Violence over flags should be seen against background of real disadvantage
Opinion: Working class loyalist communities in Belfast have experienced no ‘peace dividend’
Billy Hutchinson of the Progressive Unionist Party welcomes the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, to Belfast in 2011. Mr Hutchinson has become involved with an initiative exploring loyalist culture and identity. Photograph: PA
There is no doubt that the continuing and escalating violence in the North has left many people shrugging their shoulders in indifference, recalling perhaps, more than two decades after the collapse of communism and the tearing down of the Berlin wall, what Churchill said about world events coming and going while the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone maintain the integrity of their quarrel.
Despair might be the logical reaction to these circumstances and certainly many people in the North simply ignore the challenges of the peace process and get on with their lives within the confines of their own communities. It is significant that most of the disturbances originate where these communities geographically meet, at the interfaces.
These are the spaces where symbols confront each other for dominance and where, with the regularity of a metronome, violence breaks out.
The present phase of the ever-ticking conflict began last November when Belfast City Council voted that the British flag, the essential symbol of Ulster unionism, should be flown on designated days only.
Since then tension between the two communities has expressed itself over marches, commemorations and flags: that is to say the conflict is expressing itself in cultural terms.
Loyalist working-class people at football matches and other public events are now accustomed to hearing taunts from republicans to the effect that having “taken away” their flags they are now aiming at their culture.
Loyalists experience this culture as being eroded. This is the context of the disturbances that erupted when the Sinn Féin lord mayor went down to the top of the Shankill Road to open a refurbished Woodvale park.
The Woodvale estate is an interface with the republican Ardoyne area. The boundary between the two areas has been the scene of the bitterest sectarian disputes. It is an area of constant tension and unresolved cultural issues.
Range of disadvantages
Working-class loyalist communities, in Belfast especially, are suffering a range of disadvantages, such as early school-leaving, unemployment and bad housing. These conditions are shared by nationalist working-class communities. However, there are degrees of disadvantage and the Woodvale area is the second most disadvantaged electoral ward in Belfast on a range of indicators such as unemployment, welfare dependency, low levels of formal education, car ownership and so on.
In this context, did the Sinn Féin lord mayor really expect to have a cup of tea and a chat with some of the most aggrieved people in the North, people who see his own party as the principal source of the erosion of their culture?
This is delusionary arrogance. What the protesters were saying is that there will not be a shared space if there is no respect for their culture. They are also clearly saying that they have not seen any “peace dividend” in terms of improved life chances for their community.
We have been working in north Belfast for about six years, in mainly loyalist areas such as Woodvale and Mount Vernon. We have worked with a group of women in Woodvale and have listened to their articulate expressions of frustration at the deliberate assault on their culture and at the lack of a response from the unionist parties, who do not represent them.