Northern Ireland flag protests test a fragile peace

Belfast | December 12, 2012 | Katy Lee for AFP

BELFAST, United Kingdom (AFP) — Nights of rioting, petrol bombs, arson attacks and tense standoffs between pro-British protesters and the police have brought the lingering sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland into sharp focus.

The streets of the British province have been hit by protests every night since December 3, when Belfast's council enraged Protestant loyalists by ruling that the British flag should no longer fly year-round at City Hall.

Since then, rioters have set lawmakers' offices ablaze and and thrown a petrol bomb at a policewoman in her car in the worst incidents, while at least four politicians have received death threats.

Police say loyalist paramilitaries are behind some of the violence, raising tensions with republicans -- mainly Catholics -- who favour a unified Ireland.

While politicians dismiss suggestions that the violence threatens the peace process put in place in 1998, the scenes of rioting are reminiscent of the dark days of the conflict in the British province.

On Wednesday night, wrapped up against the cold in giant British flags, grim-faced loyalists again faced lines of police clad in riot gear in several parts of Belfast.

The protests appear to be reducing in size, but the loyalists are fiercely defensive of their British identity and have vowed to return every night until the Union Jack flies again above City Hall.

"It's in our blood, that flag," said one protester, who refused to give her name as she stood with some 40 others blockading the loyalist stronghold of Shankill Road in west Belfast.

"Our forefathers died for it. We're not going to stop until our flag's back up. We'll protest til doomsday," she told AFP.

'Chipping away at our Britishness'

British Prime Minister David Cameron has joined Northern Irish leaders in condemning those protesters who have turned to violence, saying "in no way are these people being loyal or standing up for Britishness".

Many Belfast residents complain that the protesters are a small minority who refuse to accept a decision made by a democratically-elected council. They say the disruption is damaging trade in the pre-Christmas period.

For republicans, the British flag cannot stay hanging over a council that is no longer controlled by loyalist parties.

But while loyalists have sparked the latest violence, minorities in the republican community are also seeking to disturb the fragile peace.

Dissident republicans from the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA groups murdered two soldiers and a policeman in 2009.

The harsh truth for Protestants is that population shifts are working against them -- census results published this week show they have lost their absolute majority in Northern Ireland.

While the number of Protestants has declined in a decade from 53 percent to 48 percent in 2011, the Catholic population has grown to 45 percent.

Belfast itself is now almost equally divided between Protestants and Catholics, a fact reflected in the hung city council which voted to remove the British flag for all but 17 days of the year.

"They're scumbags," one Catholic taxi driver said of the flag protesters. "They think they rule this city. And they did back when we were second-class citizens, but not any more."

In Belfast, the murals dotted around Protestant and Catholic working class neighbourhoods are a stark reminder that divisions still run deep.

"We have a highly divided society where people live in either Protestant areas or Catholic areas, and where the public space is still competed over," said Dominic Bryan, Director of the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen's University Belfast.

"I think it's fair to say that working-class Protestant areas feel they have gained the least from the peace process."

Loyalists in these neighbourhoods say tensions have been building for years with the republicans, who they feel have gained too much political power at their expense. For them, the City Hall flag was simply the final straw.

"They've been chipping away at our Britishness for years," loyalist activist Jim Wilson told AFP.

Billy Hutchinson, leader of the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party, added that there was "a lot of social isolation and high levels of unemployment" among the Protestant youths who have rioted in recent days.

He urged protesters not to resort to violence, but said the onus was on republicans in Northern Ireland's power-sharing government to stop eroding loyalists' identity.

"They feel that they've no stake in this society and they feel that their Britishness has been driven away," he said.