Bringing The Street To The Party- Unfinished Business
The 3rd of December is the first anniversary of Belfast City Council voting to limit the flying of the Union flag to designated days only. This immediately provoked a rage within the loyalist community, egged on by the DUP and the PUP. The riots that followed displayed the paradox of the loyalist position. Here were people loyal to the British union and its monarchy waving its flag in a rage and using it as a weapon to hit the Queen’s constabulary over the head! The most persistent of the protests has been that at the Ardoyne/ Woodvale interface at the top of the Crumlin road. Here the twin grievances of the Unionist loyalist community merge. They see their right to march on the Queen’s highway and to fly the Union flag where they want as having been eroded. This is the spot where the local orange parade was prevented from marching pass the nationalist part of the street. A group of loyalists have set up camp and festooned it with Union flags and emblems and symbols of loyalist defiance. There is a temporary building erected with cooking facilities. Teams of at least six people rotate a shift and have to abide by a code of conduct which includes a ban on alcohol. They call it the Twaddell protest camp, after the street it is on’ and some refer to it as the civil rights camp. George Chittick, Orange Order grand master of Belfast explains the reason for the continued protest succinctly: ` My brethren from the Ligoniel Lodges cannot get home. The twelfth of July is not over till they get home. As long as they can’t get home we will be here. We are demanding civil and righteous liberty for all, special privileges for none’. They certainly see the camp and the issues it stands for as a line in the sand. There is a protest every night and every Saturday there have been marches from the west Belfast Orange Hall up the Woodvale road as far as the protest camp. One of the Banners hanging from the railings around the camp reads `End hatred of Orange culture’. This is the dominant perception amongst the protesters paraphrased as ‘they have taken our flag now they want to take our culture.’
Of course for many who are unsympathetic to their plight that is the issue, what is the culture of Unionism in general and Loyalism in particular?
Nationalist and republicans we have talked to about the issue see it simply as the legacy of the planters demonstrating to the indigenous Gaels who their rulers were and who the rulers owed their allegiance to, the British crown. Some Derry nationalists we talked to remember the Orange bands marching around the walls of Derry and the Orange men throwing pennies down into the Bogside in an act of sectarian contempt for the Catholics below. They see Orange culture as anachronistic triumphalism which won`t accept parity of esteem. In that context, they see the people of the Bogside being extremely generous in allowing the Orange men to pass over their side of the walls on the twelfth, if in silence. In a way this accommodation of the Orange culture is possible because, except for the small protestant enclave on the Waterside, Derry city is segregated by the Foyle. Such an accommodation is extremely difficult in Belfast, both because of the legacy of the savage sectarianism and the contours of the urban landscape which means planning a route into parts of the city which doesn’t cross the sectarian divide is almost impossible. Accommodation in this context has literally to be a two way street. Orange men could argue that they tried to accommodate to the wishes of Nationals community when their marches skirt their area. Of the impasse at the Ardoyne ,one ex UVF prisoner, who is not a supporter of the flag protest, said the Orange men offered to walk early in the morning in silence but the problem he pointed out is “that that there are people everywhere who would get up early in morning the to be aggrieved`.
There is no doubt a clash of perception as to the significance of the marches and the flags. What one side see as a sectarian celebration of a failed Unionist state, the other side see a colourful celebration of their British culture.
There is no doubt that the eagerly awaited Hasass report may move the conversation on but the cross community reaction to the Northern Authority General’s John Larkin’s amnesty proposal as untenable shows the difficulty of attaining fundamental leaps forward.
But perhaps the issue is where this conversation is happening. At a recent all-Ireland conference on Peace and reconciliation organised by the Department of Foreign Affairs,former PD Minister Liz O’Donnell said that toward the end of the life the former Minister for State for Northern Ireland Mo Mowlan told her that her regret was that the peace process had been more about a Party process and more about a people process. The flags and marches protests bear out this observation. Most of the people involved in these protests are not represented in the Assembly and effectively have no voice to express their grievances. Both the Nationalist and Loyalist working class have had no visible material benefit from the peace process and if they had clearly there would be less concentration on flags and ritual and more on reaping the economic benefits. But this is not the case and all the loyalist working class see is the relentless erosion of their culture. There is a growing disillusion with the politicians as being remote from the concerns of the ordinary people.
The challenge for politicians is to accept that Northern Ireland is culturally a society in transition and this has to be a bottom up process. Loyalist in particular need support in that transition. A transition from defining their cultural practice as immutable to finding ways of expressing that British identity while respecting the cultural rights of their Nationalist neighbours. This cannot be done from the top down. Ownership of the peace process must be given to the people as well as the parties. A process from the street in the context of improved community and employment prospects must be initiated. We would suggest that the organisation best suited for this task is the Irish Congress of Trade Union through its Northern division. This organisation represents the working population of both sides and also has initiated cross community discussions on common issues, it has also actively supported community projects in areas of high unemployment. In partnership with community voluntary and civic organisation, it could oversee the process that Mo Mowlan thought missing in the original peace process, an assembly of ordinary people expressing and seeking to resolve the issues they experience on the streets. Thus attempting to complete the unfinished business of the peace process.
Patricia McCarthy and Mick Rafferty —Partners in Catalyst.