Belfast’s Flag Protests Stir Up Troubles Old and New

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Press Eye Ltd / Rex USA

A burning car at the junction of Belfast's Castlereagh Road and Beersbridge Road on Jan. 11, 2013

For nearly seven weeks, protesters wrapped in British flags have taken to Belfast’s streets. Anger has erupted in the Northern Ireland capital ever since a group of city-council politicians decided on Dec. 3 to restrict the number of days the union flag would fly outside city hall, opting to raise it only on special occasions rather than every day. The decision — reached by Irish nationalist and moderate politicians — incited British loyalists who viewed the move as an affront to their heritage.

Though largely peaceful in the beginning, the protests have caused almost daily traffic delays and have increasingly erupted into violence. As crowds of up to 1,000 blocked streets, masked protesters have thrown bricks, bottles and gasoline bombs at police officers, damaging nearby cars and property. Matt Baggott, chief constable for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, said on Jan. 13 after a particularly violent confrontation in which police used batons and water cannons on rioters that police were “dealing with a large number of people determined to cause disorder and violence.” More than 100 officers have been injured during confrontations since the protests began, and dozens of people have been arrested. And though the unrest is mostly limited to a small area of east Belfast, it has stirred up memories across Northern Ireland of past bitter conflicts.

For more than 30 years, sectarian violence plagued Northern Ireland as the predominantly Catholic nationalists fought bitterly with the largely Protestant loyalists. During the period referred to as the Troubles, paramilitary groups on either side caused mayhem in the region, and more than 3,500 people were killed. Even after the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed — promising Ireland a say in Northern Ireland’s governance while also stating that the region would remain in the U.K. so long as the majority in Northern Ireland agreed — it was another decade before the paramilitary violence ceased.

The current unrest has people worried that the conflict that has long divided the region could threaten the peace Northern Ireland has enjoyed for almost 15 years. Tensions are flaring up rather than cooling down as the weeks go by, and while the union flag is a particularly powerful symbol of sovereignty, it’s not the only issue fueling the protesters’ anger. “The protesters are now moving on and saying something further,” says Judith Cochrane, a member of the Legislative Assembly from Alliance, the moderate party that backed the decision to fly the flag on certain days and whose members have since received death threats from angry loyalists. “They’re saying, ‘It’s not just about the flag. It’s all these other issues that we have. We feel that our [loyalist] areas haven’t been given the same investment [as nationalist areas].’”

Much of the conflict has taken place in the city’s lower-income neighborhoods, and many of the protesters on the streets are teenagers and young adults, who are organizing demonstrations on social media. Hit hard by the financial crisis of 2008, Northern Ireland has a high unemployment rate, particularly among young people. Figures show that more than 20% of 18-to-24-year-olds in the region are out of work. So while a large proportion of the protesters may be too young to recall the outrage of the past, they’re facing their own hostile present.

Unfortunately, the protests have already had a significant and adverse impact on the region’s economy. According to the Associated Press, the conflict has cost Northern Ireland around $40 million in lost tourism and trade as well as police overtime. Nigel Smyth, the Northern Ireland regional director for the Confederation of British Industry, a business-lobby group, told TIME, “When we need to do absolutely everything to encourage investment, to encourage trade, something like this comes along, and it can have a very disruptive impact and undermine a lot of the good things we are doing.”

But while disaffected youth have been on the protests’ front lines, there’s concern about who’s behind the scenes. Chief constable Baggott said on Jan. 7 that he had reason to believe that senior members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) — one of the Troubles’ most notorious loyalist paramilitary groups — were individually orchestrating the protests. Billy Hutchinson, the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party and a former UVF member, says blaming individuals from one group is counterproductive. “Everybody’s to blame for this in the sense that all sides have made mistakes,” he says.

While politicians from all parties have been unanimously calling for an end to the violence, many are just as quick to point the finger at other parties. Loyalist parties have blamed republican and moderate parties for the decision to remove the flag; others have accused loyalist parties of stoking the fire in the areas where violence has erupted. But as the weeks pass and the unrest continues, people are getting tired of waiting for leaders from both sides to address the violence and take control of the streets. “There’s been a real absence of cooperation and leadership,” says Chris Jones, a 29-year-old music journalist in Belfast who describes himself as moderate from a unionist background. He says that no matter how small the group of protesters is, the violence has put all of Northern Ireland in a bad light. “It’s a depressing retreat to how things were.”

It’s a jarring reminder that in spite of how far Northern Ireland has come since the Troubles, the fault lines of conflict are still very much present in the deeply divided region.