NOTE: This post is written for those who have no clue as to what is going on here. I have nothing to offer to native Northern Irish persons who have dealt with all this malarky for years and do not pretend to. My hope is that this post can serve as a window into a complicated situation and lead to higher empathy and understanding.
On Monday evening, the 3rd of December, Belfast City Council voted to not fly the Union Jack flag every day. One of the Nationalist/Republican* political parties, Sinn Fein, had been pushing to have it never flown at all. The Unionist/Loyalist** parties, Democratic Unionist Party and Ulster Unionist Party (DUP and UUP), found that abhorrent. A moderate party pulling from both factions, Alliance, proposed a policy which was already in place in hundreds of city councils around Great Britain – to only fly it on designated days. The democratic process prevailed and the motion was passed.
That’s essentially when all hell broke loose.
Immediately following the vote, Loyalist protesters who had gathered out the back of City Hall began to riot. We watched in abject horror at the pictures filling our screens – police persons and reporters injured, property damaged. It all felt a little too familiar. But as I went to bed that night, the commentators were saying it was one night and that would be that.
We woke up the next morning to reports that an Alliance Party MP, Naomi Long, had received death threats overnight and her home was damaged. Thankfully she was not hurt as the family was not at home, but that was to begin a pattern which continues.
Most nights, they gather in “peaceful protests” – a group of people standing in a major intersection holding Union Jacks and signs which usually read things about not surrendering. They gather for an hour or so right at rush hour and do nothing overtly violent except cause traffic havoc and prevent people from getting places. I’ll be honest, using the term “Operation Standstill” and tweeting things about “bringing the province to its knees” has not endeared their cause to the greater Northern Irish population.
However, every once and a while, they become overtly violent. These violent clashes – so far – have been in areas which traditionally have a high paramilitary presence. They have mostly been Loyalists versus police, with a few brief exceptions in East Belfast where it has been between Loyalists and Republicans.
By now you must be asking so many questions: we are too. Just because we’re a bit used to this malarky doesn’t mean we understand it. I can logically follow their arguments; I simply cannot understand why it matters this much.
It matters this much because – in the words of one organizer – “it’s not just the flag. They want to take everything British away.” So while all of this is about a flag, it’s not. It’s about a deep frustration that has been brewing in this community for decades. The Good Friday Agreement which officially ended the armed conflict in 1998 is perceived as being unbalanced. The narrative in this community is that it only benefited the “other side” and that they have been left out in the cold. They feel abandoned by their government and their Queen and their political parties.
That last part is – in my opinion – the most important element. There is a perception amongst the Loyalist community – at least the ones who talk to the news and to colleagues of mine – that Unionist politicians no longer speak “for the people” and “the people” no longer have a voice. They feel forced, therefore, out onto the streets to make their point. For some of these people blocking traffic with their banners, this is the culmination of feeling crapped on by the whole country for almost 15 years and they just can’t take it any more. However, I do believe a MAJORITY of the people who feel this way are not comfortable with the overt violence either. The (mostly) young men who are setting buses and cars on fire and launching petrol bombs at police officers are a minority.
But where does that leave the rest of us? Frustrated. Scared. Annoyed. Pick a word: we probably feel it every day. I feel horrible for the families of police officers who are subject to injury because they are doing their job (over 100 officers have been hurt so far by having things like bricks thrown at their heads). I am frustrated for the politicians who have had bullets mailed to them in the post and have been forced to evacuate their houses (about 15 at my last count). I am tired of having to plot my route anywhere based on planned and unplanned protests. I am sick to death of this being the lead story on the news (we hear it’s even being reported in Cameroon and Russia). From my conversations with friends and family here, I am not alone in those emotions.
This has cost the city approximately 25 million pounds so far in both outright policing costs and lost revenue to businesses. And it’s only been six weeks.
The question I have asked and heard asked and been asked is “how does this stop?” and “how long will it take to get back to what it was?” There is a deep, deep fear in the voices of almost everyone I know that N. Ireland is sliding backwards into old patterns which they had deeply hoped were broken. It appears they are not.
So what can you do? If you are a praying person, pray for peace and calm and understanding and empathy and wisdom. If you are not, please lean into the trust I have that the Northern Irish people are not thugs who all behave like this. Please believe me that the silent majority are scared and need your support. What does your support look like? Plan trips here and remind anyone going to Ireland that “Ireland” does not just mean Dublin. Share positive Northern Irish stories with your friends and family. Like that Game of Thrones is largely filmed here, that one of our golf courses was just voted “Best Outside USA”, that C.S. Lewis imagined Narnia as looking like County Down, that Snow Patrol started here and Van Morrison is Belfast born and bred.
But the best thing to do? Practice grace with others around you and remember that your story is not the only one. May we all remember that the lands we inhabit carry many lives and many stories. May we remember that what we will protest loudest is the thing that someone else holds the most dear and that just because someone is different doesn’t mean they’re not human. May we act justly, love mercy and walk humbly as we navigate each other and learn that patience is a greater virtue than many of us realize.
If you have any further questions, I’m happy to field them. That will probably look like directing you to other sources, but hopefully I can be a gateway into the alphabet soup that is Northern Irish writing.