Under which flag?

northern ireland flag row  guy surrounded by union flags 2 3 4 N2

Most observers here and abroad have watched in near total bewilderment as a section of Northern Ireland’s Unionist population has worked itself into frenzy over what seemed a reasonable and sensible protocol-adjustment in relation to flying the British flag over Belfast City Hall. For a century the Union Jack was flown every day of the year over Belfast’s principal civic building, ignoring the many people in the city who felt alienated by the flag. When a compromise arrangement was approved by a majority of city councillors to reduce the number of flag-flying days to 15 per year, Unionists reacted with apoplexy. Since this decision was taken in early December, angry protestors have taken to the streets, in spite of the fact that an identical arrangement is practiced at Stormont and also by DUP controlled Lisburn City Council.

Those rioting in the streets are a minority within the wider Unionist population. Due to the physical attacks they have launched on the PSNI, their protest has been actively disowned by much of mainstream Unionism. This distancing by the middle-class elected representatives of political Unionism has to be viewed, however, with some cynicism. In the days before the vote was taken, Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) activists distributed 40,000 leaflets condemning the compromise proposal and accusing the pro-union Alliance Party of siding with Sinn Fein and the SDLP. Both mainstream Unionist parties thereafter raised tensions by bitterly criticising the protocol-adjustment when it was debated in the council chamber. Moreover, as the first street protests began, prominent members of the DUP and UUP joined the demonstrations.

As time went by and street activities became more violent, the two main Unionist parties cynically attempted to distance themselves from the turmoil and belatedly called for exclusively peaceful protest. Unsurprisingly, having uncorked the genie’s bottle, their scarcely credible efforts went unheeded by the wilder elements of Unionism. Afraid of the consequences arising from widespread street violence, the DUP and UUP created a Unionist Forum that would, they said, allow Unionists of all shades to meet, air their views and offer solutions to their difficulties. This hastily constructed stratagem faltered as the DUP and UUP realised too late that they had lost control of the mob as street demonstrations continued and often violently so.

What, therefore, lies behind the disturbances? What is happening within Unionism and why did this particular issue lead to such anger? As always, it is necessary to examine Northern Irish Unionism, its history and its current composition.

Key to any understanding of Unionism is the fact that not only is it not monolithic but that it is characterised by its ongoing efforts to overcome its very diversity. Since at least the first Home Rule Bill of 1886, Unionism has struggled to overcome the natural divergences created by differing class interests in order to present a united front against nationalist or republican opposition. The fissures caused by class could be contained only for so long as Unionist controlled industry and business prospered and/or exclusively Unionist governments had a range of patronage within their gift. The promise of first refusal for whatever employment, housing, state sponsorship or cultural support was available helped bind working class Protestants to a state and a system that might otherwise have struggled to retain their loyalty.

Over the past forty years, the outworking of globalisation has robbed the North of its manufacturing base and simultaneously deprived Unionism of a large part of its economic foundation. Political upheaval over the same period resulted in Unionism losing its monopoly over political power and subsequently the ability to reward its supporters from the pork barrel. As a consequence, the glue that maintained a tenuous unity among the disparate sections of Unionism has melted and left a society that struggles with its contradictions.

The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) was until recently the largest political party in the North and enjoyed a cross class support base that for long made it appear invincible and untouchable. At its zenith, the UUP personified the myth of monopolistic Unionist unity encompassing as it did; the Loyal Orders, prominent Protestant churchmen, senior members of the security apparatus, wealthy businessmen and not a few trade unionists. In view of its history, it is not surprising that the UUP has struggled to come to terms with being eclipsed by the upstarts of the DUP. In an effort to regain ground lost to Peter Robinson’s party, the current leader of the UUP, Mike Nesbitt, has adopted a more hawkish approach that has not won universal approval within his party. As respected political commentator and former UUP press officer Alex Kane wrote in the Belfast Telegraph recently;

‘ … if there is no difference between the UUP and DUP, then why the need to keep up the pretence of two distinct, separate parties? Indeed, why would anyone join the UUP when the DUP looks so much bigger and better organised? …[i]

Many middle-class Unionists, aware that their constitutional position within the UK is secure for the foreseeable future, are anxious to encourage political and social stability. Traditionally they supported, if not always bothering to vote for, the Ulster Unionist Party. They would not, though, have to agonise long about transferring their loyalty to the Alliance Party (unionist, middle-class and a bit posh) if they felt that option offered a better guarantee of tranquillity. The result of these factors has left the UUP demoralised, in decline and with an inexperienced ex-television presenter at the helm.

In spite of the UUP’s internal difficulties, its DUP rival cannot afford to be complacent. While now top dog in Unionism’s yard, Peter Robinson and the DUP know that the party is vulnerable if it fails to satisfy a middle class constituency on one hand, or alienate the marginalised, unemployed Unionist working class on the other hand. After a long campaign to overtake the UUP, the leadership of the DUP is aware that its position at the top is resting on a finely balanced cross class electoral base. The old core DUP/Paisleyite support was built on a combination of hard-line Unionists from among less well off (and often religiously evangelical) rural people and the poorer urban working class. While the DUP constituency was strong enough for years to challenge the UUP, it has only recently overtaken the older party and only by making itself acceptable to the politically and socially conservative Unionist centre ground.

This particular section of the Unionist block is in ways similar in make-up and outlook to blue-collar Thatcherism; skilled workers, police and prison officers, nurses, teachers, clerical workers and civil servants. They are people with a right wing, pro-establishment, outlook who feel comfortable with and indeed demand an authoritarian and vindictive state but who do not relish having the institutions of the state (and the police in particular) challenged and/or attacked.

