'Misunderstood' loyalists given too much leeway
OPINION:I thought my children would be spared what my generation saw – it’s not the case, writes POL O MUIRI
My daughters were due to go shopping in Belfast city centre last Saturday with their aunts.
It was their traditional Christmas outing in the city’s continental market, a chance to see the city without their parents and have a bit of a chat with their Belfast cousins, a day out they always look forward to.
But the phone rang on Friday night. My sister – the expedition’s leader – was worried; loyalists were rioting in her mixed part of Belfast. The same was true of my brother’s part of the city.
There was talk of a loyalist demonstration “down the town”, as they say in Belfast.
We did what nationalists have done for generations in the city. We changed our plans, postponed the trip, just in case, just to be sure, you never know what might happen.
Though in the course of loyalist demonstrations you do usually know what happens – disappointed loyalists riot frequently and, far too often, Catholics are murdered. Never has a political philosophy been given such violent leeway in expressing its dissatisfaction with political events.
Drumcree, Holy Cross, the Anglo-Irish Agreement. It’s always the same – loyalists threaten and they carry their excuses to the media like they were Moses on his return from Mount Sinai.
So it was in last weekend’s papers – loyalist leaders warn, gurn, threaten and it’s all written down like it is the most understandable thing in the world.
The decision of Belfast City Council not to fly the union flag every day of the year is used as a pretext. The council will still fly the union flag, you understand, but just not every day, and the loyalist leadership whines that it cannot control its followers as if they were disappointed scout masters rather than the hard-bitten thugs they are.
Any Catholic of my age knows only too well to be wary of the Orange mob. I saw them at work when I was a teenager growing up in Belfast, saw them as a student at university in the city, saw them as an adult when I left the city.
We were working class and lived in the west of the city, and my father worked in a factory in east Belfast, an area that was predominantly loyalist.
He worked there throughout the 1970s and 1980s, when sectarian violence was unrelenting.
He was of the generation who used to have people – loyalists – ask him for a “wee donation” for the factory’s bunting when the marching season arrived.
Yes, no factory was complete without its red, white and blue bunting. That’s cultural expression, that is.
He declined – because my father is a brave man – and carried on with his work. And he went back to work; as did his Catholic friends – the handful of them who had managed to get a job in the factory.
They went back the next day and the next day and the next day because they had families to feed and clothe and educate.
And here we are – fed, clothed, educated – and we still have to change our plans because loyalists are not getting their bunting, because flying the union flag on a set number of a days, rather than every single day of the year, is not acceptable.
It got worse for my father and his friends when the Anglo-Irish Agreement came along. Those were long days for nationalists marked by violent unionist demonstrations.
Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Peter Robinson, should remember the tension – he was there.
But my father went to work, his friends went to work, and the women stayed behind to look after the children, pray for a safe return and, more often than not, work part-time, to help feed and clothe and educate their children.
And here we are fed, clothed and educated, and still we are threatened.
I honestly thought that my children – peace process children – would be spared much of what my generation saw and heard. That has not been the case.
On Sunday I cycled past the spot where a Catholic man had been murdered by loyalist paramilitaries during a previous bout of violence when bunting demanded Catholic blood. He was fed, clothed, educated – and killed.
I said a prayer as I passed his little wooden cross planted in the lonely countryside and thought how frightening it was that so many loyalist and unionist leaders fail to pause, draw breath and think about the consequences of what they say and do.
So, the children’s trip is postponed and they read the papers and watch the news to find out why. They hear the same tawdry excuses, the same cancerous justifications.
And I go to work to feed and clothe and educate them and still they are threatened.
They see what I saw, what their grandfather saw and, sadly, what their great-grandfather saw.
And still loyalists make excuses because they are misunderstood – and that misunderstanding is given voice in violence as if it is the most natural thing in the world.