying to keep their business on an even keel…


  4. Richard Head says:

    Morons will be morons
    Thugs will be thugs
    Bigots will be bigots
    Nothing we can do about it.

    1. Thug says:

      Actually there is something that could be done about it. Stop having segregated schools. Kids are trained by this idiotic situation that they are different from the other side. There should be no ‘other side’, based on what kind of christian you are or what flag you wave.

  5. Stevemayman says:

    The problems highlighted by the flags protests are well beyond E. Belfast and disaffected working class Protestant youths. There will be no shortage of Ulster flags ( considered by many nationalists to be objectionable) at Ravenhill Rugby football ground when Ulster play Glasgow at 7pm. Many middle class Alliance and SDLP voters will not say a word lest they offend the rugby fraternity but through their political representatives will delight in the Belfast City Council decision taken in their name. The young voices of disaffected unionism can smell a hypocrite in all their guises. They have certainly exposed The DUP & Alliance in their pre-election skullduggery.
    Operation Sit In is a lazy excuse for drinking on a Friday night disguised as some sort of political counterpoint. Some involved will no doubt attempt to write off the costs as a business expense.

  6. David says:

    Alex, It’s not just “alienated kids”. It affects every strand of the protestant community. The flag issues is just the tip of an iceberg and you, as a journalist, have responsibility to report the wider context. e.g.
    . how all the SF and SDLP members of Newry and Mourne council voted to name a children’s playground after a man who murdered innocent protestant fathers … that’s akin to a Muslim area in upstate New York naming a playground after Osama Bin Laden.
    . how protestant churches, such as the one in Glenavy, are atteacked on a day and daily basis.
    . how biased the media, and BBC in partcular, are in promoting nationalist and republican culture.
    . how unbalanced legislation such as the parading order and the Fair Employment and treatment act are.
    . etc. etc.

    The biggest single source of discrimination is the education sector. Catholic schools promote division and conflict. They are exempt from legislation that promotes equality which results in them producing generations of sectarian bigots – people who think it is OK to abuse protestant communities.
    To make matters worse, the education sector is controlled by SF.

    Look at the Higher Education sector – It is disproportionately catholic. Too many young protestants just feel that they are being “cleansed” out of this country. They never return. The recent census figures support this analysis and are readily available for even the most lazy journalist to check.

    Alex, if you scrape the surface, do some proper journalism, you’ll understand that trouble is just the visible “venting”. Now is the time to fix the problems under the surface in a truly fair, equitable and sustainable manner – for both communities. For anyone who has grown up here and understands the people, it’s not hard to predict the consequences of doing nothing.

    1. Thug says:

      Again, there should be no catholic schools or protestant schools or any other schools based on such ‘should be’ private matters as faith. There should be just schools, all in one, together. Then maybe one day there would be no Catholic or Protestant communites, just people, where monty-python-esque arguments about which way one should interpret an old book with dubious claims to any moral or factual truth become completely irrelevant in daily life.

      1. Erch says:

        Separate schooling is greatest obstacle to improving relations between Protestants and Catholics. The Catholic Church is adamant,they are totally against integrating Catholic children with Protestant children and will not allow it.
        Why is it that they not challenged on their stance by politicians journalists etc?

  7. Pete says:

    Stripped of context, the public disorder appears inexplicable, and news media is fond of presenting events in Northern Ireland as unknowable and mysterious.

    The missing context is that Northern Ireland in general and Belfast City Council in particular are poorly served by incompetent local politicians. In the case of the flag, the council invited public views on flag policy, (10,000 plus responded, over 90% wanting no change in policy), then decided to ignore those views. None of the parties or Councillors ran on flag removal, and it appeared in no manifesto. This is not a question of ‘democracy’ being challenged as the three parties responsible (Sinn Fein, Alliance, SDLP) maintain, its a question of ignored people throwing a spanner in the works because that gets the attention of a self-serving political establishment.

