Shards of broken glass lay strewn across the floor and the baying mob thronged outside the door. The vicious barking of expletives filtered through the sound of alarms and then came the shrill, maniacal cry of “No Surrender!”
The fallout of the decision by Belfast City Council to only fly the British flag from the council building on designated days, rather than all year round, is disconcerting. On the surface it is an innocuous decision, taken democratically, and one that, more or less, follows the practice that is currently in place at the seat of devolved government. Yet, astonishingly, it has become a catalyst for unionist revolt.
Prior to the decision, crowds had been mobilised by various unionist parties and rabble rousing individuals who stoked the embers of discontent. They said that the removal of the British flag was an assault on their identity, with the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), Mike Nesbitt, complaining on a regional radio show that it constituted part of a consistent process of “chipping away” their sense of Britishness. People with British flags draped over their shoulders and others with Rangers scarves pulled over their faces appeared to dominate the protest and social media websites came alive with torrents of undiluted sectarian hatred spewing towards the Alliance Party and Sinn Féin. It quickly spilled onto the streets, where chanting, stone-throwing and burning the Irish flag became the main avenues of expression. In the days that followed, in a shameful development, numerous councillors received death threats, while others had their homes and offices ransacked.
Interestingly, conflicting opinions have emerged from the leaders of unionism. Donegal-born UUP MLA Basil McCrea spoke out in favour of the idea of flying the flag on designated days, saying that he did not want to see the ‘Peace Process’ “unravel” due to what he described as “petty politics”. He sensibly called for people to move the process forward, but contradicted his party’s leader when he told BBC that the flag decision did not affect his Britishness, or his identity. Shockingly, reports have emerged that several of McCrea’s colleagues have threatened to resign from the party if he is not disciplined for his comments. Such a knee-jerk response to the possession of a slightly different viewpoint is simply alarming.
The entire issue is farcical, and ultimately it demonstrates that if one ‘chips away’ at the surface of unionism (to borrow parlance) mindless evangelism and resentment bubbles beneath: there is absolutely no desire for more concessions to nationalist ‘scum’ and as that ‘Lundy’ Basil McCrea discovered, wade too close to common-sense while you’re in the mire and people will be up in arms seeking to drag you down.
While it is a farce, its reverberations are nonetheless frightening and red-faced imbeciles clinging to a vague sense of identity are spoiling for a fight. The extent of this reaction on the ground thus calls into question the sincerity of the unionist commitment to power-sharing and to the notion of parity of esteem. Cries of “No Surrender!” and the insinuation that Northern Ireland is ‘their’ country strongly echo the ultra-conservative, fundamentalist views held in the past.