It's easy to demonise and ridicule loyalists in new NI
Flegs. That’s what they are called in the Belfast vernacular, and their display – or lack of it – still has the power to madden, provoke and inspire. For some people, flags remain the animating principle in their lives, and the more they feel their own identity is under threat, the closer they cling to them.
Flags are sodden with pride and fear. You might think that a climate of bitter austerity would concentrate minds on more practical concerns, but in fact the reverse is true. Political, economic and cultural impoverishment makes the emblem all the more precious. If that’s all you feel you’ve got, you’ll do anything to save it.
That’s why a crowd of rampaging loyalists attempted to storm Belfast’s City Hall on Monday night, after councillors voted to remove the union flag from its permanent position. While shoppers at the Christmas continental market in front of City Hall munched overpriced imported bratwurst, smoke was billowing out the back gates of the building, amid shattered glass and exploding fireworks. The loyalists had disgraced themselves again.
There was something sinister, farcical and curiously pathetic about the faces of protesters pressed against the locked glass door at the rear of City Hall. They had been manipulated twice over: by the mainstream unionists of the DUP and the UUP, who whipped them into a mindless fury with blood-red talk of threatened nationhood, then condemned them when the anger turned to violence; and by the smooth guile of Sinn Féin, who could barely keep the smirks off their faces as loyalists obediently enacted the pantomime of their own self-destruction.
It’s easy to demonise and ridicule loyalists. In the new Northern Ireland, they have become the people we all love to hate; an easy shorthand for bigotry, ignorance and mindless thuggery, stuck in the past while the rest of us are moving forward. That’s the story we tell ourselves now.
It is not without truth. Burning the Irish Tricolour while yelling self-importantly about respect for their own national flag is absurd as well as ugly and offensive. Threatening politicians, attacking their homes, and ransacking their offices is absolutely indefensible.
But despising loyalists as an entire category, making them the automatic go-to guys for public disgust, also serves an effective diversion from the hateful side of republicanism, drawing attention away from the prejudice that often lurks behind the glib, reasonable talk of equality.
In the wake of the flag row, there has been some pretty unpleasant gloating by republicans, perhaps best encapsulated by the following piece of festive doggerel, currently doing the rounds on Facebook:
Sleigh bells ring, are you listening,
The Union flag has gone missing,
The Huns smashed up the town,
As the Crown rag came down,
Walking in a Fenian wonderland
The flag trouble has also diverted attention from another decision, by Newry and Mourne Council, to support the naming of a children’s playground in Newry after an IRA terrorist. Raymond McCreesh was linked to a number of atrocities, including the notorious massacre of 10 workmen at Kingsmills in 1976. Why would you choose to burden a space dedicated to childhood joy and innocence with the psychic weight of a name like that? It could only happen in Northern Ireland.
There have been hard words for the councillors who thought that Raymond McCreesh Park was a fine and dandy name for a place where kids go to have fun. But those words would have been twice as loud and twice as angry if it was loyalists doing the naming. Johnny Adair Play Park on the Shankill Road, anyone?
This is no apology or excuse for loyalist bigotry and violence. But it is clear that they have lost control of the language, the subtly realigned post-conflict discourse, skilfully out manoeuvred by the plausible rhetoric of modern republicanism. Polished, confident Shinners sound civilised beside roaring loyalists. Yet at heart, they are not so different. A vein of fascism runs through both; it’s just that you can see it more clearly with the loyalists.
Given all that, it does not surprise me that so many people in the Republic regard the North with a mixture of indifference, bemusement and revulsion. It’s perfectly understandable. Crazed flag-burning, playgrounds named after paramilitary gunmen, querulous arguments, wonky economy, intractable social problems: we are hardly a tasty proposition. Forget the notional aspirations of article 3: a “firm will” to unite the island is translated in many minds as “no bloody way”. The North is seen as a different place, separate and apart.
It many ways it is. But just as militant loyalism functions as the repressed unconscious of staid, upstanding unionism – dark, unexamined, full of rage and hatred – perhaps the North fulfils a similar purpose in relation to the Republic. It is the weird place where terrible things happen; the visibly under-functioning member, stumbling around in sick confusion, that makes everyone else in the family look good. No matter how bad things get in the South, you need us in order to feel better about yourselves.