A few days after Christmas in central Belfast, I walked into the middle of one of the flag protests. These have had been occurring since the Alliance Party’s horrendously insensitive (not to mention politically naive) decision to vote to only fly the union flag only on designated days from Belfast City Hall, where it had flown every day since 1906.
This particular protest was not very well supported – perhaps fewer than 100 people had sauntered into town. They were comfortably outnumbered by vast ranks of police officers, who were helpfully blocking roads for traffic and ensuring that no-one left the protest to hit the sales. Young girls giggled awkwardly while most people walked past as if nothing was going on. An older man commented to me that there were “enough peelers to start a world war.” Quite.
Since then the protests have regained their momentum. There were six consecutive nights of rioting in one corner of the city. Politicians have been condemned for failing to get people off the streets – as if the tribal elders should be able to control the loyalist masses, who should, in turn, do as they are told. But a by-product of our Presbyterian culture is that we do not accept authority readily. In fact, this healthy disregard for the bleatings of self-appointed betters ensures that Ulster loyalists are not just the literal relations of American frontiersmen, but in many respects the cultural ones as well.
As Ruth Dudley Edwards says: stick six of us in a room and you get ten opinions. Political leaders have a short shelf life as a result, and it may just be that the Unionist Forum is already in the £1 bargain bucket of political initiatives, along with all the works of other unionist leaders who tried to close the stable door after the horse had bolted.
It is rather odd then that this individualistic approach to life which stems from 400 years on the political margins manifests itself in such a collectivist, tribal way as protesting over a flag not being flown. There is a reason for it.
We all have very little in common with people in our immediate area. We are all individuals after all. But pushed to find something out of necessity that whole communities can agree on, we tend to opt for the symbolic. Like our American counterparts with their firearms, the flag issue represents Hayek’s ‘lowest common denominator’ which, in turn, ‘unites the largest amount of people’. It is a rallying cry for the aggrieved in an over-subsidised and over-governed country.
In many respects, the Belfast Agreement was a victory for the tribalism and worldview of politicians over the majority of people who played no part in the 30 years of bloodshed and who just wanted to be left alone. It enshrined sectarianism in the political system to the point where no-one will actually have to deal with a politician of a different religion. Money is handed out on a basis which encourages people to mix only with their co-religionists, whether it is for segregated bus shelters, leisure centres or GP surgeries.
What has this exercise in waste achieved?
The ‘peace’ walls are getting higher and more numerous, discrimination in employment still exists, and we still have riots, usually involving young people who attend segregated schools. And because of the state’s funding of the sectarian lifestyle choice, it actually pays off to behave like a perpetual victim, and for politicians to implicitly encourage the ‘them and us’ game.
For most people in Northern Ireland, things have changed and the world is better for it. But until the state is rolled back and we stop encouraging division by regarding communities as state clients to be infantilised and played off against one another, then you can expect to see more of the same.