I’ve written before on the how some Irish journalists feel a compulsion to criticize any display of Irish nationalism, while praising any such gestures from bigoted unionist groups such as the Orange Order. Of course, with loyalists currently rioting night after night in Belfast, such attitudes are again to be seen in the papers. In the Irish Independent the typically obnoxious Ian O’Doherty claims that ‘Belfast is part of the United Kingdom regardless of what the nutters on the nationalist side would have you believe and for them to be the only part of that political entity not to fly the flag with pride is, to be frank, absurd.’ Meanwhile in the Sunday Independent Eoghan Harris bizarrely claims that the riots mark some form of class war between the middle-class members of the Alliance Party and the loyalists from poorer areas who have been ‘left behind’ in the peace process (This is perhaps the first time Eoghan Harris has shown concern for the welfare of the working class in several decades). Similar sympathy for the angry unionists of Belfast can be found in Victoria White’s piece in the Irish Examiner.
I think it is quite obvious to anybody familiar with O’Doherty or Harris that they would have considerably less sympathy with nationalist riots, especially if they were over something symbolic such as a flag. Harris in particular has a track record of only criticizing violence or bigotry in the north if it comes from the nationalists community- As I detailed in a previous article, he’s quite a fan of the notoriously bigoted Orange Order. But even if we leave this aside, they both show a remarkable lack of intelligence in their description of the controversy. O’Doherty claims that is absurd that Belfast would be the only place in the United Kingdom to not fly the union flag with pride, ignoring the fact that the Union flag currently flies as often over Belfast City Hall as it does over Stormont, Buckingham Palace or any British Embassy (Something which White, to her credit, recognizes even though she immediately decides that this is somehow irrelevant). Belfast is flying the flag as much as anywhere else in the United Kingdom. Harris appears to feel that having the union flag continuously fly over the City Hall is somehow a sign of pluralism, despite the fact that a large proportion of the city’s (And statelet’s) population despise the Union flag as a symbol of an historical oppressor.
All of these journalists appear to be in such a rush to support unionists, that they forget Belfast is in no way a typical city of the United Kingdom. Unlike London, Manchester Cardiff or Edinburgh a large proportion of the cities population have not historically identified themselves as British. The flying of the union flag over the city hall is therefore not remotely akin to the it flying over London or the tricolour flying over Dublin. Unionists are of course used to only having their identity represented in the north, having spent decades with complete control over all political institutions. Faced with an increasingly confident and powerful nationalist minority who, thanks to the end of gerrymandering and other forms of discrimination, are more and more able to use these institutions to their advantage, loyalists are now engaged in a savage backlash. That they are angry at much more than the flag issue, is evidenced by the demands for a return to direct rule which have been made by so many of the protest organizers. In other words, a return to unionist domination of the north and an end to power-sharing with nationalists.
Whether or not the decision to restrict the flying of the flag was correct (I personally think it was), it is to hoped that the council do not give in to the idiotic violence the most reactionary elements of unionism. In the meanwhile, we would do best to ignore the nonsense spouted by so many southern journalists who as usual attempt to justify the bigotry of northern unionists.