I watched loyalists, republicans and police attack each other over the Union Flag this weekend.
Being born and raised in Belfast, I’m used to hearing about terrorists, bombs and shootings on the local news, but I can honestly say that despite all that, I considered my hometown a pretty safe place to grow up. I moved to London a year ago, and while Northern Ireland is by no means front-page news here, I couldn’t help but notice that for the past month rioting in Belfast has been featured in almost every news bulletin. The rioting began when Belfast City Council voted to end the continuous flying of the Union Flag from City Hall and hasn’t stopped since.
The Republican Party, Sinn Fein, introduced a motion to remove the flag completely, but when brought to a vote, the final decision lay in the hands of the Alliance Party, who hold the balance of power between loyalist and republican interests on the council. The Alliance party brokered a compromise in which the flag would be flown on 17 designated days a year, bringing Belfast in line with the majority of other councils across the UK. The loyalist supporters of the flag see this as an act of treachery by the Alliance Party, and many of their councillors have been subjected to intimidation and their office buildings picketed and vandalised.
I spoke to Alliance MP Naomi Long, whose office in East Belfast has been picketed daily by loyalists, some of whom have also taken to sending her death threats and bullets in the post. She explained that “as well as being a civic building, the City Hall is also a place of work". Staff, she added, "may have a legitimate grievance that the building is in some way partisan... and, as such, the Alliance Party sought out equality impact assessment and legal counsel. The view of this assessment was that the flag should only be flown on designated days.”
She was keen to highlight her views that “this is not an anti-British stance, it’s simply a reasoned, rational approach to a decision that acknowledges that, while the Union Flag is hugely important to some people as a symbol of their Britishness, it is also hugely contested by those who do not share that allegiance. And that’s something we have to take account of.”
Unfortunately for Naomi, large portions of the loyalist community don’t share her views, and protesters began a campaign of city-wide rush hour roadblocks that have caused huge disruption to commuters and all but crippled city centre shops and businesses already struggling to cope in the midst of recession. While loyalist spokesmen continue to stress their commitment to peaceful protests, the campaign has frequently disintegrated into rioting and battles with police.
A lull in both protests and riots over Christmas disappeared with 2012, and last week saw the most sustained violence since the flag was removed. The image of a masked man attacking a police Land Rover with a sledgehammer on my old school bus-route was the extra ounce of motivation I needed to go back home and talk to the people involved.
After landing, we headed straight for Naomi’s office on the Newtownards Road, where a picket had been organised for 3.30PM. We arrived to find a small police presence and an even smaller group of protesters. A few teenagers with flags draped over their shoulders milled around in the drizzle, smoking and chatting. After half an hour, their group had swollen to what I guess they considered to be an acceptable level and they moved into the centre of the road, forming a line facing the office.
The atmosphere was pretty laid back, but we did get a few of the older protesters shouting at us for taking pictures. They were concerned that some of the children with them were in school uniform and therefore shouldn’t be photographed. I guess the lesson here is don’t bring your kid to a protest in their school uniform.
It was clear that nobody was in the mood for talking to us at the Alliance picket, so we walked to Castlereagh Street, where a roadblock was planned for 6.30PM as part of "operation standstill", intended to prevent all traffic from entering or leaving the inner city. We got there early and watched as protesters slowly formed into groups, blocking each of the four roads that meet at this usually busy intersection. This had been the scene of frequent set-tos with police recently and the atmosphere was already tense.
We got word that another roadblock was set up at Creaghy roundabout, next to where Ulster rugby club were playing. Protesters there were in much more of a party mood than the earlier groups had been, waving flags and singing, so I took an opportunity to ask – with so many teenagers involved – whether these protests were really about a flag. Gwen Ferguson, a youth worker from the area, told me, “East Belfast is a very, very deprived area. There are no jobs, no social housing – these kids are leaving education without any qualifications. They feel trapped, and the removal of the flag was the last straw.”
Gwen Ferguson, East Belfast youth worker
I suggested that maybe the younger generation were using the flag as an excuse to pick a fight with a society that they see no future in. “Oh, it's about the flag, but the underlying issues are coming to the fore. This came about from Sinn Fein nitpicking at Protestant culture. They want to take away funding, they’ve been trying to take away our parades and now the flag. We’ve had enough.”
She explained that funding for youth work in Protestant areas and cross-community projects had been slashed and that the flag protests had destroyed the loyalist youth's relationship with the police. “These kids are getting caught up in riots, they’re getting records and their job prospects are plummeting. It’s the young who suffer, and I think Belfast Council should have realised that when they made their decision.”
The protests so far had been pretty subdued, making me wonder if maybe the reports of rioting had been exaggerated, or if the people behind the violence were just burnt out from a long week of trying to beat the shit out of each other? I got my answer almost immediately, when we heard reports that a riot had broke out in the Rathcoole estate north of Belfast, where a bus had been set on fire and police were being attacked with petrol bombs. We called a cab and convinced our very reluctant driver to take us there.
When we arrived in Rathcoole, we were greeted by a police roadblock and the fragrant scent of burning rubber. An officer there advised us to “take yourself back to London – this isn’t a game; people are being hurt”. Instead, we followed the sound of fireworks and sirens through torrential rain into one of Europe’s largest council estates.
Two water cannons were taking it in turns to come to the front of the line and hose the protesters back. The police slowly edged the loyalists – who seemed to be mostly in their teens and early twenties – up the hill and into the estate.
When they ran out of paint bombs, petrol bombs and bottles, the loyalists smashed cinder blocks on the pavement for ammunition. This lasted for around an hour, before the police made a final push up the hill, dividing the crowd and sealing off the alleyways. It seemed like they were scouring for arrests, but their targets had disappeared back into the warren of the estate long before they had the chance to do anything about it.
As we left Rathcoole, we noticed we were being followed. Before that realisation had really set in, a guy jumped out of a bush with a machete and demanded our cameras. We'd already packed ours away in our bags, but a freelancer we were with had both of his taken, before the guy made a run for it along some train tracks.
We spoke to some local journalists later that evening, who told us that other members of the press had been mugged and that they suspected the guys who “ran the estate” were sending kids out to ensure that no photos of the riot got out. We were also told to avoid local taxi firms as they were in league with the same guys. Belfast is a great place to be if you want to be constantly harassed for taking photos.
The following day, there was a peaceful protest planned outside the city hall. On our way there, we got word of a bomb scare in central Belfast, which was later declared a hoax, with loyalists claiming it was republicans trying to put people off attending the protest. It didn't work, because families came along in their hundreds, covered in Union Flags. It felt a bit like the Jubilee, only there was no flotilla and a much higher risk of a petrol bomb flying past your head.
Jamie Bryson, who had invited me to the protest in Rathcoole the previous night, was in attendance. I asked him what he thought about claims that violence at some of the protests had been organised by loyalist paramilitaries.
“We’re at the stage where even the police force of this country are unwilling to protect the Protestant people," he said. "They're conducting a witch-hunt against innocent Protestant protesters by insinuating that these protests are being organised by the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force), when they’re clearly not the work of the UVF. This is simply an attempt to discredit the protest. I’m concerned that there’s a sinister element at work that wants to isolate East Belfast and provoke a reaction.“
Spokesman Willie Frazer – the one with the wet look fringe next to the guy in the BNP hoodie – gave a speech to the crowd, in which he emphasised that the general air of vehement outrage "would continue for as long as the people wanted it to”. He also stated that he was not a leader (which was refreshingly honest), but hoped the newly-formed Ulster People’s Forum would provide the leadership loyalists were looking for. After stressing the importance of peaceful protest, he ended with, “However, if we are attacked, we have the right to defend ourselves.” Unsurprisingly, it was this part of the speech that garnered one of the biggest cheers of the day.
