The predictions for today’s flag protest in city centre were horrendous. Many expected levels of sectarian chaos equal to that of the worst of last year’s trouble. Some estimates predicted numbers nearing 10,000 and that the protest would shut down the local economy. Hype flew from both the organisers and from the media that today would be an event of significant if not historical proportions.
It’s hard to gage at 7 pm tonight what we might think tomorrow or what might happen yet tonight. Already we know a police officer has been knocked unconscious during skirmishes with the protesters, quickly bursting what ever peace fantasy some of the organisers and optimists (myself included) may have tried to project earlier in the day.
Such violence casts a dark shadow over—or perhaps illumines the truth of—today’s protest. I’ve been wrestling with these two truths all day. Either this was a peaceful protest with uncontrollable elements, nonetheless signaling that loyalism is moving towards civic protest, party-politic legitimacy, and greater politicisation; or loyalism is masquerading in the clothing of civic protest while it continues in criminality, thuggery, and violent politics. I’m trying my hardest to believe the former, which I believe is essentially the PUP’s position.
Comments like the PUP’s Jonny Harvey, who Tweeted, “The doomsday prophecy remains unfulfilled. Life goes on in Belfast!” seem like naivety, willful denial, or worse. But I understand the desire. I agree that civil society and loyalist protest can coexist.
I spoke with some of the flag protesters earlier in the day. They were a mixed bunch who, outside of this context, might not have much in common. Some were out for the craic, with funny masks, fancy dress, etc. I spoke with a couple of English guys standing next to a cut out of former BNP-fundraiser Jim Dowson. They were concerned about the censorship of Dowson, who they said was not allowed to be present today or to be active on social media. This, they said, constitutes the kind of censorship and suppression rife in a country like North Korea.
A younger protestor said he felt like the Protestant people were being held down and that their culture was being trampled. I asked him if the protest would remain peaceful, and he said that if the police attack the protest, they would push back. His anger towards the PSNI was clear.
John Kyle was about surveying the landscape and I asked him how he was doing. We chatted about the fact that people seem afraid to engage with the flag protesters. We both agreed that people, if curious, should find the confidence to engage them in open conversation. This is a message that was also given to me from one of the organisers during the week as well. “Do not be afraid to talk to us.” Of course, when a police officer is hospitalised by this same protest, it’s hard to know how to interpret this invitation. But again, I think its helpful for everyone in this city, Californian-transplant, Catholic, Protestant, loyalist, republican, English, Somalian, etc. to be in constant conversation about the state of the place. I’ll keep being curious and asking questions. And I hope I’ll continue to be met with openness.
I saw Willie and Jamie, of course, and they were surrounded by media-types. The protest started late, and honestly, I don’t think that’s an issue. It’s certainly not headline material the way UTV made it. “Protestors at City Hall past deadline” is hardly the dominant narrative. What the dominant narrative will be tomorrow still waits to be seen.
The day of post-conflict loyalism waits as a dream yet to be realised. For now, a police officer lies injured in one of our hospitals, surrounded by his/her family.