Although the Belfast protests, and clashes with the police over limitations on the flying of the Union Flag have continued into the new year, they reveal an undercurrent of desperation amongst sections of Northern Ireland’s loyalist community.
Although the protests over limitations on the flying of the Union Flag have continued into the new year, they reveal an undercurrent of rudderless desperation amongst Ulster loyalists.
The flag protests, which began in early December with a decision by nationalists and the liberal Alliance Party on Belfast City Council to end the flying of the flag on every day of the year, have already been extremely disruptive. Roads have been blocked in Belfast and several other towns, the protests have caused squeals of pain from the province's small business community, and there are plans to escalate with a march on Stormont on 20 January.
Yet, for all this, the protests, numbering just a few thousand, have involved relatively few people. They are a far cry from past instances of loyalist discontent in the 1970s and 1980s, which saw rallies rallies of hundreds of thousands protest the prorogation of the Stormont parliament and the Anglo-Irish Agreement.
Jackie McDonald of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), detecting a shift in the way the wind is blowing, has changed his line. Although warning in early December that it was “gravely worried” that the leadership of loyalism “could be usurped”, MacDonald is now telling the protestors to halt the disruption because they will be unable to win their demand for the reinstatement of the flag all year round.
McDonald's comments indicate the complete absence of strategic direction amongst Ulster loyalists, amidst the continuing disintegration of the loyalist paramilitaries. With splits at the highest levels of the UDA and several units now operating largely independent of the leadership, other tendencies are seeking to move in.
One such group involved in the protests, 'United Protestant Voice' (UPV), is organised largely via Facebook and an online forum, and expresses hostility to the existing political parties. On its 'Executive Committee' is Johnny Harvey, a former RAF sergeant from east Belfast. Two other members of the committee, Alison Smallwood and Mark Barnes, have expressed fascist sympathies online.
Whether UPV this is part of a wider fascist attempt to gain a foothold is unclear. What is known is that Paul Golding, the former BNP councillor who split from Nick Griffin to found 'Britain First', arrived in Belfast in mid-December to take part in the protests. He was joined by Britain First's Northern Ireland representative, Jim Dowson, who previously fund-raised in Belfast for the BNP.
At the same time, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), facing yet another 'supergrass trial' in the coming weeks, are likely to be using the protests to warn the police and courts what can happen when loyalists become angered.
Despite the superfluity of potential leaders, the protests lack any strategic leadership. In the past, larger upsurges of loyalist anger usually served to advance one or other fraction of the Unionist establishment, such as former Unionist minister William Craig's Vanguard movement against direct rule, or Ian Paisley's doomed campaign against the Good Friday Agreement which nevertheless allowed the DUP to eventually supplant its Ulster Unionist rivals.
This time around, the two main unionist parties, having helped to stir up the hysteria, now wish for it to cease. Towards this end they have co-sponsored a Unionist Forum to invite loyalist community leaders to discuss the issues around flags, parades and British cultural identity.
In response, the tragicomic loyalist “victims' campaigner' Willie Frazer has announced the formation of a “People's Forum” and the intention of its members to march on Dublin. In a sign that some loyalists would give up regional representation rather than share power with nationalists, Frazer's group has come out in support of direct rule from Westminster.
Meanwhile, a recent report has highlighted levels of enduring poverty, unemployment and social exclusion in Northern Ireland. There is no 'mechanical' connection between immiseration and the recent unrest and the primary trigger remains a political one. Yet, continuing high levels of unemployment and poverty have seen sections of the population alienated from the political system, and undoubtedly sharpen loyalists' self-perception as 'losers' in the 'peace process'.
Some of this is warranted; some is not. It is true that Northern Ireland as a whole has had consistently higher levels of people not in paid work than the rest of the United Kingdom. Moreover, as of January 2012, 5.4% of the working-age population in NI was claiming Job Seekers' Allowance (JSA), compared with 4% on average. This is a long-lasting trend: in 1996 the level was 8.4% as compared to 6.2%, and in 2000 the figures were 4.2% and 3.3% respectively.
Northern Ireland also has a high level of households without work (21%), households with only one adult working (31%) and a growth of part-time work as a proportion of the total number of jobs. This is one of the factors behind high levels of in-work poverty and child poverty.
Nevertheless, it remains the case that Catholics are more likely to be in poverty than Protestants. The poverty rate for Protestants is 19%, compared to 26% for Catholics. In the three years up to 2000, 28% of working-age Protestants were not in paid work compared to 35%.
'Objectively', the perception held by loyalists of Protestants being left behind by Catholics is wrong. Yet this is beside the point. Absolute levels of poverty and unemployment in Northern Ireland are high amongst both communities. In Belfast, where much of the unrest has taken place, the employment gap between Catholics and Protestants is only 3% (37% to 34%); the salient fact here is not the slightly lower levels for Protestants but that over a third of the Belfast working-age population, regardless of religious identity, is not in paid work.
To explain the protests, one must understand that working-class Protestants are clinging to the one thing that, in their minds, does separate them from their fellow Catholics workers: that is, the vestigial privilege of their Protestant British national identity. And as James Connolly wrote, when the 'working class is obsessed with visions of glory, patriotism, war, loyalty or political or religious bigotry, it can find no room in its mind for considerations of its own interests as a class.'
The idea of uniformly impoverished Catholic community, too, must be jettisoned. The overall differentiation within the Catholic community is wider than that between the communities. Part of the lower average work rates for Catholics is down to the geographical discrepancy between the west and east of Northern Ireland. Some of this can be explained by sectarianism, such as the historic concentration of civil service employment in Greater Belfast by the old Stormont regime, with only limited attempts at de-centralisation thereafter. Other factors, such as distance to major ports and other transport hubs cannot.
What is clear, however, is that, when geography, age, disability and other factors are taken into considerations, the remaining gap in work rates between Catholics and Protestants which cannot be explained – that down to religion itself – is falling.
Some of this is reflected in changing attitudes. Turnout in the 2011 Northern Ireland Assembly election was 54.5% - down 15 points since the first Assembly election in Northern Ireland – suggesting disenchantment with the main parties and a diminishing desire to vote in order to keep out the 'other side.' When given a poll in 2008 which included 3 graduated degrees of identification with the Irish and British national identities (as well as both exclusive answers), 58% of respondents replied that they were some mixture of both, while 45% of respondents answered 'neither' when asked whether they were unionist or nationalist.
In other words, despite intense pockets of insecurity, the sectarian lens is every more strongly acting as a distorting mirror. All this points to the reality that the power-sharing institutions and the main sectarian political parties are incapable of tackling any of the deep-rooted social problems afflicting working-class people in Northern Ireland.