  8. Michael says:

    Its the fact that the government has given in to paramillitaries and people are now seeing everything stripped away.They take and spend the english pound so why do republicans want a flag taken down.Would the irish republic remove the tricolour if asked to I dont think so.I dont condone rioting or violence but people have the right to take a stand against what they feel is the last remaining part of Northern Ireland.

  9. Brian says:

    The recent trouble in NI is not about flags. It stems from the refusal of the Protestant/unionist/loyalist community to accept the Catholic/nationalist/republican community as equals in a democratic society. Losing the “supremacy” demonstrated in Northern Ireland since partition is a bitter pill to swallow!

  10. Mark says:

    I was sitting in Harlem cafe yesterday behind Alex and there was not a free table in sight, the place was heaving – we had to wait for our table even though we had booked! So not too sure where Alex’s dinner mate was looking…. Harlem is an example of a number of great new places in Belfast taking advantage of the renewed optimism in the city which might be suffering at present but which will not be extinguished.

  11. paul says:

    What these protesters can’t accept is equality pure and simple. They would like to turn the clock back to a time of unionist domination and discrimibation. Wake up and smell the coffee it ain’t happening.

  12. S.B. BELFAST says:

    I don’t know whether to laugh at David’s assessment or just shake my head and pity that sort of extreme paranoia. ‘The Education sector is controlled By Sinn Fein’?? That’s a good one given that the DUP and UUP have had the chance time and time again to take the Education Department as their first choice when the parties were given their pick of Stormont ministries so that is a non starter arguement there. ‘Catholic schools promote division and conflict’?? Tell that to the ever growing number of Protestant/Unionist families who are sending their children to ‘Catholic’ schools because of the better academic results there as result tables annually show. Fair Employment? The breakdown of inequality cases show that more Catholics than Protestants STILL have to use Fair Employment Legislation to get equality in the workplace in the North of Ireland and there are STILL more discrimination cases brought by Catholics than Protestants outstanding with the Equality Commission. Likewise 8 of the top 10 most socially deprived areas in the North of Ireland are STILL Nationalist/Catholic while the suicide rate within the Catholic community is STILL higher than the Protestant community. I could pick holes in the rest of your ‘points’ David but they are merely symptomatic of the wallowing self pity mindset and total denial mode that Unionism carries around like a comfort blanket.
    Unionism/Loyalism is so lost, leaderless and blinded that it is striking out in every direction attempting to blame everyone and anything for it’s own largely self inflicted situation. For 50 years they ran a horrible, corrupt, bigoted, apartheid, gerrymandered statelet that used institutionalised sectarianism, violence and draconian laws to keep the Catholic population ‘in their place’. ‘Fenians’ kept their heads down as they were afraid to look out of their eyes in case they were battered senseless by Unionist state militias. ALL that Catholics wanted was the vote, decent housing and some respect. Unionists denied Catholics these basic Civil Rights from 1921, kept them as second class citizens and salivated in the control and power they wielded. Now they just cannot handle or accept the fact that they are no longer the ‘master with the whip’ in the big white house on the hill. Catholics will no longer roll over for these bigots and this is what is driving Unionism crazy.
    The arguements that Unionists and Loyalists are using for their current anarchy are complete and utter nonsense. This is not about the Union Flag over Belfast City Hall which was a democratic vote by constitutional politicans The Good Friday Agreement guaranteed everyone in the North of Ireland parity of esteem and the freedom of identity whether that be British/Unionist or Irish/Nationalist; the current constitutional place of the North of Ireland within the UK while the majority want it is also guaranteed so what is Unionism’s grief?
    They talk about denial of culture and parading? In 2012, for virtually every week of the entire year, Unionists held 1000’s of parades and street parties in EVERY city, town, village and hamlet they lived in for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee; the Ulster Covenant; the 12th July Orangefest; Scarva; Apprentice Boys/ Lundy Day in Derry; Remembance Sunday and the Cenotaph etc etc. There were Union Flags, Ulster Flags, UDA/UVF flags, Orange Order flags, British military flags, Poppies ALL over the place for365 days and the Catholic community literally said NOTHING and let Unionists get on with it. Apart from St. Patrick’s Day how many Irish/Nationalist celebrations were there in the North of Ireland in 2012? You could count them on one hand!
    Simple facts and statistics show that Unionists/Loyalists are talking a load of guff about flags, denial of culture and inequality. Many of them simply refuse point blank to even contemplate equality and parity of esteem for ‘Taigs’ and as Nationalists get closer to Unionists demographically and numerically panic mode has set in within the wider Protestant community which cannot divest itself of their ‘supremacist mentality’ and ‘majority mindset’ over Catholics. If they lose that, in their minds, they have lost everything and that’s why we are in this situation; Unionists just don’t like it and can’t handle the situation; instead of embracing change and working with others they act like spoilt brats who have had it too good for far too long. However like South Africa and the American Deep South ‘Change is gonna come’ and Unionists better get used to it; they can riot, burn and wreck all they want but they are going to achieve NOTHING but the contempt of decent people, alienation from normal society, the scorn of REAL British people and negative international opinion.

