Friday, 11 January 2013

NORTHERN-IRELAND: Extremism endangers Good Friday Agreement

Protests have erupted in Northern Ireland in response to a vote by the Belfast City Council to fly the United Kingdom’s flag, with its trademark Union Jack symbol, above City Hall only on designated days, rather than every day of the year as has been the tradition for the past century. But what began as peaceful protests soon became violent riots that authorities have attributed to extremists exploiting the situation for their own purposes.

“A small number of committed people can always create problems for a peaceful democratic majority,” Neil Jarman, director of the Institute for Conflict Research in Belfast, Northern Ireland, told Trend Lines in an email interview. “But I do not think that these protests will ultimately threaten the current stasis in Northern Ireland.”

The protests began in Belfast in early December, but while they have spread to other towns, the recent violence has been almost entirely confined to east Belfast.  It is believed the violence was linked to the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a loyalist paramilitary group, as well as a section of the community “at odds with the mainstream UVF.”

The chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland has said that members of the UVF are orchestrating the street violence “for their own selfish purposes.” There is some evidence of far-right and neo-Nazi groups taking part in the protests. Extremists have seized leadership of loyalist protests before, but “such groups have always struggled to mobilize or sustain support in Northern Ireland, and it is unlikely that they will be able to build a sustained base on the basis of these events.”

“Initially there was a fairly broad range of support among unionists,” that the protests were initially encouraged by the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party, the mainstream unionist parties in Northern Ireland. But once the violence began, that support dissipated.

The unionist parties were able to provoke the initial protests but were not able to control them, and the politicians have little influence over the protesters, and the protesters, who are “drawn from working class communities that feel disengaged and marginalized from mainstream politics have sustained the protests even as the political parties tried to end them.

Nick Groom, a professor at the University of Exeter and author of “The Union Jack: The Biography,” spoke about the British flag, which has long been a flashpoint in Northern Ireland between largely Catholic nationalists who want Northern Ireland to reunite with the rest of Ireland and largely Protestant loyalists who want it to remain part of the United Kingdom.

The City Council’s decision angered both loyalists, who wanted the flag to continue flying every day, and nationalists, who wanted to ban the flag completely.

Groom said that while the Union Jack is “certainly” being politicized in Northern Ireland, the overall situation is “much more complex than simply whether a flag is being flown from a certain building or not.”

Though the 1998 Belfast Agreement, also known as the Good Friday Agreement, put an end to three decades of political and sectarian violence between loyalists and nationalists in Northern Ireland, tensions between these groups remain.

Groom said the Union Jack is actually a symbol of diversity and inclusivity, with the Cross of St. Andrew representing Scotland, the Cross of St. Patrick representing Ireland and the Cross of St. George representing England.

“We shouldn't let extremists try to politicize this symbol,” he said, noting that the problem is not limited to Northern Ireland. Elsewhere in the U.K., he said, there are “groups such as the British National Party or the National Front who try to associate the Union Jack with extreme right-wing politics.”

More than 60 police officers have reportedly been injured in the protests. It becomes a persistent challenge for Northern Ireland’s police to facilitate peaceful protests, which have the potential to turn violent.

The problem is that Northern Ireland still has a number of armed and paramilitary groups, and while most are on cease-fire, some individuals are less committed to the peace process. But this has more to do with personal status and local power than with politics per se.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist