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Moment that mattered: The Belfast flag riots begin

Loyalists confront police in Belfast, a month after the City Council decided to fly the union flag on designated days only.

“What people don’t realise is that this flag issue has been going on for years – the first debate about it was back in 2005. The agreement to fly the Union Flag only on certain days was already in place for other public buildings in Northern Ireland, but on this occasion, when it came to the flag at City Hall, it became a political issue.

The SDLP and Sinn Féin – the nationalist and republican parties – didn’t want the flag to fly at City Hall at all. The unionist parties – the DUP and the UUP – wanted it to fly all the time. So the Alliance Party brokered a compromise: that it would fly on 17 designated days, including the Queen’s birthday (incidentally, that means that for the first time in their history Sinn Féin had voted for the Union Jack to fly on a Northern Irish building). On 9th January, the flag was flying above City Hall because it was the Duchess of Cambridge’s birthday. Ironically, because they hadn’t updated their protocol to include Kate’s birthday, it wasn’t flying at Stormont that day. The whole thing would be farcical if it weren’t for the violence.

Compared to the riots in London in 2011 the ones I saw in Belfast were on a relatively small scale. Although it was bad in small areas, they were nowhere near as widespread as they had been in London, and the police dealt with them fairly well. But Northern Ireland is a volatile environment and whenever there’s civil unrest it causes concern and can derail the peace process. There’s been great progress and I’m confident that it will continue, but incidents like this can really set it back.

The riots weren’t just spontaneous – it wasn’t the case that the flag was removed from City Hall and people were so exercised that they decided to burn the streets down. There were more complicated things at play, and it was a bit of mischief-making in one constituency that lit the fuse. Naomi Long, an Alliance politician, had unseated Peter Robinson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, in the 2010 Westminster election. The DUP were keen to win back that seat and unsettle the Alliance in that constituency, which is where a lot of the problems were in Belfast. So they distributed leaflets implying that the Alliance wanted to have the flag taken down. One leaflet had one picture of City Hall flying the Union Flag and another picture of it without the flag and with the caption ‘Brought to you by the Alliance Party?’

Although the riots were ostensibly about the City Hall flag, I think that was just a small part of the reason for them – there was and still is a general feeling of neglect in the loyalist communities, where people feel hard done by and put-upon. The underlying social causes are entrenched, and I don’t see any evidence that they are being addressed. There’s much more social mobility in Catholic nationalist areas – the Catholic schools are stronger, more people go to university – and that causes resentment. In addition, some of the people I spoke to were angry about parades being rerouted, and others felt that loyalists were being investigated for atrocities committed during the Troubles, and that the IRA weren’t to the same extent.

The rioters were trying to draw attention to ways that they felt they were being neglected or slighted and they got the attention they were looking for. It’s ironic, though, that now they’ve stopped rioting, the UK national media has largely gone back to ignoring them.”

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