By Jamie Bryson
On 3 December 2012 Sinn Fein and the SDLP were joined by the Alliance party in tearing down the Union flag from the prime civic building in Northern Ireland’s capital city.
That assault on the very right to recognise the constitutional status of Northern Ireland precipitated the sporadic outbreak of country-wide protests, and led directly to the increasingly anti agreement feeling which swept unionism and loyalism over the following decade.
The anti-agreement arguments, which particularly focused on how the so called Belfast Agreement ‘process’ which necessitated that unionism must give, and nationalism must get, to be repeated perpetually all the way to its pre-ordained destiny of the United Ireland, were- at that time- a minority view.
And yet now, a decade on, the vast majority of the unionist community have finally endorsed the message that enough is enough. The lineage of that anti-agreement revolution in unionism and loyalism can be traced all the way back to that moment in 2012.
The tearing down of the Union flag was a visible and symbolic example of the incremental erosion not only of every manifestation of unionist/loyalist culture and British identity, but of Northern Ireland’s place in the Union itself.
All of a sudden the arguments warning that the ‘process’ was sleepwalking unionism into a United Ireland found fertile ground, and exploded in a burst of energy into province wide protests. It truly was the people’s protest, beyond the control of any one person or group.
That was both initially a strength and a weakness, in so far as it prevented a joined-up strategy, but also on the other side of the coin was impossible to break by targeting a core or focusing on individuals.
As matters moved on, with the best of intentions, the Ulster People’s Forum was formed which had representatives from protest groups from all across Northern Ireland. It was a vibrant movement, and I was privileged to be appointed as Chairman of the organisation.
We travelled all over the country speaking at protests, organising information evenings and seeking to develop a strategy to develop a plan of resistance to the ongoing ‘process’ in which unionism was consistently being expected to give.
The difference between this period of time, and the anti-Protocol movement, is that the flag protest was a grassroots movement which was angry at the concessions political unionism had consistently made, whilst the anti-Protocol campaign has brought together grassroots movement and political unionism in common cause.
That unity has paved the way for significant political action which has proven more effective than street protest. But that is not to say street protest (in regards the Protocol) was not a vital factor in forcing political unionism to take a stand (it plainly was one of the primary driving forces), nor that it may not again be necessary.
The point I make is that protest must be a tactic with the aim to achieve a clearly defined objective- rather than protest itself becoming the objective. That becomes entirely circular and protest becomes the end in of itself.
The Protocol movement’s objective was to create maximum political and societal instability in order to make the Protocol impossible to operate; the protest activity created sufficient pressure to force political unionism to collapse the entire democratic institutions. That was a key objective, with protest used to maximum effect to occasion that outcome.
A flaw, evident in hindsight, with the flag protest was that often it lacked a strategic series of objectives, primarily because it was an organic (and entirely legitimate) explosion of frustration and anger. The tearing down of the Union flag was the symbolic straw that broke the camel’s back.
The Ulster People’s Forum was an positive effort to create strategic objectives, but it also had the negative effect of concentrating some form of protest leadership into a central body which (i) ultimately inadvertently created division because in a sporadic protest across the whole country, there is such a mixed bag of opinions and ideas, it is impossible to construct a strategy in the heat of the ongoing protests which could command the support of all; (ii) allowed media and particularly policing to zone in on individuals (such as me and the late William Frazer) and adopt an approach of ‘taking the head off the snake’, so to speak.
In hindsight I definitely feel that the identification of the protest movement with individuals, and the soap opera that revolved around that, was not a positive development. I was relatively young and inexperienced at the time, and in hindsight made errors in willingly allowing the protest movement to become too focused on individuals, including myself.
It was never a protest which belonged to any one person, it was the people’s protest- and that is how it should in truth be remembered. There were many people who sacrificed greatly for that legitimate cause, and many people who found themselves lying in prison for standing up for the flag of the country.
In the intervening decade lessons have been learned, and any astute observer of the anti-Protocol movement will note how there has been no central co-ordination or ownership, with instead the focus being on empowering local areas to take an approach suitable to their particular community. There has equally been a deliberate effort to ensure the protest movement doesn’t become synonymous with any one individual, which is why there has been such a positive drive to empower and platform new voices.
In the 2012/13 period there was a sneering and dehumanisation of the working-class unionist and loyalist community, trying to create an underclass. This was amplified by, for example, the vile online campaign of demonisaition and abuse waged by ‘LAD’ which turned out to be a platform for those who were, by their own admission, trolling others as a form of therapy for their own self-loathing.
Indeed, many of those behind it turned out to be extremely unsavoury individuals. That site was promoted by many journalists, politicians and elements of the BBC. Incredibly the ‘elite’ have managed to retrospectively whitewash their empowerment of that campaign.
In the midst of the protests, as alluded to by Dr John Kyle in his Unionist Voice article, there were serious questions of the policing and criminal justice treatment of protestors. Both myself and William Frazer were arrested and remanded in custody on charges of an unnotified public procession. There is not a single other person ever in the United Kingdom to spend a single day in prison on charges of an unnotified public procession.
On the day we were refused bail, an individual charged with IRA terrorism offences appeared in the same court, before the same judge. He was granted bail. One of the PSNI officers who gave evidence to the court at my bail hearing was later found by the Police Ombudsman to have provided false evidence in the bail hearing, and was subject to disciplinary action.
The investigating officer in the flag protest case brought against me is currently before the court facing charges of misconduct in public office in relation to her actions during the investigation into me. At a committal hearing it was revealed the officer had remarked her motivation for the impugned conduct in relation to myself was that she wanted to “get the wee f**ker”.
At this stage I do not want to say anymore on those matters, but I will have much to say in due course. The relevant individual is entitled to a fair trial, and I await the outcome of the court process.
That being said, the refusal of bail to two loyalists charged to court by the PSNI on minor offences, was a clear manifestation of what later became the widely held view in unionism and loyalism that there was a two-tier policing and justice system. In the decade since that viewpoint has grown in intensity, and there remains real concern about an inherent policing bias.
However, since the Bobby Storey funeral, there has been efforts by the PSNI- through a new community engagement team headed up by ACC Singleton- to engage with loyalist (and indeed all) communities and to seek to address the concerns. That initiative deserves credit, and has went some way towards creating avenues to rebuild confidence in policing. There remain outstanding confidence issues, but with positive engagement, and the PSNI displaying an even-handed approach, in time I hope those well-founded concerns around two-tier policing can be addressed.
In order for that to happen, the engagement needs to move to looking at practical implementation of structural changes to allow the continued building of confidence. That requires unionism/loyalism to be active and engaged in developing a concept of what fair and balanced policing looks like, and pressing home those requirements.
The Union flag protest was a unique period, and it was a watershed moment in unionism and loyalism. It politicised a new generation, and reignited the flame in many who had become ambivalent or passive as the ‘process’ trundled along, with the Union being further dismantled with each step.
It was a legitimate protest, and all those who took part should be proud of their participation: I certainly am of mine.
This article is the first of a two-part ‘look back’ ten years ago. In it I have sought to (in general and broad terms) provide an overview of some of the key themes and issues of the time.
In the second part, to be published tomorrow (14 December 22), I provide a more personal reflection, and seek to address many of the mistruths which have been promoted in relation to my involvement in the flag protest and related issues. Now seems as good a time as any to address some of those falsehoods.
I do so because on a personal level, ten years on, I feel it important to set the record straight on some issues and ensure there is an accurate record of the relevant period of time. A failure to do so would be to permit falsehoods and mistruths to proceed as truth.