  13. Peter says:

    Alex is spot on!
    In my opinion this flag nonsense has got to stop. Yes, the working class loyalists feel disenfranchised. The solution is to not vote DUP at the next election. Standing on the streets gets you nowhere. The democratically elected Belfast City Councillors voted for this. Change the make up of the council at the next election.

    Additionally, it’s only really the newtownards road that is affected. The rest of the city citizens need to continue to live normal lives, shopping & eating in the city centre, rather than sitting at home “because of the protests”.

  14. Liam says:

    I watched your piece on Belfast last night, why don’t you speak to the tax payers returning from work who are having their property and cars damaged, Intimidated and threatened by these so call peaceful protests. The limelight is on the thugs with their faces hidden as if they are the injured parties. There was a story on the BBC of a pensioner who tried to visit his dying wife but was denied and the mob laughed and geared at him. This is whats happening everyday. The police are standing by and call it peaceful as long as no one is throwing petrol bombs at them. But its not peaceful, no freedom of movement for the rest of us who just want to live together, go to work and bring up our children. Show the story from the point of the everyday working people(or trying to get work) not the thug paramilitary criminals. These people don’t want a shared future or equality. To say the flags issue and peace process is connected to underachievement in education is a farce. Put a camera in an unmarked car and try to drive past a peaceful protest, make the driver female or a pensioner it won’t make any difference. Totally shameful.

  15. Claire says:

    I’m sorry, but to all of you who think that this protesting in the streets is the way to go, then think again. These are reactionary tactics which demean our economy and our public image. Surely the most common sense option would be to first contact your local political party offices or sign a petition. Northern Ireland is suffering badly already, I have family who will not visit because of the way Northern Ireland is portrayed in the media and this situation is not helping. The people responsible need to consider what the aftermath of this will be. My husband was made redundant, and now there is no work. I wonder how many people will join us in the ranks of long-term unemployed (against our wishes, no matter what the media says about us lazy benefit scroungers!).

  16. Madalyn says:

    As with most issues existing around religion in NI and to a much lesser extent Scotland there are elements of society which are so entrenched in their generally accepted norms of life that to attempt to introduce a more just and equitable set of circumstances for all citizens will always be met with protest.
    As regards the Catholic school issue this is the red herring of all red herrings. These schools as part of their mandate preach and thus promote…a level of tolerance which is admirable and in my opinion can only be a positive influence in any society going forward. The Writer is a product of such a system although now an infrequent churchgoer.
    The North will be a long time in settling but with good will from all sides it will get there. eventually

  17. Patrick says:

    As an outside observer one can only sympathise with the Irish people who have had to live beside these people for generations.

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