Flagging (Up) Rights in Northern Ireland

 Rights NI is delighted to welcome this guest post from Christopher Stanley. Christopher Stanley is Legal Officer with Rights Watch (UK) and can be reached at cstanley@rwuk.org

The post considers the significance of on-going events involving protests regarding flags in Belfast, Northern Ireland and the relationship to the post Belfast/Good Friday Agreement 15 year anniversary.

It is not about the flag above a city hall.  Flags are the symbol of a national identity, often an identity which is contested.  That is simple enough to understand but it is the cause of the reaction, its rootedness in a community, a reaction often marked by violence toward the emblem or to protect the emblem which requires excavation for a meaning. This real violence toward or in defence of a symbolic device is a portrayal of a deep seated anger expressed through a sense of disgusted betrayal.  It is a reflection of the deep fissures remaining, and increasingly exposed, on the 15th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, when the victors appear to be narrow self-interested political elite squatting in Stormont and those either side of the sectarian divide see small progress after the hard won peace and sacrifices taken by both; the first generations after the peace, and therefore remote from the peace are now taking to the streets in echoes of civil disturbances from the late 1960s.  And this public demonstration of uncharacteristic Loyalist disorder takes place against continuing dissident Republican violent political action against the officers of the state; the dissident Republicans are obviously dialectically opposed to the process of peace, truth and reconciliation but they are a dangerous presence in Northern Ireland; the disenfranchised Loyalist youth are an equal presence and their actions must be understood.

The recent and continuing violent demonstrations by Loyalist youth is connected to both old and modern histories, but not expressed against the old adversary with a Green Head, a copy of Das Kapital and a Rosary, but against a betrayal by the Sovereign State.  And this week it will take place against the global glare of the world as represented by the G8. It is as if the peace walls –  the interfaces – between glowering masked-faces which maintain the sectarian divide in Belfast and are there because both sides of the community want them despite calls by politicians for their removal demonstrating political progress or by good meaning humanitarians who view them as symbols of still entrenched divisions, – it is as if these peace walls, are no longer the point of division but symbolise an internal social chaos and political discord  within different societies. This is why the issue of flags, atop the shared public spaces of alleged political engagement, is the issue because they are emblematic of a state which has failed to deliver and which was itself a party in conflict now inefficiently concluded but not closed.

“And it had no love for England.  It was quite alone; it owed no allegiance to anyone but itself and the grim God it had fashioned in its own likeness.  England was a convenience; England existed to see that no Catholic Irish Parliament ever controlled affairs in Ulster; and at all times when such control seemed unlikely, the Ulsterman was a convinced and stubborn radical who, at least the least sign of interference from England turned angry and rebellious.” (Dangerfield G., The Strange Death of Liberal England, (New York: Perigee Books, 1961) page 77)

Those who were Loyal to the British state have two demands, or needs: to protect their Mother Ulster (as opposed to Mother Ireland) and to protect their history.  It may be (but probably is not) as simple as that.  It is not now a question of Sovereignty but rather the ancient allegiance to a tarnished crown above the common politics of a cheapened unionism.  The crooked deal brokered in 1998 behind closed doors between non-speaking parties (wearing masks), between adversaries who never met, became an unholy bargain between a political elite of egos who shared the few spoils that became available in a power sharing executive.  From the Loyalist perspective, the Loyalists were thrown a very meagre bone that their Ulster within the Union was safe for the time being and their glorious history was secure despite the obvious capitulation to the demands of the enemy.

But the failure to attest sufficiently to history in the fifteen years since the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement has become one element of the toxicity which undermines this false peace symbolised in a protest about flags and football, and a Loyalist community wanting to confront its history on its own terms and now recognising that the English perpetrators, the co-conspirators (co-combatants in the non-war of a local troublesome civil disturbance), scuttled down the pipe back to Westminster and left them to their fate as soon as decent under the guise of devolution, throwing key powers into a political vacuum, save when Westminster thinks appropriate to maintain the grip of it gnarled Lions paw over The Province in the interests of un-defined national security or to test anti-civil constraint techniques against the entrenched suspect communities of Ulster: prolonged pre-trial detention at the Antrim Serious Crime Suite, stop and search again and again , uncorroborated accomplice evidence, the long vanquished jury trial in certified terrorist related prosecutions, the deployment of drones both covert and overt, allegations of witness intimidation, controversy over allegedly differential bail decisions and so and so forth in a sad repeat of toxic histories.

The disconnected youth who have inherited the legacy of the Loyalist past and are the first generation after the peace to reap the fall out, have the stories their ancestors tell but without the satisfaction that their Ulster means anything or their history has been protected.  They are left with even leaner pickings from that meagre bone.  Their ancestors took part in the conflict and assisted the English state in its struggle to avoid the war and maintain the Rule of Law in a colonial province of old plantations, brave settlers with their grim God.

Their God is dead.  The English have gone home.  The spoils of history went to the nationalist Republicans in league with their own tight lipped political leaders and they are left with bitterness and a dispute about flags and deserving of something more in this bleak future.

As Northern Ireland continues its regress from the peace brokered 15 years ago and  in the absence of determined political leadership and political will, in the absence of sustained economic commitment and with the reliance upon fractured communities and a hard pressed range of civil society organisations expected increasingly to deliver the promises and  the dividends of peace, the human rights precepts which were supposed to shape and underpin the peace (including delivering a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland) and which would have contributed to the consolidation of peace after violent civil conflict,  are waning as a flickering candle in the contested space of chapel whilst violence return to the streets.  It is now – at the end of politics in Northern Ireland – that human rights are most needed within the communities that now must make the state of the peace.

And it is because there is a need for human rights in Northern Ireland, with a public service commitment to equality of opportunity under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act, and the development of a now mature grassroots lead civil society, wherein lies a hope in this 15 Anniversary after the Belfast/GFA (and the Omagh Bombing).  It is hoped it is not too late and that the burden upon forces outwith of politics can push through the barricades between the protesters and the uneasy officers of authority tasked to take to the streets again with water cannon and API – and drones.  For now it is less the interface marking the segregated sectarian divide but the struggle with the retreating state in this regard where there is no political will to move forward to secure human rights based peace founded upon justice through accountability. This is why there is an awkward unity across the sectarian divide about the failing state in Northern Ireland and why the protests about flags in the forthcoming shadow of the worlds gaze means so much more, but also provokes a serious engagement with the Loyalists of Mother Ulster reclaiming their political space through a contest with the state, in a demonstration of flagging up-rights.