Time we heard what protesters really want
Published 04/01/2013 | 08:00
Jackie McDonald, the veteran UDA leader, stated the obvious when he told me that flag protesters cannot achieve their stated objectives of having the Union flag restored to the Belfast City Hall flag pole 365-days-a-year.
The balance of power had shifted in the council and blocking every road in the province won't change that. Even a loyalist voter registration drive is unlikely to change that on current electoral boundaries.
Both the main unionist parties believe the same thing. They may use the Unionist Forum they have formed to make this point to all concerned when it meets in the coming days.
One flag protester told me: "The DUP are already telling us that; they say it was a democratic vote at City Hall and so it is on the surface, but this is no longer just about flags."
It is when you probe for a new agenda that things get vague. The protests are an expression of popular anger, but not on anything like the scale shown in some previous loyalist protests, like the Ulster Says No campaign, which brought up to 200,000 people to Belfast City Hall in an ultimately fruitless campaign against the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The numbers involved nowadays are relatively small, although not negligible.
A number of agendas are at work. The main unionist parties whipped things up at the start, with 40,000 anti-Alliance Party leaflets distributed in east Belfast before the flag vote.
That spread alarm, but the parties couldn't control the subsequent street protests and would now like them ended.
They strongly suspect that some protesters are hoping to build an electoral base for themselves to stand as independents, or for smaller parties, like the PUP.
The call to elect tougher unionists is often heard at protests, which are turning into a challenge to the authority of the main parties. One protester has told me that replacing power-sharing devolution with direct rule from Westminster might be the best means of stopping perceived concessions to nationalism.
But this makes no strategic sense. The last period of direct rule was carried out in close co-operation with the Irish government and, if it was revived, the co-operation would be closer still.
Some in the UVF have yet another agenda. They want to show the police and the justice system the dangers of riling loyalists with another loyalist supergrass trial in the coming weeks.
Some have been heartened when Barra McGrory, the DPP, said that the circumstances for using supergrass evidence and the cost of trials are currently under review.
Street protests about flags are unlikely to influence Mr McGrory; his concerns are the likelihood of prosecutions succeeding and the legal bill. Yet some protesters see this as a good moment to exert psychological pressure.
We now have a rudderless protest movement, which is being tugged in several different directions and could end up anywhere.
If protests are to continue, those organising them need to end the mystery and say what exactly they are setting out to achieve.
"It is no longer just about flags" is not a good enough answer, when the economic and social cost is rising so fast.