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Conflict

Searching for identity in Belfast

In Belfast, debate continues to rage over the flying of the Union Jack from the City Hall. Angry locals say that the issue is less about the flag itself, but more about identity and history.

At night, in the Protestant area of East Belfast, young men wearing hooded jackets fire homemade rockets and petrol bombs at police. They have also been setting cars and bins on fire. These are scenes reminiscent of Northern Ireland’s troubled past.

The protesters are loyalists, those who want to keep Northern Ireland under British control. Many of them are also Protestants. Their protests have been levelled at police, but also at republicans, the sector of the Northern Ireland community that want unification of Ireland into one country, and who are mainly Catholic.

A police officer in riot gear walks past a burning hijacked car during rioting in East Belfast
REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

A police officer in riot gear walks past a burning hijacked car during recent rioting in East Belfast

David is a member of the Protestant paramilitary organization, the Ulster Defence Association. He’s also responsible for running the UDA’s museum. In a small room, he has gathered together the history of his organization. All of the group’s battles are here, framed and mounted for display. There are homemade machine guns, and pictures of imprisoned Loyalists on the wall.

"A lot of republicans and Catholics were interned, but we were also interned," David told DW. "It's another side of the story that they will never tell you."

Resurrecting the past

A tit for tat mentality is omnipresent in sectarian Belfast. In both Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods, there are murals memorializing the victims of the long period of conflict between the late 60s and the Good Friday peace accord in 1998, commonly known as the Troubles.

Right now, Protestants blame Catholics for the Union Jack flag, an important symbol for the Protestant loyalists, being taken down from Belfast’s City Hall. John is involved in the protests and is also a UDA member. He says that the Union Jack flag should be re-installed.

"It's history, it's part of the culture, and it should never have been taken down in the first place," he told DW.

The flag is a token of a once dominant Protestant class - a dwindling class, according to the UK census. Today, Northern Ireland has almost an equal number of Protestants and Catholics. Many hard-line Protestants already believe they lost out in the peace process and the Good Friday agreement. The absence of the flag over the city’s town hall is just another reminder.

When protests start to spread

What started as protests against the city council have clearly turned sectarian. Recently, eyewitnesses have reported loyalists trying to lure republicans into street fights. Irish republican leaders told DW that they have given strict orders to their members to stay out of trouble.

An Ulster Volunteer Force Flag flies beside a UVF mural in the Loyalist Mount Vernon area of north Belfast
(AP Photo/Peter Morrison, File)

A mural in the north Belfast area, is cautiously optimistic

The belief is, loyalist riots basically give republicans the moral upper hand. Older Protestants like David recognize this, and many of them have been trying to stop the riots.

"We don't want people on the streets with guns and bombs and petrol bottles. At the minute, a lot of loyalists are saying we should go back to war," he told DW. "But thirty years of war have proved the gun and the bomb don't work."

Political will to unite the city

At issue, still, is whether Belfast's city council was too quick in voting to remove the Union Jack flag from its roof. Councillor Claire Hanna says this wasn’t the case.

"The decision certainly didn't come out of nowhere," she told DW. "It was a long process, working up to try to reach some sort of a compromise."

The idea was to open up the city’s institutions to Catholic constituents who may resent the Union Jack, while bringing regulations in line with the rest of the UK. Now, the flag can only be flown at City Hall for a maximum of 18 days a year. The new rule took about a year to pass, and some loyalist politicians worked together with Hanna in bringing it to pass.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland says that two commanders of another Protestant paramilitary organization, the Ulster Volunteer Force, are inciting the riots as well as attacks on the homes of politicians such as Hanna. She says her house has already been fired upon.

"I think the signal was to shut up or leave," she told DW. "It was old-fashioned intimidation."

Hanna, like many other younger politicians, speaks of a shared future for Belfast. And she says there is no way the council decision will be reversed.

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