By Dr John Kyle
The flag dispute ten years ago caught most of Northern Ireland on the wrong foot. Warnings by some Unionist politicians that removing the flag from the City Hall would provoke a serious reaction were dismissed by other political parties as exaggeration or scaremongering. The events that unfolded were met with disbelief, derision and ridicule. What an overreaction, we were told. John Hume’s dictum ‘you can’t eat a flag’ had a new lease of life.
Flags became ‘flegs’ and white line protestors, previously ignored, were pounced on by the PSNI, stung by criticism from middle class professionals who were unable to get home from work.
What became clear was that large swathes of the population could not understand why the flag was so important to Unionists, especially those from working class communities. It seemed like a bizarre and unnecessary overreaction. More tellingly, it exposed the huge gulf that existed between the middle class and working-class populations. The Unionist/Nationalist fault line was not the only fracture in our society. As we all know, division is costly and damaging and the flag protest was both.
Loyalists saw the removal of the Union Jack as another nail in the coffin of British Culture in Northern Ireland. We could argue about that, but it certainly was another step to ‘rebalance’ our competing cultures and Loyalists were the losers. Or were they?
In the ten years since the decision by Belfast City Council, Unionist and Loyalist culture has seen something of a renaissance. The complex history surrounding the Battle of the Somme is now much better known and its significance is acknowledged and embraced- thanks in part to historians such as the late Eamonn Phoenix and East Belfast’s Jason Burke. Young men who fell in the battle are remembered in numerous plaques and memorials scattered across the country. Today’s generations have proudly discovered great grandparents or great uncles who served in the trenches. There are many collectors and collections of interesting, sometimes poignant, first world war memorabilia.
Marching Bands have also enjoyed a resurgence with new uniforms, expanded repertoires and creative collaborations such as the Gertrude Star, Duke Special and Matt Maginn performing ‘Fifes and Fusion’ in the MAC, or the North West Cultural Partnership fusing Highland, Irish and Ulster Scots music in the landmark performance of ‘Where Traditions Meet’.
Jonathan Burgess, one of Northern Ireland’s leading playwrights has produced a number of acclaimed plays exploring Loyalist and Northern Irish culture and tradition. Meanwhile earlier this year Sam Robinson’s play about Glentoran ‘One Saturday Before the War’ played to enthusiastic full houses.
There are many other examples of a new cultural vibrancy within the Unionist and Loyalist communities.
The flag protests resulted in many young Loyalists being burdened with a criminal record. To many it seemed that while to protest is legal, some protests are less legal than others and, despite the protests, the flag is still only flown on just over a dozen days each year on the City Hall. The right to protest is an essential right in modern society and may be effective in publicising inequality or injustice, but just protesting rarely solves the problem. Furthermore, the disrespect shown to Loyalist communities continues, particularly from the more cosmopolitan professional classes who should know better. To take its cause forward Loyalism needs new tactics or to begin promoting solutions.
Importantly there is growing consensus that the strongest argument in support of Northern Ireland is a successful, peaceful Northern Ireland and that entails finding ways to resolve conflict. Resolving conflict does not mean capitulating to the opposition, rather it means having the strength and confidence to engage with your opponents, to discuss the issues or injustices and to make your case cogently and persuasively. That requires courage but it is unquestionably a more effective way in which to advance one’s cause. The act of reaching out to your opponent will create a climate of mutual respect and allow relationships to develop. Condemning opponents or shouting insults only entrenches people in their animosities and existing views, whereas treating them with respect opens up the possibility of positive change.
Loyalism is not without agency; it is within its power to transform the polarised stalemate that grips the country. If those who so fearlessly protested the removal of the flag were to reach out to their opponents they could win friends, build support, advance their cause and help create a more stable and successful Northern Ireland, a pretty good outcome in my opinion.
Dr John Kyle is a retired doctor, former Deputy Leader of the Progressive Unionist Party and currently an Ulster Unionist Party Councillor on Belfast City Council.