Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Rioting is awful. Ignorant, superior condemnation almost as bad.

Or: 'if you trivialise issues that matter to people and ignore their continued disenfranchisement, you should maybe not be surprised when the inevitable happens and legitimate protests provide cover for extreme elements to manipulate the situation'.

Is there anyone who didn't expect violence to break out at Belfast City Hall last night? It was entirely predictable to all, with the apparent exception of the DUP who had no earthly idea that their rhetoric would have any effect on the mood of working class unionist communities. But I think it's safe to say that we all knew what was coming and no one was surprised. That would explain the lightening quick condemnation, from all political quarters, of those who were rioting as little more than violent scum, only interested in destruction and causing trouble. They were nothing but thugs, hoods, little shits and loyalist arseholes.

Hmm. I don't buy it. You see: to agree with that kind of thinking means I have to accept that a significant section of society just enjoys violence and doesn't really care about the issues at hand. No, you can't write the violence off to a few bad apples or isolated criminal elements. If that were true, we wouldn't be using the term riot. By it's nature, a riot needs a critical mass for it to exist and I don't really think you can use the words 'critical mass' and 'isolated elements' together without sounding like an idiot.

The extremists within the protest last night felt that they had the implicit support of the majority of the protest. Disagree if you like, but can you honestly say they would have been as violent if that weren't the case?

You can't just prattle off the insipid 'there's no justification for violence' line and expect people to suddenly agree. The reality is that people do justify violence (in fact, most people justify it to some degree) and if you want them to stop being violent you have to address the issues that they are using to justify it and not dismiss them as irrelevant and not linked.

This was never just about a flag and it was not even just about what the flag represented. It was about the abject failure of the ruling political parties to come up with a strategy to move on from the peace process. instead of working out how to integrate communities, both Sinn Fein and the DUP have focused on shoring up their core support and every time an election rolls around, they run to their base.

The disenfranchisement has been helped by the continued demonisation of the working classes so that these communities, already feeling left behind by a process that they were never really a part of, also have very little stake in society. It's no wonder that people cling to their national identity when there's little else to cling to. This wasn't Unionists rioting about a flag. This was the working classes rioting about being constantly ignored and patronised by politicians.

When the working classes rioted in England last year, we had the usual right wing reactionary types condemning them as scum but at least that was countered by many on the left who recognised that these things happen for a reason and if we didn't address the reasons it would happen again. We don't seem to get that balance in Northern Ireland. Apparently we only care about the reasons behind the violence if we happen to agree with you.

I may have missed it, but I've yet to see Owen Jones pay any attention to Northern Ireland's working class issues, and, whilst I didn't want to single him out (as I really like his work) that wilful blindness is symptomatic of the attitude that Northern Ireland's problems aren't about class issues but religious and cultural issues. In truth, it's a combination. But if we start addressing the class issue, dealing with the religious and cultural issues will be a damn sight easier.

There is a problem in Northern Ireland and it isn't going away. At least, it won't go away just by condemning it.

EDIT: I've been rather unfair on Owen Jones. I make it sound like he should have been paying as much attention to NI as the rest of the UK but my wider point is actually that we need people with his profile making his kind of arguments in Northern Ireland.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Flags? I don't care, but can see why others do.

Tonight, Belfast City Council will decide if the Union Flag, currently flying all year round, should come down except on designated days. A protest has been organised outside of Belfast City Hall by those opposed to the flag coming down at all. It should be a fairly large protest and all Unionist parties have rallied their members and supporters to the cause.

Now, as the title says, I don't care if the flag is up or down. I put any notion of loyalty to the country of my birth firmly behind my loyalty to people of the communities to which I belong, wherever they might be. However, it's not hard to understand why others feel so much for the flag. It's not so much the flag they like, but what it represents. In this instance it represents, clearly and without question, that Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom and governed as such.

No Loyalist or Unionist can agree with that definition of what it represents and then, in the same breath, wonder why Nationalists find the flying of the flag offensive. They're Irish Nationalists, for Pete's sake, how could they not find it offensive? The real question that should be asked (and the DUP would argue it has been) is just how offensive they find it and how much of an issue is it for them?

Dubious equality impact assessments aside, the truth is that it's not as much of an issue as Nationalist parties would like us to think. Sure, if you asked any Nationalist would he like the flag to be down, of course he'll say yes, but if you ask him if the issue of taking the flag down should be the dominant issue of the last few weeks and the next few weeks you're more than likely to get a completely different answer. It doesn't mean they don't care though.

But this issue has been bought to the forefront for political purposes, and political purposes only. There's nothing particularly wrong with that providing there's a certain amount of honesty about it. That honesty has been sadly lacking. Sinn Fein and the SDLP have been less than honest about the level of feeling from their communities about the issue (and the SDLP, in particular, have tried to play both sides on this: "you can't eat a flag so lets debate about flags") and the DUP have seen this as a perfect opportunity to demonise the Alliance party amongst unionists.

Alliance, on this issue, were always going to be losers. Their policy position is perfectly valid, but they've been played with relative ease by both Sinn Fein and the DUP, no doubt the latter looking to regain a certain parliamentary seat they've never been too happy about losing.

So, as it's clear that despite their protestations to the contrary, the parties want the debate, let's have it: let's talk about whether bringing the flag down weakens NI's place in the union (it doesn't), whether Sinn Fein are against all symbols of Britishness (they are) and whether a new civic flag, with neutral symbols will solve the problem (it won't). But, for the love of all things, can we stop with the pretence?