Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

The Flag Dispute: Anatomy of a Protest by Nolan, Bryan, Dwyer, Hayward, Radford & Shirlow

A comprehensive analysis, with my old friend Dominic Bryan as one of the co-authors, looking at the dispute over flags which convulsed Northern Ireland, Belfast in particular, in the winter of 2012/2013, available for free from QUB. In a nutshell, after Belfast City Council voted on a policy of flying the Union Jack only on particular days rather than 365 days a year, Loyalist protestors created havoc by nightly demonstrations which often escalated to disorder, particularly targeting the Alliance Party which was seen as the main culprit for the council's change of policy. The economic disruption was significant; the impact on Alliance representatives, including many who were not actually Belfast councillors but were none the less subjected to violent harassment and death threats, was serious in terms of personal security; the issue remains largely unresolved.

The report gives a sympathetic hearing to all sides, perhaps more sympathetic than I would have been in some cases. The most interesting finding of fact for me was how little the mainstream Unionist parties were involved in the organisation of the protests. The authors seem not completely convinced (though I personally am) that the DUP and UUP were behind the leaflets of November 2012 which urged Unionists to lobby Naomi Long (an MP, not a Belfast councilor) on the flag issue. That was before the protests; once they started, the DUP and UUP were not particularly made welcome by the organisers and duly distanced themselves in due course (though not terribly rapidly or visibly). The inarticulate demeanour of the protest leaders limited their ability to gain widespread and active support, and the electoral impact in the 2014 elections was far from clear, with Alliance's vote slipping a bit but the DUP's slipping more.

The report makes two recommendations - one to political leaders to remember their responsibility for leading communication and conflict resolution, rather than exacerbating division, and to put forward a clear peace plan (something that has been partly implemented in the year or so since publication); and one more interesting from the public policy point of view, that funding for Loyalist community work needs also to be directed
to train community members in the art of advocacy: achieving a manner in which arguments are made that relate to evidence and also policymaking. Any future work must turn senses of alienation into a process of evidenced claims and also to place those concerns within an equality framework. Loyalists have articulate spokespersons who advocate for a living wage, argue for leadership to challenge poor educational performance and highlight the need for republicans and nationalist to better understand their cultural identity. Unfortunately, those types of voices are burdened by funding shortages, internal feuding and the actions of those beyond. The overall aim must be to shift from anecdote and rumour into a politics in which reconciliation invokes identity raising but also identity sharing. Northern Ireland will remain within a power-sharing dispensation and all communities must be cognisant of that.
This is not the only case I've seen of this sort of problem. It's terribly easy for donors to fund cross-community dialogue, bringing both or all sides together; it's also straightforward enough to fund cultural celebrations, even if these end up being one-sided and exclusive. Funding the better articulation of political beliefs you don't agree with is a tough but necessary stretch.
Tags: bookblog 2015, world: northern ireland

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