Loyalists should vent anger at the leaders failing them
Madness. Sheer madness. While shoppers at the front of City Hall munched over-priced imported bratwurst in a cynically commercial winter-wonderland, at the rear of the building a loyalist protest about the flying of the Union flag was rapidly degenerating into a violent free-for-all.
The festive scene was completed by heavily-armoured riot officers going through the front gate of the market to fend off the baying hordes out the back.
Later that night, the sound of police helicopters hovering over east Belfast kept my daughter awake as she lay in bed.
Think of it like Santa and his elves flying by in their sleigh, I said, only with uniforms and guns. Yes, it's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas — Northern Ireland-style.
Loyalists are in serious danger of becoming a pariah group, pantomime villains that everyone likes to hate.
Watching those predictable scenes at City Hall unfold, I was reminded of WB Yeats's famous reprimand to nationalist rioters in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, back in 1926: “You have disgraced yourselves again.”
The sheer idiocy of burning an Irish tricolour, while protesting loudly about respect for their own national flag, does not win loyalists any friends. Neither do bleeding security guards, smashed car windows, or smoke billowing from the back gates of City Hall.
In most normal, non-sectarian people, this sort of behaviour evokes fear, revulsion, contempt — certainly not sympathy.
It is deeply unattractive and only goes to reinforce the misperception that all loyalists are a bunch of laughable, bigoted thugs.
It's very hard to choke out words of empathy after Monday night's mayhem. But in some ways, I do feel sorry for loyalists.
There are decent people out there, working hard to support, contain and reinvigorate a community that feels it has lost out in the new Northern Ireland.
One well-known loyalist cross-community worker, weary of the struggle, and starved of praise for his efforts, told me that “the world and its dog is against us”.
What is certain is that loyalists have been badly let down by their political leaders in unionism, who manipulate them to their own ends, whipping an already frustrated, angry people into mindless fury, then blandly washing their hands of them when it all turns nasty.
Take the circulation of thousands of anti-Alliance party leaflets by DUP and UUP activists, full of inflammatory rhetoric about ‘ripping' and ‘tearing' down ‘our national flag'. What a blatant, irresponsible piece of political skulduggery that was.
It's not enough for DUP and UUP representatives to raise their hands in fake-innocent surprise when Alliance offices were inundated with abusive, bullying messages, or to make the excuse that the leaflets asked anyone contacting Alliance to be “respectful at all times”.
To invoke the deeply-emotive idea of threatened nationhood in a community already seething with resentment, especially after a summer punctuated by bursts of loyalist violence, is bound to end in trouble and on Monday night it did. Then up pops Peter Robinson to voice his condemnation: “There is no excuse, or justification, for attacks on police officers, council staff, and property.”
No, of course not. But there are different kinds of culpability.
Meanwhile, elements of the media are content to go along unquestioningly with the lazy “muscles, tattoos and sectarianism” stereotype of loyalism.
This in turn, reinforces the sense of disenfranchisement and persecution and makes another burst of stupid violence all the more likely.
And so the self-destructive cycle goes on.
Republicans — poised, self-righteous and smoothly adept at media-management — can barely keep the smirk off their faces, as loyalists once more run in circles, snapping pointlessly at their own tails.
In this society, working-class loyalism serves as the repressed unconscious of middle-class unionism: a dark, unexamined place full of rage, bitterness and hatred; a place where all the now-forbidden impulses towards disorder and dissent still lurk.
That can provide a useful blast of pent-up emotion when there is a hot political issue at stake, such as the flying of the Union flag over City Hall.
But where is the respect, where is the responsibility for the social and economic pain that loyalist communities are suffering?
Loyalists may be hard to love, but they belong to unionism. And a unionism that offers them flags and little else is failing them badly.