(This is from the Socialist Party of Ireland, which is different than the Workers Party quoted a few posts above)
Flags controversy – a socialist view
Monday, 17 December 2012 09:00
....As if to mock the chic advertising campaigns, the dispute around the flying of the union flag at Belfast City Hall has demonstrated that this is a myth. It has demonstrated, once again, that the ‘peace process’ has failed – Northern Ireland remains deeply divided and sectarian tensions lurk beneath the surface. In particular, this dispute has highlighted the simmering discontent which exists in the Protestant community.
On Monday 3rd December, Belfast City Council voted to fly the union flag at City Hall only on designated days. The original motion – put forward by Sinn Féin and supported by the SDLP – called for it not be flown at all but was amended by the Alliance Party. All unionists on the council opposed the move. The controversy around the flag at City Hall was consciously pursued by Sinn Féin and the SDLP – they were not responding to a groundswell of pressure within the Catholic community for the flag to be removed. This was in part an attempt to bring divisive issues centre stage in order to distract from the right-wing austerity agenda which all the main parties are committed to – a tried and tested method of sectarian politicians on both sides.
Is it simply a coincidence that this issue was catapulted into the headlines in the wake of the Assembly Executive passing the Welfare Reform Bill? This was a draconian attack on both in and out-of-work benefits which will hit the most vulnerable in society the hardest – the Assembly’s most generalised attack on the working class to date. The nationalist parties, in particular, clearly felt under pressure on this issue and feigned opposition, voting against the bill in the Assembly although they did not use their veto to prevent its passing.
When the motion was put forward, the unionist parties were more than happy to follow the nationalists’ lead and responded in kind. They distributed around 40,000 leaflets in Protestant areas of Belfast in the run-up to the council meeting, calling on people to put pressure on the Alliance Party to keep the flag flying year-round. In part, this was an attempt to undermine the Alliance Party’s electoral development in Protestant areas. People were called onto the streets.
On the night of the vote, a crowd of up to 1,600 protested outside City Hall. Some broke through security lines and attempted to disrupt the meeting. Since then, we have witnessed a sustained wave of protests, roadblocks, rioting and intimidation across Northern Ireland on a scale not seen since the height of the Drumcree crisis. Loyalist paramilitaries have clearly played a central and sinister role.
The Alliance Party has been a focus of protests on the issue – they are seen as being ultimately responsible for the decision to remove the flag as they hold the balance of power on the council and could have prevented it. As well as peaceful pickets and protests, Alliance offices and members’ homes have been attacked. Death threats have been issued against politicians, including East Belfast MP Naomi Long as well as Sinn Fein, SDLP and DUP representatives....
The main parties have used this sensitive issue as a political football in an utterly reckless manner, which had heightened sectarian tensions and impacted upon the lives of ordinary people. While they don’t want the stability of the political structures to be undermined, the politicians will manipulate feelings on this issue in order to serve their narrow interests. Having let the genie out of the bottle, however, they will not so easily get it back in. The issue has now got beyond their control and taken on a life of its own....
Without a hint of irony, Sinn Féin representatives such as Gerry Kelly have called for a police clampdown, not just on rioting and violent behaviour but on peaceful protests. Meanwhile, the unionist parties – like Pontius Pilate – are attempting to wash their hands of any responsibility for the violence. They continue, however, to fan the flames of the dispute. A unionist ‘working group’ – involving the DUP, UUP, TUV and PUP – is to be established in order to develop a common campaigning strategy on the issue. The unionist politicians will use this body to try to control protest, turning the tap on and off at their convenience. This may prove more difficult than they think.
The strength of feeling on this issue in the Protestant community reflects a trend that the Socialist Party has long pointed towards. While the vast majority of Protestants want no return to the Troubles and oppose the recent violence, a feeling exists that the ‘peace process’ has been a long series of concessions to nationalism and that a steady erosion of the Protestant community’s cultural identity is under way, with the march of events leading – implicitly – in the direction of a capitalist united Ireland where they would become a disadvantaged minority. These frustrations are exacerbated by the triumphalist attitude of Sinn Féin and the armed campaigns of the ‘dissident’ republican groups.
This feeling of insecurity is reinforced by demographic changes reflected in the recent census figures – for the first time since the state’s foundation, Protestants are now in an overall minority (48%) while the Catholic community (now at 45%) continues to grow as a proportion of the population. The removal of the union flag from City Hall resonates deeply with these fears and frustrations.
There is also a perception that the Catholic community has materially benefited from the ‘peace process’ – in terms of jobs and services – at the expense or, at least, to the exclusion of the Protestant community, which has been rocked by the steady process of de-industrialisation. Often, this is expressed by disenchantment and anger towards the DUP and UUP who have ‘let the community down’ and ‘given in to Sinn Féin’. PUP leader Billy Hutchinson has been prominent in the protests and clearly hopes that posing as a more strident political force, more in touch with the Protestant working class will resurrect his party’s fortunes.
These sentiments cannot simply be dismissed, as some on the left seem to think. They have developed in the context of a political arrangement which has institutionalised sectarian division, not broken it down. The sectarian carve-up between the main parties in the Assembly Executive has been reflected in polarisation on the ground – a tendency towards greater segregation in housing, a war of attrition over territory in some areas, the creation of new interfaces and ‘peace’ lines and conflict over cultural issues.
The flying of flags is a hugely sensitive and potentially explosive issue. In the turf war between the communities which has been a feature of life across Northern Ireland to some degree during the period of the ‘peace process’, flags – along with murals, painted kerbstones and other symbols – have been used in both communities in order to mark divides between communities, claim territory and intimidate.
Flags have very different connotations to each community. To most Protestants, the union flag represents their British identity and positive values which are perceived to go along with it while, to Catholics, it represents British rule, the history of Unionist domination, discrimination and state repression. Similarly, to many Catholics, the Tricolour represents their Irish identity, freedom and resistance to oppression but, to Protestants, it is symbolic of the Provisional IRA and the years of the armed struggle and now the ‘dissident’ republicans, and represents a threat to their identity and security.
The flying of these and other flags is an expression of the sectarian division in our society. Simply curtailing the right to display them, however, would do nothing to decrease tension. In fact, the opposite is the case – where the state has attempted to forcefully remove flags, it has often provoked explosive reactions and tended to harden attitudes. Individuals and communities have the right to express their cultural identity, if they so choose. At the same time, people also have the right not to be intimidated.
Full article: http://socialistparty.net/component/...socialist-view