Flag issue remains divisive in NIreland

Fresh violence continues in Belfast as flag issue divides N. Ireland

Loyalists protesters in Northern Ireland have continued their violent demonstrations over the decision to stop flying the Union flag above Belfast City Hall all year round.

The protests continued for the fifth night in a row on Monday night with police using water canon and fired baton rounds to disperse rioters.

Some rioters deployed sledge hammer to hit police vehicles and burnt small fires in Belfast’s main street.

The riots erupted after Belfast City Council decided to stop flying the Union Jack in all but 17 days in a year.

Police have so far arrested around 100 people, and more than 60 officers have been injured in the unrest.

A police officers’ representative has said that pro-British paramilitary groups are instigating and exploiting the riots which have rocked Belfast in the past month.

The Northern Ireland flags issue divides the population along sectarian lines. Depending on political allegiance, people identify with differing flags and symbols, some of which have, or have had, official status in Northern Ireland.

There have been various proposals as to what flag could represent Northern Ireland’s various communities as a whole.

The Union Jack, the official flag of the United Kingdom, is routinely used on central government buildings in Northern Ireland. It is often flown by Unionists and Loyalists but Nationalists and Republicans dislike it.

The Stormont government used to fly the Ulster Banner from 1953 to 1972 to represent the government of Northern Ireland. The Ulster Banner was the flag of the former Executive Committee of the Privy Council of Northern Ireland.

When the government of Northern Ireland was suspended in March 1972 and dissolved under the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973, its arms and flag officially disappeared; however, the flag continues to be used by some local governments, such as the predominantly unionist Castlereagh, which continues to fly it outside its offices, and by some NGOs representing the territory.

Ulster separatists who wish to see Northern Ireland leave the United Kingdom use the Ulster Nation flag.

Some Loyalists in Northern Ireland use St Andrew’s Cross, the flag of Scotland, to highlight their Scottish ancestry.

Now, the decision to stop permanently flying the British flag outside Belfast City Hall has sparked some of the worst violence since the 1998 Good Friday peace deal.

In the late 1960s, the conflict between mainly Protestant loyalists, who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, and largely Roman Catholic nationalists, who want it to be reunited with the rest of Ireland, exploded into a political and sectarian war, known as “the Troubles.”

The three decades of ensuing violence between loyalists and the IRA claimed nearly 3,600 lives, most of them north of the border. While the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, also known as the Belfast Agreement, effectively ended the conflict, distrust remains between Catholics and Protestants.

Under the terms of the accord, groups on both sides dumped their weapons, and members of Sinn Fein, the political affiliate of the IRA, now work with pro-British politicians in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government.

The Good Friday Agreement created an elected Northern Ireland assembly and devolved government in which power is shared between all sides, with traditional arch-enemies remarkably sitting side by side. The assembly meets in an imposing historic building, Stormont, over which the British flag flies for just 17 pre-agreed days each year.

MOL/HE