A return to a zero sum Politik?                

The proposal to remove and decision to restrict the Union-flag will no doubt have a damaging impact on efforts at reconciliation. 
The reality for many in our communities is, in the same breath as proposing to remove the Union-Flag, Republicans would claim they want to reach out to Unionists and reconcile with them, and this decision, and their complicity in it, will hardly progress that prospect.
Indeed, many would point to the vindictive attitude and arrogance displayed by Republicanism in the aftermath of the decision as being incompatible with the core values of reconciliation, seeing it as an anti-reconciliatory gesture and a return to a zero-sum politics. 
Many within the Unionist/Loyalist community would now question where these attributes fit within an ‘authentic-reconciliation’ initiative.
The credibility of republicanism’ s reconciliation initiative and dealing with the past agenda, has been further damaged by their hierarchal victim concept that has recently emerged, as exposed when Republicanism apologised for the murder of a Garda officer down South, yet they have conspicuously failed to offer similar apologies to the RUC widows here. 

No one in our community can claim to understand how a murder committed on a member of the security forces in either jurisdiction is different, despite their insistence that the border is non-existent.The Common Sense document, the UPRG’s 1987 blueprint for power-sharing, clearly set out the parameters of what is possible regarding settlement and what would be deemed as a step too far: “Whilst we have no doubt that compromise and accommodation can be reached between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, it is impossible to compromise on the existence of Northern Ireland itself – it either exists or it doesn’t. At present it exists and is a part of the United Kingdom. This situation may not be the whole-hearted wish of everyone in the province but must be recognised to be the wish of most.”

For many in our community, the removal of the Union-Flag is interpreted as a denial and subversion of this fundamental constitutional fact, despite the fact the existence of Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom, was recognised, negotiated and agreed under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, and reinforced through the principle of consent. We also have to remember; that many young Protestants from our communities are currently proudly serving in the British Army in current theatres of war in Afghanistan and Iraq etc.  Indeed, people from Northern Ireland have fought and died under the Union-flag across multiple generations of families. Thus this particular flag has many notions of identity and sacrifice attached to its significance that are extremely emotive and which cannot be discounted.

Whilst many would acknowledge that the decision had democratic overtones, in that it was a majority vote, and was democracy as it is understood in pure numerical terms, it is also clear that the un-democratic undertones were the rejection of a civic-voice in the consultation, with the vast majority of staff, visitors and the wider public clearly wanting the flag retained or advocating no change, thus providing no civic-mandate for removal upon which to act. Indeed, the consultation identified that only a mere 2% of those surveyed expressed that they were offended by the presence of the flag, with a further 5% unhappy with it, giving a total of 8% against the flying of the Union-Flag above our City Hall. Indeed, this left 65 % in favour of retaining the Union-Flag, and 24% that didn’t care either way. This decision has in effect ignored and undermined the wider civic-voice in what prides itself as a civic-chamber. In a democracy, you do not consult, receive the answer you don’t like, and then implement against the findings anyway.

The decision to pursue the removal of the flag, despite warnings of the likely consequential impact on community relations from the First Minister Peter Robinson, was not only foolish, but also to many provocative, and helped create a situation that contains the potential to substantially damage relations across the city. Despite these warnings, no community impact assessment was undertaken by Belfast City Council to measure the possible ramifications of such a decision, despite there being a tension monitoring framework in place to facilitate this process. 
Of course, we all know that Republicans have always worked in phases throughout the conflict, best encapsulated with the ‘armalite and ballot box’ phase, and this previous reliance on phases no doubt translates into the political arena of today. 

For many in the Loyalist/Unionist community, this represents a noticeable change in republican strategy and the marking of a new phase, with many now believing that Republicans have consciously ditched the peace-process phase, declared it defunct, as it is now being seen as both counter-productive and constraining of their wider ‘political-project’, and having forsaken this particular element, that is deemed as holding their political project back, Republicanism are now forging on regardless with all the political weaponry at their disposal. This view was solidified with what appeared to be a vindictive gloating by some in the Republican community who clearly saw it as ‘victory’.  Many key individuals, who frankly should have known better, were “behaving like little kids through social media as they wallowed in the defeat of ‘Unionism.’”

In this context language has clearly become underlaid with perception, interpretation and accusation, pinned down with rigid ideological tacks, that is now perhaps one of our most insurmountable barriers. This reaction itself is hardly a reconciliatory gesture, and for many has now exposed the true face of Republicanism, seen as being engaged in the zero-sum politics of the ‘victor’ and the ‘defeated’, as we lurch from a consensual politik to one more aligned to and reminiscent of majority rule.

The questions on many people’s minds is – is this not the same form of politics which Republicans would readily have accused successive Unionist dominated Councils? This has raised wider questions around the Good Friday Agreement such as – 
Why are our civic-chambers, as an aspect of our wider political architecture, not constrained by the same consensual politics that operate in Stormont, our seat of local power, where decisions have to have significant cross-community support for implementation?
Many within the Loyalist community are now concerned how this decision will impact at the grassroots, and play out on our streets as Northern Ireland’s politics invariably does. 

This opinion piece was developed by the North Belfast Branch of the UPRG.

It has been submitted on behalf of the North Belfast Branch by John Howcroft, a former life-sentence loyalist prisoner and community activist.