Analysis by Ciarán Dunbar
The US diplomat Richard Haass is currently in Northern Ireland chairing all party talks on a number of divisive issues following almost a year of protests and a summer of rioting and unrest in the province.
Haass is a highly experienced diplomat who will seek find solutions on number difficult issues, parading, normally by loyalist / protestant groups, the issue of flags and on “how to address the past.”
Few commentators however are hopeful that Haass will succeed in bringing about anything more than a symbolic declaration which will solve nothing in the long term.
But was this conflict solved by the signing of the Good Friday agreement in 1998? Well, yes and no. The problem with the GFA is that it was essentially a political fudge, an agreement not to agree.
There is a saying in Irish, if you keep putting things on the long finger, eventually that finger will simply not be long enough, that day has arrived.
The current difficulties came to a head when nationalists on Belfast City Council, Northern Ireland’s largest city, attempted to end the practice of flying the British flag, which was flown flew 24/7, 365 days a year. They eventually accepted a compromise plan proffered by the centrist Alliance Party to fly the flag only on ‘designated days’ as in Britain itself, that is only on special public occasions, around 21 days a year.
This was not accepted by unionists however and loyalist protesters attempted to storm the council building whilst the issue was being debated, leading to months of often violent protests directed at least to some extent by paramilitary groups.
Interestingly, the late poet, Seamus Heaney, felt that restrictions on flying the flag was unnecessarily provocative.
Nationalists hold however that there should be equality for their political symbols or failing that neutrality.
Many of these loyalists interpret this as a ‘culture war’ being waged against them and that nationalists should accept the dominance of British symbolism and culture due to Northern Ireland’s position as part of the UK.
Loyalists also believe that they should have total freedom to hold their traditional ‘Orange’ parades whenever and wherever they wish, stating that it is part of their culture and it is a freedom of expression issue.
Nationalists however believe that much of this culture is unacceptable due to violent overtones and associated sectarian and anti-social behaviour and that they should therefore be subject to restrictions and should require consent if they wish to pass through or close to nationalist majority areas.
The other outstanding issue is ‘the past’, how to form a joint view of history. Manycommentators consider this to be an impossible task for two groups with separate and centuries old historical prospectivesto come to accept a common narrative yet official Northern Ireland and elements within it demand it as part of creating a joint Northern Ireland identity – it boils down to an attempt to get the IRA and its descendantsto admit that they were completely wrong, a highly unlikely event.
A more accurate assessment of the present situation than the ‘culture war’ claimed by loyalism would be that nationalists and Sinn Féin have moved against unionist political symbols in order to disguise the fact that they have failed utterly to achieve Irish unity or equality for the Irish identity in Northern Ireland and to a large extend equality in socio-economic terms.
There is no threat whatsoever to Northern Ireland’s status in the UK. In spite of the fact that British people are a mere 48% of the population, as are people of Protestant religious beliefs. Some polls suggest that support for an immediate United Ireland could be as low as 4%.
However, many unionists put little store in these figures as they are assumed to be so low due to economic difficulties in the Republic of Ireland and due to the base fact that a Catholic who may not be a nationalist is still highly unlikely to be a loyal subject of Britain’s monarch, Elizabeth II.
But the truth is that Unionism won the conflict outright but their constant scaremongering has convinced much of the unionist population that that is not the case.
Working class loyalists when confronted with this analysis respond by asking why is Martin McGuinness, a self-confessed former IRA member, the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland. The answer is that he has a democratic mandate under the power sharing arrangements agreed under the Good Friday agreement, arrangements many Loyalists now seek to de-construct – why? Because Martin McGuinness in the deputy first minister of ‘their’ country.
But the truth is is that most unionists are asking themselves – “What do total victory look like?”, or how much of the Peace Process can be de-constructed to negate moderate nationalist gains? It is often forgotten that only around 50% of unionists voted for the GFA and that the largest unionist party today, the DUP opposed and opposes the agreement.
Few people believe that the current difficulties could spark a full scale resumption of violence but many feel that community relations will continue to deteriorate and rot away the foundations of peace. Mr Haass has his work cut out for him.