A significant difficulty for the DUP, however, is that if it is to retain the position of administrative power and influence in the Northern Ireland Assembly, it must also accept the compromise arrangement provided through the Good Friday & St Andrews Agreements. Peter Robinson is First Minister only with the consent of Sinn Fein, an arrangement that grates the sensibilities and outlook of the large section of Unionism that for a century viewed the 6-Counties as their tribal homeland rather than a state that might be governed by parliamentary consensus.

It required a large amount of political dexterity to persuade DUP supporters of the benefits of administration sharing with Sinn Fein. War weariness and a fear that London was growing impatient with Northern Ireland persuaded them reluctantly to tolerate the GFA/St Andrews arrangements. As the sound of battle receded, it has grown increasingly difficult to mask the failures of the devolved administration at Stormont. Deprived of fiscal authority to tax and spend, the Assembly has been impotent in the face of global recession and pusillanimous in its acceptance of the British government’s anti-working class programme of impoverishment, known euphemistically as austerity.  

As is often the case when a political institution finds itself incapable of influencing events, the Stormont Assembly not only appears to grow increasingly isolated from the electorate but exacerbates its remoteness by pretentiousness. Stormont’s weakness is now recognised even in Dublin where Senator Martin McAleese told a conference in Dublin recently that;

Northern Ireland is in danger of ending up with a “middle-class peace process” with alienated groups destabilising the project …[ii]

Against this background of a profound challenge to long-held Unionist certainties, increasingly remote political institutions and the bitter experience of the impact of neo-liberalism exacerbated by the latest focussed assault of the Tory ‘Posh-Boys’, it is not surprising that the unemployed Unionist working-class feel angry and betrayed.

Compounding the situation in Protestant working class areas is the fact that added to difficult-to-digest political developments and the pain of economic misery is the loss of other institutions that provided civic stability. The churches no longer hold the same sway in many working class homes that they once did with the subsequent loss of clerical authority. Unemployment has meant a steep decline in labour unions and the pragmatic influence once provided by trade union officials. Education, which for decades appeared an unnecessary luxury for people with automatic access to skilled engineering employment, has led not only to wide spread academic under achievement but a dearth of articulate spokespersons and an abundance of right-wing demagogues. And with this list of problems runs an ever-present Unionist narrative telling its adherents that democracy is the right to dominate rather than the right to participate.

With this unhappy situation festering (seemingly unnoticed by the elected élite) in Protestant working class communities in Belfast, the flag commotion, initiated opportunistically by the DUP (and quickly supported by a UUP leadership trying to play catch-up) was bound to lead to trouble. DUP strategists had targeted the Alliance Party for special odium in a cynical attempt to undermine the party’s East Belfast MP Naomi Long who had sensationally taken the seat from Peter Robinson in 2010. The DUP is, after all, the progeny of Ian Paisley and his school of raucous, intemperate bigoted but ultimately posturing street drama. Having marched their legions noisily to the top of the hill and then crept quietly down again so often, the First Ministers supporters undoubtedly though they could do the same again. As we now know, that was a serious miscalculation.

So what happened this time? The impact of austerity on a society that is experiencing long-term unemployment cannot be underestimated. Statistics do not support the assertion that Protestants are disproportionately disadvantaged but the perception in those communities is pervasive while the reality of poverty is undoubtedly genuinely felt. There are few material benefits in an economy managed by the Cameron/Clegg coalition to lend a softening and distracting feel-good factor to offset politically upsetting news. And the news appears disturbing to politically unsophisticated Unionists. Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein is Deputy First Minister, Scotland is discussing leaving the UK and the Historical Enquiry Team (HET) is investigating old cases of murder involving Unionist death squads. Elsewhere, some members of the Catholic middle-class are accessing high profile positions in the state and while these people are often more loyal to Britain than the DUP, their presence in power is a reminder to hard-up Unionists that the old days are gone.

Most significant of all is that the ending of the Orange State has made it more difficult to hold political Unionism together. The Unionist haut-bourgeoisie no longer cares to soil its blue socks and stockings with anything so vulgar as politics. The DUP, for so long the party of Unionist dissent, has taken the reins in Stormont but can do nothing to alleviate the plight of the unemployed Unionist working class. Peter Robinson, as First Minister and guardian of the state, can no longer lead his followers in madcap anti-establishment forays. Clontibret, in other words, is safe from Peter’s midnight raiders. That role has now fallen to others and herein rests a conundrum. Are we witnessing a changing of the Unionist Iron Guard or is this protest the last kick of reactionary Unionism? Are we, on the other hand, seeing the emergence of a class entity among unemployed Protestants?

What can be set aside is the notion that anything as distinct as ‘Loyalism’ exists in Northern Ireland. The term ‘Loyalist’ has no ideological or political basis. The British government and media has found it useful to describe groups of (usually out of work and economically disadvantaged) Unionists who were prepared to use extra-judicial methods in support of the state.  There is no manifesto or programme that distinguishes ‘Loyalism’ from the rest of Unionism. Groups such as the PUP and UPRG flirted with left-wing ideas but abandoned them in the face of strident internal opposition.

Those currently engaged in violent and persistent protest and conflict are for the most part, marginalised, poor, unemployed Protestant working class people. They have a choice. They can continue with futile demands for a return to a past that was never as rosy as they now imagine. That is essentially what their flag demand amounts to – a return to the past. Or, they can recognise their position and remedy it by making common cause with other working class people in a similar plight. The latter option is an uplifting thought but experience should warn us, nevertheless, against undue optimism.

Tommy McKearney 

[i] Nesbitt's cosying up to DUP will sideline his party… Belfast Telegraph 22 January 2013

[ii] Irish Times … 22 January 2013

This article first appeared in 'Red Banner' … www.redbannermagazine.com

This© Tommy McKearney 2012                                                                                      email:    tommymkearney@me.com