Saturday 19 January 2013

Ireland: Flags or Fertility?

The last few weeks in Northern Ireland have stirred feelings of dread on both sides of the Irish sea as scenes have played out that all of us hoped had been consigned to the blood soaked pages of the history books.

A vote to lower the Union flag at Belfast City Hall has led to nightly rioting in which tens of policemen and women have been injured and countless families terrorised, including some who have had to flee their homes. The vote reflected the new balance of power in the City Hall, which now has a nationalist majority, albeit slim.

And therein lies the nub of the issue. Is this about a flag or is it about a birthrate?

Northern Ireland is global ground zero for the fetishisation of flags - I remember arriving in Belfast one evening to find Palestinian and Israeli flags fluttering from the same lampposts where previously Union Jacks and Irish Tricolours had once flown. Asking why I was soon told that some Loyalists had liked the idea of an Israeli crackdown on some Palestinian nationalist protestors so had flown the Jewish nations's colours. Immediately this brought the response on the nationalist side of Palestinian solidarity.

So their own conflict was not enough, they needed an infusion from the Middle East.

But is it really what it seems or is there something deeper at play? Specifically it seems to be a recognition that in a province where ethnic politics rules the numbers game is tipping inexorably toward the Catholic population. Northern Ireland, in common with most democratising areas, and unlike regions with established democracies, has an ethnic party system. In other words you vote on the basis of your kin, not the issues.

In that situation, replayed across many post conflict societies, you dont vote on issues but on ethnicity. Because it soon acquires a zero sum game status - your loss is their gain and vice versa - even if you agree with the other sides view on education, health or housing.

When the New York Times interviewed one protestor he said this:

“If we lose this one, we’ll have a united Ireland in 5 or 10 years, and we won’t accept it,” he said. “We’ll die to defend the flag. If we have to, we’ll go back to the graveyards and the jails.”

And that, it seems to me, is what all of this is about. Not a flag, not the City Hall, but a sense among the Unionist population that the tide of history is turning inexorably against them. And they may be right. The question now is whether the structures put in place by the Good Friday Agreement that I remember being signed as snow fell around the Stormont buildings can hold under the strain. I remember well the hopes we had for that, captured for me by the Cranberries at the time.

That agreement stipulated that the majority will would prevail - consent. With a changing population it will not be long before the will of the people changes with it.

And that, perhaps, might explain the venom behind the rocks these past weeks.

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