December 3rd 2013 signals the first anniversary of the restrictions placed on the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall, a decision so incredibly benign that the overblown reaction to it could only spring from a place as barking mad as Northern Ireland.
|Anti-Alliance leaflets distributed by UUP/DUP - the spark that lit the flame?|
|It was all the fault of the Alliance Party - apparently|
Unable to articulate an argument about why the ‘fleg’ restrictions were so heinous, loyalists simply ignored all the obvious points in their column. That Sinn Féin had been defeated in its mission to remove this symbol of British influence on the island was irrelevant apparently. So too was the fact that Belfast was now on a par with cities as solidly British as Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield. Even Buckingham Palace manages to survive without the flag rippling from its roof every day, a fact conveniently ignored by those throwing their toys from the pram.
No, instead rank and file loyalists went off half-cocked, as they often do. Fuelled by misinformation and manipulated by nefarious elements within their own communities, they placed faith not in reason, nor mastery of the facts, but in gut instinct and predictable levels of fevered paranoia.
In the eyes of many, these new flag provisions represented a further step forward, not to Irish unification - something most loyalists never tire of dismissing - but towards the shared future most of us truly desire.
It is a future which those hurling rocks at the police certainly do not wish to be part of.
|Castlereagh Road, Belfast|
By July, loyalism’s perpetual cycle of protesting and not surrendering was slowing, as it always does. In refusing the Orange Order (along with its paramilitary bands and swaggering followers) permission to return to Ligoniel via the Crumlin Road and the lower Ardoyne, the Parades Commission gave Loyalism 2013 a new self-pitying drum to beat.
The resulting mob violence (‘peaceful protesting’ if one wishes to be euphemistic) and predictably petulant reaction to a situation which was, at its very core, a compromise, couldn’t have have dealt more of a blow to the loyalist cause. Loyalism frequently gives off about the republican advantage in the image war and while Sinn Féin does possess skill in this regard, it is aided in no small part by its opponents being so monumentally bad at the game.
|July 12th, Belfast "peaceful" protest|
|Twaddell "Civil Rights" Camp|
A cynic might suggest that this was the point all along…
Unionism does possess reasonable voices but as a whole they have been outflanked and suffocated by the ravenous extremism of those who have gained prominence since December 2012. In this vacuum, a veritable circus now holds court, if not sway. Willie Frazer has always been a pathetic figure more than anything else, a cartoon character never fully in step with the joke. He has, nevertheless, gained a second wind during the period in question, though the none of us, Willie included, have any idea of his endgame.
|Wee Willie Frazer - he's not well you know|
|Jamie Bryson - The 'saviour' of Ulster?|
In all honesty, it is not the wider unionist community with which loyalism need be concerned. A fissure has always existed between the two sections of the broadly Protestant populace and there is little common ground to excite either. As is clear to anyone willing to see it, moderate, middle-class unionism continues to prosper as much as it can in the current economic climate. If anything, it is the corrosive, flailing influence of madcap extremism that unionism must be wary of going forward. That said, when has this ever not been the case?
Bad puns aside, it is up to the loyalist community to arrest their slide into irrelevance if they are not at that point already. There may well come a time when they no longer count and when nobody else cares.
While usurping her law and order, and the democratic processes she has always promoted, grassroots loyalists remain blindly devoted to the Queen - or at least some sepia-tinged version of her. It is perhaps apt then to describe the past year as an ‘annus horribilis' for loyalism. Discounting the chaos that engulfed Northern Ireland for 30 years, it is difficult to see how things could have been worse.
(Originally published here and used with kind permission)