Unflagging hatred: the new symbol of violence in Belfast

David McKittrick reports on a community that feels it is losing control and status

Every few months they emerge from the loyalist undergrowth – masked Protestant youths whose bricks, bottles, stones and petrol-bombs put police officers in hospital.

They are a lost generation, largely untouched by a peace process which has improved life for the rest of Belfast. They reach for the bricks because they feel they have no stake in society and harbour great resentment against a changing world. The dispute over flying the Union Flag at the city hall is just the latest in a series of flare-ups.

Some of them are members of loyalist paramilitary organisations but many are not. "I recognise a whole lot of them," said a loyalist ex-prisoner. "They're a rabble. Some of them have been expelled by the paramilitary groups, or they're druggies or criminals."

While most Protestants and unionists have a deep and genuine attachment to the Union Flag, for the youths in hoods such disputes are mere excuses to indulge in bother. Every marching season they take to the streets for what is called "recreational rioting".

Generally unemployed, they readily attack police lines and inflict injuries, completely heedless of the damage they do to the unionist cause and to the image of Northern Ireland.

This has been the year of a big tourism push, with Hillary Clinton visiting the new Titanic building yesterday to showcase the new Belfast. But the narrative of a much-improved city will be marred by riot and discord. Rioting carries few risks for the rioters. Police fire plastic baton rounds and make some arrests, but those involved rarely get hurt, are rarely prosecuted and, if convicted, rarely receive long sentences. Those who do appear in court are often pathetic specimens, their lawyers pleading that they are easily led and have often consumed large amounts of drink and drugs.

Another potent element in the mix is the persistence of illegal groups, in particular the Ulster Volunteer Force. While this and other armed groups are now much less active, the UVF is worried because of its sense that a police "cold case" team is closing in on it.

A former member has agreed to become a supergrass and to testify against more than a dozen of its leaders, accusing them of a string of murders. Some outbreaks of rioting have been encouraged by the UVF as warnings to the authorities that such prosecutions will bring a violent reaction.

Loyalists have always put up the Union Flag and other emblems on telegraph poles and street lights, but the message they convey has changed greatly. Once viewed as proclamations of supremacy over Catholics, they now are seen in many places as acts of defiance in the face of shrinking Protestant numbers in Belfast.

They are put on display, by paramilitaries and local hard men, as a warning to Catholics not to move into Protestant territory. That they are left in place is an indication they are emblems of sectarianism rather than proclamations of Britishness.

It is the steady drop in the Protestant population which meant that unionists lost their majority on the council and thus lost the vote on flag-flying. The sense of loss is widespread within working-class loyalism, where a familiar refrain is that "the Catholics are getting everything, we get nothing".

While republicanism has produced formidable leaders in Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, attempts by loyalists to emulate Sinn Fein have come to nothing. The major unionist parties are meanwhile viewed as middle-class and out of touch.

Those in the ghettos have lost any sense of control over the city, and with it much of the pride they used to have. A sense of communal dejection is evident: unemployment is high and social problems such as drug use and youthful suicides are rife.

The once plentiful jobs in shipbuilding and heavy engineering are long gone, while the education record of young ghetto Protestant males remains poor: only a few make it to grammar school, and fewer still to college.

Those who do succeed educationally generally move out of the ghettos into more congenial areas where drugs, debt and paramilitarism and criminality are not constant problems.

Those who are left behind in hardline areas such as the Shankill and Woodvale are thus left without local role models, and with little hope of material progress. On top of this is the ingrained sectarianism which produces a belief that by comparison Catholics are making progress in many areas.

This means that symbolic issues such as the flying of flags and the right of loyalists to march past Catholic areas assume great importance, since they are seen as some of the few remaining vestiges of loyalist power.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Life and Style
Scientist have developed a test which predicts whether you'll live for another ten years
health
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn