Belfast flag dispute escalates into a bigger movement
AFTER a month of violent protests that left more than 40 police officers injured, dozens of rioters arrested, live rounds being fired on the streets of Belfast and politicians' offices torched, the dispute over the British flag has become a lightning rod for widespread loyalist disaffection with Northern Ireland's political process.
In working class east Belfast, loyalists are threatening to take their protests south of the border.
The newly constituted Ulster People's Forum will hold a rally outside the Irish parliament next Saturday.
Lightning rod … a protest march in Belfast. There are concerns extreme, anti-ceasefire elements, including loyalists with connections to the British far right, are trying to exploit the flag issue. Photo: AP
A loyalist working class and underclass disconnected from the mainstream unionist parties has established a movement that has focused grievances ranging from social deprivation to the alleged maltreatment of unionist victims of Northern Ireland's Troubles.
Some of its demands are wildly unrealistic, such as the reintroduction of direct rule from London.
The leaders emerging range from a former soldier who sells Nazi uniforms from a shop in Carrickfergus to veteran loyalists previously lukewarm about their paramilitary leadership's support for the peace process and the Good Friday agreement.
Many of the protests that later turned violent have been organised on an ad hoc basis through social media.
And while some loyalist paramilitaries, such as members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, have been in the vanguard, they have been unprepared for the depth of anger within their communities.
Leading figures in the Ulster Volunteer Force say they are concerned that extreme, anti-ceasefire elements, including loyalists with connections to the British far right, are trying to exploit the flag issue.
The Ulster People's Forum spokesman Willie Frazer said three coaches would take 150 people to the Irish capital this weekend.
''We will be challenging the Irish government to … stop flying the tricolour 365 days per year over the Dail [Ireland's parliament]. If nationalists insist we can't do this in Belfast, in our capital, then there should be full equality on this island. They should take down their flag.''
Mr Frazer added that among those coming to Dublin would be unionist victims of the IRA during the Troubles.
''They are coming down to tell [Irish Prime Minister] Enda Kenny and his government that they have reneged on their promise to meet and listen to them, to hear their concerns about collusion between the Irish state and the IRA.''
He also confirmed that the nascent protest movement would be targeting the home of Northern Ireland's First Minister and Democratic Unionist party leader, Peter Robinson.
''There is a lot of pressure on to picket Robinson's home, to make it clear to him on his doorstep that he is letting the loyalist, Protestant people down,'' Mr Frazer said.
The demonstrators would arrive in an Ireland that has lost its economic sovereignty to the International Monetary Fund and European Union, and where there is little sympathy for the international image of Ireland portrayed by the northern protests.
Several planned loyalist demonstrations close to a key sectarian divide in east Belfast, the Catholic enclave of Short Strand, are also in danger of ''creating fresh space for republican dissident terrorists'', according to Naomi Long, the MP for the area, who has herself received death threats over her Alliance party's role in the flag issue.
Mrs Long said the increasingly sectarian nature of the protests was ''enabling dissident republicans to offer themselves as defenders of their people''.
Guardian News & Media