The Changing of the Guard

There is a time for everything. ‘A time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace’. Beautiful words from Ecclesiastes. I would just add that there is a time to eliminate sectarianism from Northern Irish politics and let’s hope that it will soon be upon us.

I went to Belfast for the New Year. If you’ve kept a drowsy hippopotamus’ eye on that city over the past month, you will know that it is beset by the issue of whether or not the union flag should be continuously hoisted aloft Belfast City Hall. The Alliance Party won a slim vote to rule that the said symbol of universal benignity should flutter over the hall on certain, special, days of the year only—it will fly next on Kate Middleton’s birthday.

What followed the vote was rather predictable and awful—awful because it was so predictable. Riots, car-explosions, nocturnal cruises into Catholic enclaves to rampage and intimidate; the targeting of politicians’ families and homes; a lot of wrapping the flag round ye rituals led by oppourtunistic agitators; streets being cordoned off, marring the build up to Christmas. At the time of writing, the riots splutter onward. Participants call it Operation Standstill: a metaphor for a mentality.

The good news is that voting counts for something in Belfast today, and the Alliance Party stood firm. In so doing, they stole a march on the other centrist parties, the SDLP and the UUP, that have been suffering from collapsing support. The Alliance Party will reap their reward in the next election.

The Alliance Party, especially in its current stance, is even more inimical to hardline loyalism—with their ‘no surrender’ and ‘not an inch’ mantras—than Sinn Féin. While it is easy to demonise Republicans, Alliance is diverse in its make-up. They are an atypical cause for such a flare-up. Not that that deterred the rioters.

One blundering loyalist, Willie Frazer, a failed politician from Armagh, even organised three buses to facilitate protesters to travel to Dublin on Saturday January 12th to decry the flying of the tricolour outside government buildings in Dublin. This elbowing into affairs of the South was humoured by the Gardaí on a ‘right to free assembly’ basis. Then Frazer checked if the tricolour actually flies over government buildings on Saturdays (when the government is not in session). It doesn’t. Frazer could think of nothing else to complain about so he cancelled the protest.

This wasn’t Frazer’s first mishap with flags. Recently, on seeing an Italian flag flying over a school in Tyrone, where children were celebrating Italian culture, Frazer, apparently unable to distinguish between the green-white-gold of the Irish flag and green-white-red of the Italian one, launched into a public tirade about the brain-washing of children by the murderous IRA machine.

Frazer was also the man behind the ‘Love Ulster’ rally of February 25th 2006 that provoked a full-scale riot in Dublin. The ‘Love’ movement, it should be remembered, began with a re-enactment of Larne gun-running—a commemoration of physical force being introduced into Irish politics. Love Ulster was, allegedly, a march in commemoration of victims of terrorist atrocities whereas the march on January 12th sought to dictate policy to the Irish government. If Frazer’s march had proceeded in Dublin, the reaction to it would have been far more unsavoury than the street violence caused by Love Ulster. In a recession-bitten Dublin, unemployed young men, stirred by gutter journalism, would have drifted into the city centre and the confrontation could have been quite bloody. Frazer’s public persona rests between ‘Love’ rallies that smack of hatred, and this month’s abortive march challenging the flying of a flag when it does not fly. One awaits his next move with keen interest.

Frazer is a direct heir to that connoisseur of schism Ian Paisley, and gladly threads the same well-worn paths of demagoguery in the North plodded by the Reverend: in short, he hopes to hollow out the centrist power base with publicity stunts and vapid extremist rhetoric.

At first glance, the North appears to be a victim of inextinguishable sectarianism. Yet closer analysis yields evidence that a class-based approach to politics periodically emerges from underneath the region’s thick skin. Andrew Boyd’s outstanding book, Holy War in Belfast, records that at key moments in Belfast’s history poor zones of the city would cross sectarian boundaries, unite and resist the brutality of police. Eamonn McCann’s articles have continually argued for, and shown examples of, a class solidarity that transcends the orange-green template.

Northern Ireland’s make-up does not depend on sectarianism. Those leaders who practice it do so to protect a power-base that is fading from their grasp. It isn’t merely that Frazer is a less skilled campaigner than Paisley used to be; the momentum in the North has drifted towards settlement and power-sharing, and away from tawdry sectarian politics. A comparison bears this out. In 1964, Ian Paisley forced the RUC’s hand, causing them to storm a Republican hall in Divis Street Belfast several times to tear down the tricolour. And all hell broke loose. A moderate unionist politician, Robert Corkey, lambasted Paisley as the main culprit of the riots: ‘His loud protestations of Protestant principles have attracted a considerable following of thoughtless people’.

Very true, and Paisley proceeded thus for four decades with considerable success.

But Paisley passed very quickly into history after he did his deal with Sinn Féin in 2007 because the circumstances in which he had held sway for all those years had passed with the power-sharing deal. Causing rowdy opposition to tolerant society has become a decreasingly effective approach to politics in the North. If the loyalists who are rioting on Belfast’s streets wish to exercise power on flags, or any other issue, they will need to change their tactics to have any success. But there is no sign of that happening.

Maurice Fitzpatrick, January 2013