On 3rd December 2012 Belfast City Council voted to restrict the flying of the Union flag to set days throughout the year. The issue had been debated within the council chambers and on the streets of the city for a number of weeks beforehand. The city’s Protestant community, who tend to favour maintaining the constitutional link with the United Kingdom, held that the question represented the crystallisation of their fears that their identity was being eroded in the public sphere. On the other hand, the city’s Catholic population, who tend to favour a reunification with the Irish Republic, believed that the flag should be removed completely since it represented for them an alienating presence in their city.
A ‘compromise’ that involved flying the flag on designated days was proposed by the cross-community Alliance Party – whose members were subsequently subjected to death threats and had their homes attacked. Since then, loyalist paramilitaries have orchestrated violence in Belfast’s working-class Protestant areas, which has spread across many other areas of Northern Ireland. Roads – particularly, major arterial routes – have regularly been blocked (protesters recently designed an ‘Operation Standstill’ dedicated to shutting down Belfast in the evenings). More troubling developments have seen police officers being petrol bombed while death threats have been issued to politicians and journalists; politicians have had their houses shot at. Over 100 arrests have been made, almost 70 police officers have been injured and the unrest has been estimated to have cost between £7 and £15 million.
The riots in Belfast elicit many memories: the mid-1990s when Northern Ireland was shut down, taxi drivers were killed and three children burned to death in a Catholic house that was petrol bombed in a Protestant estate; the 1970s when the country was on two occasions (1974 and 1977) effectively shut down by loyalist paramilitaries; 1964 when the Rev Ian Paisley marched up the Catholic Falls Road to remove the Irish ‘tricolour’ national flag, provoking a climate of hate, fear and suspicion.
Flags and emblems, symbols clashing and emotions evoked all resonate deeply within Northern Ireland, despite a decade and a half of the peace process. The riots raise many issues – not least the question over whether they are the result of social disadvantage or whether they are turned off and on for more governmental money. In an admittedly contradictory rhetorical move, this piece will explore what these symbols do not explicitly represent in order to clarify why they appear to be so important.
Cultural wars are ostensibly fought over overt symbolisms – ‘our’ symbols and ‘our’ narratives demand to be heard. What these symbols implicitly stand for is a moral code – a simplified ethical universe that draws attention to itself the more it tries to conceal itself under the trappings of performance, ritual and symbol.
One point of departure for any consideration of Irish political symbolism is James Joyce: the traumatic recurrence lies at the heart of many of his writings. From the horse circling the British imperial monument in ‘The Dead’ (from Dubliners) to Stephen Dedalus’ famous pronouncement in Ulysses that ‘History is the nightmare from which I’m trying to awake’, Joyce remains alert to the Irish predicament of what to do with so much history (or, more precisely, what to do with such a prevalent collective historical consciousness). The problem of the world passing on while Ireland remains enthralled by history is perhaps best captured in the much cited verdict of Winston Churchill who told the House of Commons in 1922 that:
Great Empires have been overturned. The whole map of Europe has been changed. The position of countries has been violently altered. The modes of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous changes in the deluge of the world; but as the deluge of the waters subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.
[Cited in Aaron Edwards and Cillian McGrattan, The Northern Ireland Conflict: A Beginner’s Guide (Oxford: Oneworld, 2010), pp. xxii-xxiii.]
Despite its leftist verbiage, the narrative that social deprivation lies behind the loyalist protests represents an updating of Churchill’s essentialism: choice and agency are factored out of the equation and lawless behaviour, death threats and general intimidation are seen as the natural, inevitable consequence of class. This narrative links the riots to the deindustrialisation of Belfast’s Protestant working class and evokes memories of grander times and has been given a patina of respectability in some academic quarters. In so doing it reinvents ‘alienation’ as a catch-all term for communal thuggery – no longer synonymous with atomisation and individualisation, it instead becomes an excuse for gang-inspired violence.
Morality not nationality
Joyce’s short story, ‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ addresses a number of themes pertinent to the rioting in Northern Ireland. In the first instance, it concerns a debate over the visit of Edward VII to Ireland. Edward is compared with Charles Stuart Parnell, the nineteenth century nationalist leader who pressurised London governments for ‘Home Rule’ for Ireland. Parnell, who had died at the age of 45 in 1891, left a haunting legacy on Irish politics: a figure who had tried to unite Catholics and Protestants to the cause of self-government under the British Crown but was brought down through the virtuous unification of Anglican England, who demanded that the Liberal Party of Gladstone refuse to work with someone who had just been named in a high profile divorce, and Catholic Ireland, who demanded that Parnell’s party replace him as leader. The debate within the Committee Room concerns whether Edward’s visit should be welcomed insofar as it would generate income for Dublin’s businesses, or should be rejected as further evidence of Britain being unwilling to grant devolved government to Ireland.
