Violence over flags should be seen against background of real disadvantage

Opinion: Working class loyalist communities in Belfast have experienced no ‘peace dividend’

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.

We had discussed the issue of the cultural impasse in the North with Billy Hutchinson, a community worker in Mount Vernon and now leader of the Progressive Unionist Party.

He told us of his involvement with an initiative addressing the issue of loyalist culture and identity and introduced us to two loyalist playwrights, Robert Niblock and William Mitchell, who were involved in setting up a theatre company, Etcetera, dedicated to putting on plays about the Protestant working class experience. Niblock's very successful play Reason to Believe toured community halls to capacity audiences a few years ago.

Critical look
Etcetera was launched in Belfast's Linen Hall, where extracts from Robert Niblock's new work in progress were read. Tartan is a critical look at the tartan gangs of the 1960s and '70s and their evolution into loyalist paramilitary groups, of which both Robert and William were members.

At our suggestion the Woodvale group was expanded to include the two playwrights and other men from the Shankill area who we knew had an interest in exploring the arts. It is now called Creative Voices. We have run a couple of workshops and are hoping to put on or show some work soon.

One of the group, an ex-prisoner who conducts walking tours of the Shankill area, wants to make a film of a dream he had. The events in the dream are situated some time in the future. The dreamer saw two opposing groups approaching City Hall. They started to taunt each other and soon there were fights and police intervention and teargas. Uproar and mayhem ensued.

But then he heard a voice, a loud wailing sound coming from City Hall and there on top of the building was a muezzin calling his fellow Muslims to prayer. Belfast City Hall had been turned into a mosque. Dreary steeples becoming minarets?

Traveller culture
In the course of our community work we have also become involved with the actor and playwright Michael Collins. Traveller Wagon Wheel Theatre Company is a vehicle through which Traveller culture, history and current issues are explored.

Collins’s work has led him to the conclusion that what sometimes passes for culture is in fact more a response to marginalisation. What is accepted as custom may not always be culture.

Likewise, as some brave loyalist men and women set out to explore their culture and identity, might they come to a somewhat similar conclusion: that their culture could be more than flag-waving and marching? That there may well be something that transcends the confines into which they have been forced by circumstance?

Patricia McCarthy and Mick Rafferty, acting as Partners in Catalyst, are experienced community workers who have been working in north Belfast with mainly loyalist communities, doing grass-roots peace-building work.