Some sense seems to have prevailed Wednesday on the Northern Irish flag protests, with the hilariously-named Love Ulster group agreeing to call off – or at least postpone – a planned march on Dublin this weekend and a riot-free night on Wednesday. But the issue has highlighted the continued existence of what has always been the predominant factor in the Troubles – not religion, politics, or “tradition,” but class.
With some significant exceptions, the Troubles were waged by and against relatively small sections of two working class communities that enthusiastically murdered each other while more affluent sections of the same tiny province were largely insulated from the violence. In the years immediately preceding the ceasefire in 1994, I attended a highly regarded Belfast secondary school with a majority upper-middle class Protestant population. I recall being shocked when one student, born in the 1970’s into a city at that point wracked with violence, asked whether the Falls Road was Catholic or Protestant. This was the Troubles 101, a question any vaguely interested Irish-American in Boston or Philadelphia could answer. Yet someone who grew up not 5 miles from the heartland of this nasty conflict lacked even the most basic knowledge of it.
While the peace process was successful in many ways, it has left behind key communities on both sides of the divide. We are seeing the manifestations of that now. The BBC says the flag row has “pointed up a gap between some in the loyalist grassroots and the leaders of unionism” – an understatement if there ever was one. Even though their fears of being swallowed up by an Irish Catholic Free State were not realized, in many ways working-class loyalists find themselves on the wrong side of history. Alienated from their leadership and out of step with the zeitgeist, they feel wronged where working-class Republicans feel vindicated, and celebrate their “tradition” as freedom fighters accordingly. Is it any surprise then that the British flag, the symbol of the loyalists’ former status now long gone, should elicit such violent emotions? They may not have lost, as their continued status as British citizens shows, but they certainly did not win, either.
Photo credit: kyz