The crowd then paraded out of the city, back towards East Belfast along a route that had been agreed beforehand between protest organisers and police. However, instead of crossing the bridge they were expecting to take out of the city, the crowd were met by a police roadblock.
This forced protesters to take an alternative route past Republican Short Strand, which immediately seemed like a terrible idea. The Short Strand is home to a relatively small republican community surrounded on all sides by loyalists. They must have had advance warning that the march was going to come past, because by the time it and we did they'd stockpiled a shit-tonne of ammunition to bombard us with.
Not to be shown up by their republican rivals, the loyalists quickly responded by throwing the debris back into the Short Strand, managing to smash a couple of windows in the process.
Which is something this guy clearly wasn’t too happy about, as he stormed out of his house, hurling crutches and abuse at the protesters while dodging a ceaseless barrage of rocks and bricks.
After about 20 minutes of this chaos, the police – who were taking missiles from both sides – finally managed to push the loyalists further up the road and seal off the Short Strand.
Angry at the unexpected route change and for having a bunch of heavy stuff thrown at them by republicans, the loyalists entered a protracted stand-off with the police, hurling everything they could at them and smashing at the windows of passing riot vans with their fists.
The police repeatedly deployed the water cannon, trying to push the loyalists further back into their own territory.
Funnily enough, the rioters seemed to give less than a fuck about getting wet, and charged back at the police every time they turned the cannons off.
The attacks on police continued all afternoon, with protesters turning just about anything they could get their hands on into missiles – planks of wood, rocks, bottles of Buckfast, I think even a couple of golf balls at one point.
That sparring match of bricks and water cannons continued, until police wearing what looked like an exoskeleton from a hyper-futuristic video game fired a few baton rounds into the crowd. They're basically the only thing protesters in Belfast appear to be cautious of, but then everyone in Northern Ireland is born twice as hard as anyone on the mainland, so that's not too much of a surprise.
The unrest faded with the daylight, after rioters left one final fuck you to the police and an individual who's going to be very upset when they find out their BMW was set on fire and ignored by the passing police water cannon.
The police formed a final line to seal off the battleground as the loyalists slowly dispersed. All in all, it had been a full five hours of sustained rioting, which left 29 police officers nursing injuries.
It’s unclear what 2013 has in store for Belfast. Going in, I naively thought the protests were caused by violent minorities using the flag as an excuse to attack the police. But talking to the people on the ground, it’s very obvious that there's more to it than that.
Many loyalists feel disillusioned with the entire political process, primarily with their own politicians. It’s obvious that the unionist parties tried to use the flag to discredit the Alliance party, but their reluctance to get behind the protests has left loyalists questioning the allegiances of their elected representatives.
The protesters maintain that protests will continue as long as the loyalist people want them. And I believe them. After a weekend of rioting, there were peaceful protests all over Belfast the next day; proving there are many people who are legitimately mourning the loss of the Union Flag.
While it's hard to believe loyalist claims that the rioting is a reaction to heavy-handed policing (the response we witnessed was pretty professional and focused on containment), there are questions to be answered about the re-routing of the parade on Saturday. The police have issued a statement inferring that the roadblock was to keep traffic off the bridge, but loyalists broke away before they could reopen the road and let them cross.
We were at the roadblock and there was no sign of the police moving, with one officer actually shouting to protesters that they weren't getting past. This forced the protesters to pass the Short Strand, which was never going to lead to anything other than violence between the two opposing sides.
I don’t know what the government, police or protesters can do to resolve this issue. Even if the flag were to be put back up tomorrow, the damage has already been done. All I know is that they need to find a compromise soon before my hometown sinks back into the hatred of its past.
Follow VICE News on Twitter: @VICEUK_News.
More from the battleground of Ireland's sectarian hatred:
Watch – The VICE Guide to Belfast