Causes of the Northern Ireland flag dispute

A decision to restrict the flying of the union flag over Belfast City Hall late last year sparked weeks of protests and riots. The cause is rooted deep in the legacy of the peace process.

Gordon Clubb
4 February 2013
Feb 2 protest.jpg

Belfast flag protest, 2 Feb. Image: Demotix / frontlinefreelance

A decision to restrict the flying of the union flag over Belfast City Hall late last year sparked weeks of protests and riots. The cause is rooted deep in the legacy of the peace process.

The continued protests in the Northern Ireland flag dispute have already prompted preliminary debate on the wider causes. Broadly speaking, there have been four types of argument: the protestors are just a sectarian minority or Fascists; Loyalist exclusion from the peace process/government; Unionist/Protestant culture is being eroded; and, of course, the deprivation/social breakdown argument. This article argues that the structural legacy of the peace process frustrates Unionist identity and the lack of organisational disbandment by Loyalist groups such as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) has provided a means of sustaining mobilisation.

The protests erupted after Belfast City Council voted to fly the Union Jack only on designated days on December 3rd. Nationalists had wanted to remove the flag permanently but, in face of Unionist opposition, they agreed to the compromise offered by the Alliance Party. The decision prompted protests from Unionists, which gradually spread throughout the region. Police and Alliance Party members specifically faced violent attacks and riots occurred with some regularity. The initial mobilisation seems to have been loosely organised through social media, with the young age of the protestors being a stand-out feature. As the protests grew, they became more organised with the participation of UVF members and groups like the Ulster Protestant Voice taking the lead [i], however the UVF as an organization was not responsible.

In response to the flag crisis, the Unionist parties and organisations (such as the Orange Order), established a Unionist Forum to ‘deal with the flag issue’ and other underlying issues, such as identity, economics and politics. While Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party were arguing that a single identity solution will not work, and that ‘the peace process is good for everyone’, the Unionist Forum highlighted the level of dissatisfaction amongst Unionists with regard to the peace process. 

The Belfast flag dispute cannot be dismissed as the work of ‘just an extreme minority’, (see Gerry Adams' piece for the Guardian): such forms of sustained mobilisation are always rooted in some form of social structure. The flip-side of this argument is the responsibility is with Sinn Fein, who should refrain from being provocative. This argument misses the point that it is the political system that makes it in the interests of Sinn Fein to pursue such a policy. The ‘social breakdown’ argument is plausible – there may well be a link between socio-economic deprivation and susceptibility to feelings of societal insecurity. While the relationship between the two is hard to pin down, it’s clear that this insecurity (when a group’s identity is perceived to be under threat) was the main driver in the initial mobilisation, with social media facilitating.

Feelings of societal insecurity have emerged from the political opportunity structure of Northern Ireland. Consociationalism (whereby both Nationalists and Unionists have to consent on controversial issues) has provided the checks and balances in Stormont, and while this has improved cross-community relations in many ways, it has also closed down political space for Sinn Fein to act. Recent calls for a Border Poll (a referendum on Irish reunification) by Sinn Fein may help them assert their agenda at Stormont, yet it remains an exercise in rhetoric, with the consociational settlement limiting the scope for turning this goal into  reality. Their need to assert their Nationalist/Republican identity is not just out of political competition with the Social Democrat and Labour Party, the reality of deep divisions at a grassroots level pressures them to exploit the political space at the local government level. Identity politics can be advanced at this level because there is no bloc veto on policies such as flags.

So taking the three levels of political opportunity structure together, policies that can create societal insecurity have been encouraged, thus leading to the flag protests. The ability of Loyalists to sustain the level of mobilisation may be linked to the manner in which their organisations disengaged from militancy in 2010 [ii]. Positions of responsibility in the community and grassroots links with the younger generation, while providing potential for conflict resolution, has also provided individuals with the network resources to take the lead and direct what may have been initially spontaneous mobilisation.

There have been some suggestions that Loyalists have not benefitted from the peace process. Although there is much evidence to suggest this is inaccurate [iii], the peace process has produced structures that facilitate the Loyalist perception that they have been forgotten. The peace process has been good at some levels of governance, but it has not gone far enough. One solution is to extend the consociational settlement to local government on specific issues (such as flags), or to limit the remit of local government to legislate on identity symbols (e.g. flags and parades) in order to make such decisions based on cross-community agreement, as at Stormont. Such an approach was part of the reforms implemented to stave off the Troubles in the 1960s – though in that case it was too little too late.

The flag dispute is by no means a flip-side of the Troubles.

The recent census and calls for a Border Poll indicate the possible future that Northern Ireland faces. The rising Catholic/Nationalist population, although not necessarily translating into a support for removing the border with Ireland, poses a challenge for consociational democracy. Such ‘big questions’ will be governed by the principal of consent, thus providing some stability and security; it is important to realise that flags are also a part of these same questions and should be treated with the same consensual spirit.  


[i] ‘Q&A: Northern Ireland flag protests’, BBC News, 8 December 2012 and Mark Simpson, ‘Belfast flag violence: police attacked in Northern Ireland’, BBC News, 18 December 2012 

[ii] See Clubb, G ‘Re-Evaluating the Disengagement Process: the case of Fatah’, 3, no. 3 (September 2009): 26–27

[iii] PATTERSON, H. 2012. Unionism after Good Friday and St Andrews. The Political Quarterly, 83.

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