'Flag provocateurs' who toured country stirring trouble could become active again: warning
A major new study has suggested that a group of uncontrollable loyalist rabble-rousers were more trouble than paramilitaries during the Union flag protests.
Worryingly, the Queen's University research warned that events could spiral out of control yet again if politicians do not show better leadership.
Researchers at the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation also called for more resources to be put into cross-community work and less into bolstering loyalist culture.
The study - published on the second anniversary of Belfast City Council's decision to restrict the flying of the Union flag to 18 days a year - reveals how inflammatory "flag provocateurs" travelled around the country supporting protests.
In 'The Flag Dispute: Anatomy of a Protest', the academics warned they could become active again if there is more trouble this marching season.
"There was some paramilitary involvement in organising violence, East Belfast UVF at first - but another group was the most incendiary element," the report's lead author Dr Paul Nolan said.
"They could be in East Belfast, Portadown and Carrickfergus on the one night. When they looked at the videos the police realised these guys were trouble, as did the paramilitaries. Nobody could control them."
"Some were individuals. Some - who were often more dangerous - were groups connected with a band or a community and they would travel in convoys.
"Some of them were too young for the Troubles and there was a certain feeling they had missed out on playing their part.
"They use the phrase, 'We will not be the generation who failed Ulster'. They feel they have a date with destiny."
The study by the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen's also found that relatively few people took part in the protests which paralysed the province, cost £21m to police, and led to 160 PSNI officers suffering injuries. The police estimate that 10,000 were involved at the peak but this tailed off as people were arrested for blocking roads and the unionist leadership eventually disowned the protests.
Dr Nolan believes that the protests tapped into a deep well of Protestant resentment with the peace process. The report states that one of loyalism's most frequently voiced concerns is that 'no-one listens to us' - although this "is not accompanied by any desire to listen" on its part.
It proposes that reconciliation agencies review single identity work, which does not reach out to nationalists and urges support for programmes that help loyalists articulate grievances and engage with others from different backgrounds.
The study also criticised Stomont leaders who have "not provided an inspiration". It said that "political parties, rather than modelling good relations, act to encourage mutual hostilities".
"In this context it may require the reconciliation bodies to bring forward their own 'peace plan' setting forward a clear vision of how reconciliation can be achieved," the report stated.
Two years ago today, Belfast City Council voted to restrict the flying of the Union flag on City Hall to 18 designated days a year instead of 365. The council's nationalists, who have a slim majority, had proposed removing it altogether, but accepted the Alliance Party's compromise. Unionists had wanted the flag kept up permanently, apart from the PUP. It initially supported designated days but later did a U-turn. The protests which followed lasted until summer 2013 and still flare up occasionally.