Flag protests expose 'leadership vacuum'

Issues of political and community leadership have been raised during a UTV Insight special into the ongoing tensions in Northern Ireland surrounding flags, with one loyalist protestor claiming young people engaging in violence have no one to "show them a different way".

Published 07/02/2013 12:00

Violence has marred many attempts to hold peaceful protests, particularly in Belfast, over the last ten weeks and questions have been asked about who may have the influence to advocate calm.

Young people have been particularly impacted by the disorder - half of the 150 people arrested to date are under the age of 21. A third are under 16 and the youngest person arrested is just 11.

"These people need someone on the ground to speak to them, to show them leadership. There's no one to show them a different way," a woman, describing herself as a peaceful protestor, told Insight.

"You see the violence in the Short Strand and (Sinn Féin's) Gerry Kelly comes down, Alex Maskey, Gerry Adams ... And they're in and they're talking to their people. In all honesty, fair play to them.

"If I was a Catholic, that would encourage me that, yes, they're sitting up on Stormont - but they're still walking among their people, they're still talking to their people. Our side doesn't have that."

I was a Belfast councillor for almost 30 years and there was never an Irish tricolour flew at City Hall - my Irishness wasn't diminished by that.

Alex Maskey, Sinn Féin

Mainstream unionism has appeared unable to exercise authority over those angered by the restricted Union flag policy at Belfast City Hall and taking to the streets to voice their opposition.

Instead, the emerging Ulster People's Forum - initially led by young spokesman Jamie Bryson and seasoned campaigner William Frazer - has attempted to fill the vacuum, addressing a number of rallies.

But that hasn't ended either the protests or sporadic violence.

Those continuing to hold demonstrations, despite concerns about the impact on local traders, say they feel their culture is "under attack" and that their British identity is being chipped away.

Rev Mervyn Gibson told Insight that the flag is essentially a symptom of a much wider problem.

"The flag's important - it's a symbol of what's going wrong," he said.

"But people see it as an issue regarding British symbols generally, about the attack by Sinn Féin on parades and other aspects of British culture here in Northern Ireland.

"Then we have the whole one-sided inquiry situation ... People then feel they are distant from the peace process, they don't feel part of it. All that has been underlined here."

But representatives from the largest unionist party don't seem to share the concerns of people on the ground regarding British culture in Northern Ireland.

British culture, British heritage, it's getting chipped away. Inside my heart is red, white and blue - always will be.

Loyalist flag protestor

"Has our position within the UK, your Britishness, ever been safer?" senior DUP politician Sammy Wilson asked.

"We now have people who were trying to destroy this state sitting at Stormont, passing laws in an institution which is part of the British political establishment. They have even been shaking hands with the Queen ..."

But Mr Wilson did seem to recognise a lack of connection between members of the public and elected representatives, given the difficulty in actually encouraging people to go to the polls.

"What angers me sometimes is that some of the people who complain about this kind of loss (of Britishness) will also boast that they do not even bother going out to vote," he said.

The Ulster Unionist Party's Michael Copeland accepts perception may be a part of the problem.

"They (protestors) see their parades restricted, they see a changed relationship between police and themselves, they see the continual erosion of what they see as their identity," he said.

"The fact may well be that they're not any less British, but the feeling that they experience is that they are. In places like this, on many occasions, the perception is and becomes more important than the reality."

The way flags are dealt with at the Olympics, the way they appear in the politics of America, how flags are burnt in demonstrations in the Middle East - flags are important and they become the embodiment of people's identity.

Dominic Bryan, QUB

The Alliance Party, which strongly backs a shared future in Northern Ireland, has at times borne the brunt of the depth of feeling among loyalists on the issue of the flag.

They tabled an amendment to Sinn Féin and the SDLP's proposal to completely stop flying the Union flag at Belfast City Hall. The compromise of 18 designated days, in line with Stormont, was passed at the start of December by 29 votes to 21.

The uproar that followed included death threats aimed at Alliance East Belfast MP Naomi Long, attacks on party offices and representatives' homes. Daily pickets have been held at Alliance HQ.

Police also found themselves in the firing line, with a total of 146 officers injured - and two officers narrowly escaping a petrol bomb attack on their car outside the Alliance offices they were guarding.

"Discontent, anger, frustration about the political process are all perfectly legitimate," PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr said.

"In a democracy, people have got a right to lawfully and peacefully express that concern. Violence against the police will never and should never be acceptable - and more people need to step up and say that's the case."

We need to start quickly to try and break this cycle of the police being used as this beating board for local communities when they've got significant angst about something.

ACC Will Kerr, PSNI

He also told Insight that the riots on the streets have seen large number of young people involved - young people who are being manipulated by those pulling the strings.

"Young people are being used and - I use this word purposely - abused by some people for their own particular ends," ACC Kerr added.

But while senior police officers, including ACC Kerr, have said they have no doubts that senior UVF members in east Belfast were "actively involved in and were orchestrating violence", that has been denied by community representatives.

That leaves unanswered questions remaining about who, if anyone, holds a leadership position in the eyes of those who claim to be left marginalised in Northern Ireland.

And in the meantime, the pressure is on to restore lasting calm and improve community relations - especially as the first parade of the marching season is due on 23 February.

Insight: Flag of Inconvenience, which examines the new strategies emerging from within loyalism in the aftermath of recent violence surrounding the Union Flag protests, is available on the UTV Player for 30 days.

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