Spiked, December 11, 2012
Recent riots in Belfast confirm that the politics of cultural identity does little more than reinforce sectarian divisions.
A week of riots in Belfast is nothing new. But isn’t the peace process supposed to have put an end to all this? Think again.
The trouble started last Monday when Belfast City Council passed a motion to fly the Union flag on 18 to 20 state occasions annually, rather than on 365 days a year, as it had done previously. The motion, proposed by the liberal unionist Alliance Party, was a compromise measure; the original motion, tabled by the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and supported by Sinn Fein, had sought to stop flying the flag entirely.
Predictably, given mainstream Unionist parties had been leafleting on the matter, an angry mob appeared at Belfast City Hall. Perhaps less predictably, and certainly not predicted by the police, a riot broke out and the building was stormed. This was followed by five further nights of violence, burnt-out cars and death threats, before it all finally tapered out on Saturday.
Press coverage has focused on outrage among the middle classes and the threat that the violence poses to traders and wider investment in the ‘New Northern Ireland’. Neither of these claims is inaccurate, but both are beside the point. The most revealing thing about the riots is that they show the vacuity of identity politics – on both sides of the sectarian divide.
A properly republican response to British sovereignty in Northern Ireland would not be to dispute the fact of its existence by lowering flags, but rather to question it and argue for Irish sovereignty. Alas, the SDLP’s motion, which is hard to read other than as an attempt to out-‘green’ Sinn Féin, focused on the cultural trappings of sovereignty – identity – rather than its reality.
Likewise, the loyalist response ignores actual reality: power-sharing has strengthened British rule in Ireland, leaving the question of Irish unity to an unspecified future date of a border poll within Northern Ireland. Instead, loyalists have chosen to focus on shrill and shallow ‘union jackery’.
It’s not hard to understand loyalist frustration, though few seem willing to try. There are no doubt elements within Unionism, both loyalist and ‘respectable’ Unionism, which still don’t want to share power with republicans under any circumstances. But that is not what was playing out on the streets of Belfast last week. Smug, middle-class Unionists, republicans and liberals who can’t understand why there is all this kerfuffle over a flag would do well to ponder just who it was that transformed a territorial conflict into a cultural one and what the endgame was actually supposed to be.
Marshalled into battle like a stage army by Unionist politicians throughout – and before – the conflict, only to be abandoned and declared thugs as soon as the inevitable trouble breaks out, working-class loyalists feel a sense of grievance at the peace process, even if that grievance is, frankly, inflated. Lacking significant political representation in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the council’s decision on the display of flags is, loyalists feel, a victory for Sinn Fein, and one that leaves them marginalised and despised, their culture laughed at.
In fact, the Belfast Agreement in 1998, and the St Andrew’s Agreement in 2006, copper-fastened British rule in Ireland, leaving republicans playing a demographic game, hoping that when there is a nominally Catholic majority there will also be a republican one, at which point they will trigger a border poll.
Watching the 1,500 loyalist protesters at Belfast City Hall on Saturday, it was hard to feel much affinity with the culture on display, but, then again, as a ‘taig’ I’m not supposed to. What was more than evident, though, was that despite the volubility of the display – a sea of Union flags – loyalist culture is brittle and fearful. Protests, the roadblocks, the burnt-out cars and the rioting are not symbols of a confident, forward-looking culture, nor do they suggest that Northern Ireland is, as Margaret Thatcher once claimed, ‘as British as Finchley’.
This would all be a lot less significant were it not for the fact that the peace process entirely fails to deal with the fact that Northern Ireland is home to two divergent political claims (or that such conflicts are, by necessity, zero-sum) and instead focuses on matters of culture and identity: flag-flying, parading, the Irish language, the Ulster Scots language, and ‘parity of esteem’. Despite all the blather about a shared future, not much is actually shared in Northern Ireland.
Unfortunately, virtually the only answers on offer, from politicians and commentators alike, is yet more peace process: more cultural recognition, more identity politics and more demands for respect. The poison of identity politics is that in seeking to channel political demands, whether for a united Ireland or the United Kingdom, into questions of culture, the peace process does the opposite of settling the dispute: it permanently enshrines it and keeps Unionists and republicans locked together in a proxy conflict. Pretending there are no winners and losers has left loyalists feeling like the ultimate losers, even when that analysis is difficult to sustain.
And so, a pointless motion by a council few people care about, to take down a flag no one notices anymore, sparks a series of flying riots. All this some 15 years after the conflict ended, and 14 years after we were told the Belfast Agreement had settled the political issues that underpinned it. Yeah, right. If ever you need evidence that cultural politics is a pox, you need look no further than the ‘New Northern Ireland’.