The Union Flag is being raised on Belfast City Hall today to mark the birthday of the Duchess of Cambridge, but it is unclear whether it will it help or hinder efforts to resolve the crisis over the emblem in Northern Ireland.
Five weeks have passed since the city’s council voted to restrict the flying of the Union Flag to 17 designated days, such as royal birthdays, but tension surrounding the issue has continued unabated.
The east of the city witnessed disturbances for a sixth consecutive night – albeit on a reduced scale – but there is no such thing as an acceptable level of violence as far as the First Minister is concerned.
Peter Robinson told Sky News: “Many people have already distanced themselves from the protests because of the violence.
“When I hear those who purport to lead the protest talk about the Police Service of Northern Ireland as ‘terrorists’ or ‘Nazis’, they are not using the language of unionism, they are using the language of republicanism.”
Loyalists will welcome the fact that the Duchess’s birthday is being marked in the traditional fashion, but they recognise that the return of the flag is only temporary – so far short of what they demand.
On one hand, it is about the flag – a potent symbol of their Britishness – but it is also about demographics. Protestants no longer hold sway in Belfast and some working class unionists have lost faith in politics.
Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt, the leaders of the two largest unionist parties, invited disaffected Protestants to raise their concerns through a forum, but protesters have already dismissed the effort.
The First Minister added: “Here is a mechanism whereby you can channel your frustration, where you can indicate the kind of things you want in your area, and political leaders will be listening.
“Now, if you offer a political alternative and people don’t take it, then very clearly those are people who are against the process and against democracy.”
The crisis has caused enormous damage to the image of Northern Ireland, scheduled to host the G8 Summit of world leaders in June, and a temporary hoisting of the flag is not going to resolve it anytime soon.