Despite this obvious nationalist framing, the underlying point of dispute however (as Joyce presents it) concerns morality: both Parnell and Edward were known adulterers – Parnell, got his just deserts, Edward, operating in a more cosmopolitan sphere, continues to evade moral judgment:
What I mean, said Mr Lyons, is we have our ideals. Why, now, would we welcome a man like that? Do you think now after what he did Parnell was a fit man to lead us? And why, then, would we do it for Edward the Seventh?
Whereas the royal visit within the Joycean imagination revolves around issues of morality rather than nationality, the subtext to the Belfast flag riots concerns questions of governance and responsibility. Ostensibly and superficially about identity and working-class alienation, the flags dispute circles, at a deeper level, around questions of social and political responsibility and involves ideas about what kind of post-conflict society and democratic culture is being created in Northern Ireland. In other words, as Joyce points out, concerns about nationality are ultimately underpinned by ethics and the question(s) of what kind of values we cherish as societies and that we want passed on to future generations.
The triumph of identity politics over issues of social responsibility was very much in evidence in the build-up to the vote. The two main Unionist parties – the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionist Party – circulated 40,000 leaflets within Belfast that stated that ‘The Union Flag is the flag of our country and is causing no offence or harm to anyone. Tell Alliance you want it to stay. At the minute Alliance are backing the [position of the two main Nationalist parties, Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP)] that the flag should be ripped down on all but a few days.’
The main political parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, seemingly stand to gain most from the riots – opinion will be polarised , driving people towards those parties that best (or most extremely) defend ethno-religious ideas. Unionist politicians have attempted to wrest control of the situation by convening a ‘unionist forum’; yet the forum’s basic idea of injecting a dose of ‘Britishness’ into Northern Ireland is the kind of identity politics that looks less like a panacea than a Pavlovian response. Meanwhile Sinn Féin’s own version of Pavlovian reactions is to patronise unionists by saying that they have to face down their recalcitrant sectors just like republicans stood up to anti-peace process ‘dissidents’. (That those ‘dissidents’ continue to target soldiers, prison and police officers – with a killing and several near misses over the past few months – is but another unstable ingredient in the already volatile mix.)
What Joyce reminds us is that these strategically ethnicised readings and framings of events contain moral as well as political implications. They not only benefit vested structural and party political interests, they also speak to the values that are being inscribed on the polity and that are being engendered in new generations.
And what of those new generations – those young people who did not experience the violence that consumed almost 4,000 lives in a 35-year period? Without wishing to seem facetious, the fact is that some of those young people will continue to have a chance to play in a park dedicated to the memory of Francis McCreesh, an Irish Republican Army volunteer who died on hunger strike in 1981.
McCreesh had been captured by the British army during an attempted ambush and was convicted of a number of offenses including attempted murder and conspiracy to murder. A couple of days following the Belfast City Council decision, nationalist councillors (from the moderate SDLP and the more hard-line Sinn Féin) in the border town of Newry voted to retain McCreesh’s name on the park.
Although one of the SDLP’s members abstained from the vote the decision was criticised by one of its Belfast councillors as ‘concerning’ while one of the party’s senior members, and Minister for the Environment, Alex Attwood called for a rethink and stated that
In my view the principle should be, that in going forward, we should not, in any shape or form, be seen to be in any way putting on a pedestal, those in state or terror organisations that visited such grief and pain on our people in the past 40 years.
The distancing of SDLP members from the original decision is reminiscent of Parnell’s tactics of maintaining a radical stance one day to play to one constituency (in this case, the rural and working-class Catholic voters of Newry) while tempering it the next to reassure moderate opinion (in this case, the liberal Catholic and Protestant middle-classes of south Belfast and the London and Dublin governments).
