x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Furled flag sparks Protestant fury in Belfast

Catholics, police and UK 'loyalists' clash after march against limited use of British symbol.

Loyalist protesters hold Union Flags during a demonstration outside Belfast City Hall as part of an ongoing campaign opposing Belfast City Council's decision to restrict the days on which the British Union Flag will fly.
Loyalist protesters hold Union Flags during a demonstration outside Belfast City Hall as part of an ongoing campaign opposing Belfast City Council's decision to restrict the days on which the British Union Flag will fly.

BELFAST // At Belfast City Hall, the flagpole is bare - and the streets are filled with night-time fear and fury.

These are dangerous times in Northern Ireland, a long-divided corner of the United Kingdom that is supposed to be at peace after decades of unrest thanks to its hard-won ceasefires and a Catholic-Protestant government. But the lowering of a single Union Jack has exposed a society still split between two competing identities.

Last month the city council, on which Roman Catholics narrowly outnumber Protestants, voted to reduce the flying of the flag to 18 official days a year, ending a century when the British national symbol favoured by Protestant "loyalists" flew uninterrupted year round.

Catholics billed the move as a compromise, since they wanted the flag removed completely. On Wednesday, the flag fluttered for the first time since the vote to mark the Duchess of Cambridge's birthday, but was furled again at sunset.

Protestant hardliners have responded nightly with illegal street blockades that have often degenerated into street battles between riot police and masked protesters armed with everything from sledgehammers to snooker balls.

On Saturday, a protest march to City Hall degenerated into riots when many marchers returned home to the Protestant east side.

Police in helmets, shields and flame-retardant suits tried to shepherd the British-flag-bedecked crowd past Short Strand, where masked and hooded Catholic men and youths waited, armed with Gaelic hurling sticks, golf clubs and other makeshift weapons.

The two sides began throwing bottles, rocks and other missiles at each other and, as police on foot struggled to keep the two sides apart, Protestant anger turned against the police.

Police marched down the street with shields locked, backed by water cannon. Police commander Mark Baggott said 29 of his officers were injured, bringing total police casualties to more than 100 since the first riots on December 3.

Nobody seems to know how, or when, the strife will end. While Northern Ireland suffers intercommunal conflict each summer because of traditional Protestant marches, this is the first time that Northern Ireland has suffered an uninterrupted month of angry civil disturbances in the winter. Some analysts suspect that the extremists won't stop until someone is killed.

"The quickest end looks like it would be in an atrocity. I fear that," said Duncan Morrow, a University of Ulster lecturer and former chief of Northern Ireland's Community Relations Council, a group that tries to bridge the divide between Irish Catholics and British Protestants.

At the heart of the resumed conflict is the rapid change in Northern Ireland's population balance and political system. Northern Ireland was created as a Protestant-majority state in the UK shortly before the overwhelmingly Catholic rest of Ireland won independence in 1922. But the days of Protestant domination of politics and the police are distant memories.

The latest census shows Catholics in the majority in Belfast and gaining throughout Northern Ireland. The peace process has produced a new system in which a former Irish Republican Army commander now jointly leads the government, and a decade of preferential Catholic recruitment has produced a more Irish-orientated police force that Protestant militants increasingly view as the enemy.

For many Protestants, stripping "their" flag from City Hall has brought their central fear into focus - that they become the minority in a land flying the green, white and orange flag of the neighbouring Republic of Ireland.

"The vote on the flag was a touchstone. It transformed Protestant and unionist frustration into outright anger," said Mike Nesbitt, leader of the Ulster Unionists. "Even if you put the flag back up 365 days a year - and I accept it's not going to happen - that would not fix the anger on the streets."

Many shop and restaurant owners in Belfast city centre are fuming, too - about scared-off customers, bills they can't pay and a political culture that wreaks economic havoc over matters of symbolism. They blame Catholic politicians for picking a needless fight right before Christmas, and blame Protestants for inflaming mobs with no ability to rein them back in.

But Peter Robinson, the Protestant first minister of the government, who backs the protests so long as they remain peaceful, insists that he has done all he can.

"I can't bring them off the streets," he said.