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.

Life and Style
A teenager boy wakes up.
life
Life and Style
It is believed that historically rising rates of alcohol consumption have contributed to the increase
food + drink
News
An Apple iPhone 6 stands on display at the Apple Store
businessRegulators give iPhone 6 and 6 Plus the green light
Arts and Entertainment
Critics say Kipling showed loathing for India's primitive villagers in The Jungle Book
filmChristopher Walken, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johanssen Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Playing to win: for Tanith Carey, pictured with Lily, right, and Clio, even simple games had to have an educational purpose
lifeTanith Carey explains what made her take her foot off the gas
Arts and Entertainment
film
Arts and Entertainment
The White Sails Hospital and Spa is to be built in the new Tunisia Economic City.
architectureRussian billionaire designs boat-shaped hospital for new Dubai-style Tunisia Economic City
Arts and Entertainment
music
Life and Style
tech
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Duncan Campbell's hour-long film 'It for Others'
Turner Prize 2014
Life and Style
food + drink
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hadley in a scene from ‘Soul Boys Of The Western World’
musicSpandau Ballet are back together - on stage and screen
News
i100
Life and Style
Bearing up: Sebastian Flyte with his teddy Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited
lifePhilippa Perry explains why a third of students take a bear to uni
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Alan Sugar appearing in a shot from Apprentice which was used in a Cassette Boy mashup
artsA judge will rule if pieces are funny enough to be classed as parodies
Arts and Entertainment
film
News
news
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

Pricing Analyst

£25000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are cur...

Data/ MI Analyst

£25000 - £30000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are cur...

Project Manager with some Agile experience

£45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsf...

Web Application Support Manager

£60000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Reigate...

Day In a Page

Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style