Society is to Blame
The predictable framing of the riots has been as an outpouring of identity politics: that the SDLP has tried to ‘out-green’ or out-nationalise its main electoral rivals Sinn Féin; while the DUP has sought to castigate the Alliance Party, which took its East Belfast seat at the last (2010) United Kingdom General Election. Ultimately, this mode of analysis blames the peace process itself, which has institutionalised sectarian politics in the devolved power-sharing administration and instituted a policy culture of parity of esteem that has equalised opinion and relativized judgment. Jason Walsh writes:
the peace process entirely fails to deal with the fact that Northern Ireland is home to two divergent political claims (or that such conflicts are, by necessity, zero-sum) and instead focuses on matters of culture and identity: flag-flying, parading, the Irish language, the Ulster Scots language, and ‘parity of esteem’. Despite all the blather about a shared future, not much is actually shared in Northern Ireland.
The problems with this rather condescending approach are numerous: not only does it assume that identity politics are necessarily ‘bad’ and somehow different from pluralist, cosmopolitan utopias; it also simply serves to describe rather than explain the dynamics of what is going on – it seems absurd to criticise parties in an ethnic situation for indulging in nationalistic or zero-sum politics. In conflating the context with its outworkings, the political effect of the approach is to defer normative and moral consideration of what roles and responsibilities the parties possess.
The resort to straightforward identity politics to explain the upsurge in rioting and violence in Northern Ireland only serves to canonise, domesticate and conventionalise what is going on – it places it within safe and easily understandable historical frames. As such it results in a variation on the Joycean theme – Irish history is a traumatic paradigm that runs according to type. If Irish history is predictable, this kind of worldview is even more so. And more so than that, it is tired.
The historian J.H. Plumb complained about that kind of historicising over forty years ago, dismissing it as vanity history, ‘the past … as the anodyne, the opium, not of the masses, but of the sensitive intellectual’ [J.H. Plumb, The Death of the Past (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004 , pp. 46-7]. As Plumb was well aware, losing sight of elite responsibilities in the fog of identity politics contributes to the hollowing out of broader social responsibilities. And it is by maintaining focus on the former that we can come to terms with the breakdown of the latter.
The privilege enjoyed by political elites is also the key to their responsibilities: unlike the general population, they are required to question and thereby establish the norms and standards that define life in any polity. They hold a position of authority and influence and stand above the everyday concerns and roles that preoccupy ordinary citizens.
The point was made in a rather different sphere recently by Lord Ouseley, the chairman of the anti-racism in football body, Kick it Out. Ouseley argued that the official support of clubs like Chelsea and Liverpool for players such as John Terry and Luis Suárez who had been found guilty of racial abuse served to reaffirm a disintegration of a certain moral compass. For Ouseley, football’s pivotal position within the culture of the UK, and indeed, across Europe reinforces the seriousness of the matter. Of course, there exists a point when critiquing the system serves to lend it a patina of respectability, and his rather dispiriting message seems to be that the UK is teetering on the edge of a slippery slope in that regard.
The question that the flags protests/riots demonstrates for Northern Ireland are analogous: namely, does the absence of a moral compass among Northern Ireland’s political class leave the region hanging above a precipice of ethnic grievance? The fact that the riots have continued in the post-Christmas period certainly seems to point to a rather negative answer in that regard.
Put another way, the Parnellite conservatism of targeting social cohesion through the balancing act of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary pressure has been rendered into a conservation and reification of historic tropes leading inevitably to the cultivation of moral taboos. These taboos concern the inability to view political dynamics through anything but the lens of identity: questions of society or the polity are inexorably deferred, silenced or unacknowledged.
The flag protests and the memorialisation of terrorists/paramilitaries revolve around the same set of questions therefore. Ostensibly concerned with nationality and identity the flags dispute actually serves to shroud issues of societal responsibility; while the dispute over memory and memorialisation serves to inscribe particularistic narratives on the polity itself.
Importantly, Stephen Dedalus is not trapped in the nightmare – he is conscious of it; the trauma is real but is at a distance. Joyce’s message is clear: the trauma of (Irish) history can be escaped.
Thus, it seems fair to say that the fact that these practices are widespread or have been established for a long time is beside the point. Until politicians begin to articulate a response to Northern Ireland’s problems that incorporates basic ideas of society then the polarisation of society will continue. Political elites could respond to argue that they only reflect the overwhelming wishes of the general population. However, unlike the general population they enjoy the position of analysing what their roles and responsibilities are: if that analysis stops at the level of identity politics then the Joycean nightmare may well continue for the foreseeable future.
Get our weekly email