Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

This protest is flagging, just ask Sherlock Holmes

Waving goodbye: protesters
Waving goodbye: protesters

A sunny early spring Saturday afternoon in Belfast and just over the road from the front of the City Hall a well-dressed man with longish hair is drawing attention to himself by talking VERY, VERY LOUDLY.

He's going to stand over there, he says, and protest against the protest and he wants his companion to take his picture.

His companion, a young girl, is obviously not happy. "Please no, Daddy," she pleads, "Please Daddy, don't!"

Maybe the man is just joking.

Or maybe he feels he is making some sort of point. Whatever it is, the evident distress of his little girl would suggest this may not be the best way of going about it.

The flag protesters haven't arrived yet, in any case. The PSNI are already in position though, in their now traditional droves. Landrovers everywhere you look. Officers in baseball caps and public order onesies.

After a time the protesters straggle in, huddling together with their flags in near silence. They raise a brief cheer when another small group joins them. But it all sounds half-hearted. Dispirited. Defeated.

In total they number, at the very most, one to two hundred people.

The protest is about two thirds the size it was when I last observed it a couple of weeks ago. It is petering out and the protesters themselves know it. They agonise on their protest update pages about what to do, wallowing in victimhood, spouting abuse. But they know they are on the road to nowhere.

During Saturday's protest there is none of the tension in town that there was in the run-up to Christmas during the dark days of early flaggery.

The weather helps. 'Carnival atmosphere' would be overstating it. But the mood is certainly light-hearted outside of the loose clique of protest.

Tourists take turns to have their photographs taken against the protest backdrop.

The protesters could very easily be accommodated on the City Hall pavements but the PSNI have blocked off entire streets and make no move to move them off the thoroughfare. At police leadership level they are still treating this like the Ballymacarrett Spring.

But even the massive police presence seems to be a bit of a visitor attraction in itself. A hen party of young English women strafes across the street giggling after getting pictures taken alongside our macho leather clad PSNI.

And further down Donegall Place the storm troopers of Backin' Belfast are out. In this instance, Sherlock Holmes on stilts and a girl with a hula hoop, a World War One pilot's helmet and a curly moustache.

In terms of what constitutes my idea of pointless performance I'd put stilt-walking well up there. But in fairness this boy is giving it his absolutely everything. The problem is that while stilt walkers may endlessly amuse small children, if you don't happen to have a child by the hand, conversation with a Sherlock with extended legs tends to be, well, stilted.

Ditto the pilot with the hula hoop. She dances around us at the traffic lights. You get the sense that everybody else is also thinking: "Please God don't let her pick on me." We are saved by a loud woman who engages the hula-hooper in conversation about wishing to fly but not having wings. Weird. But a relief nonetheless.

In Cornmarket, shoppers mill as fat seagulls swoop low and small boys career along on skateboards. A wedding party strolls by. The air echoes with the haunting and now traditionally Belfast strains of East European accordion.

To quote this city's greatest unofficial slogan, it is business as usual Belfast.

That other circus outside the City Hall has been allowed to straggle on week after week because police chiefs have misread the level of support for it and because unionist leaders have been more concerned about vote chasing than unequivocally condemning maggotry.

But it is undoubtedly flagging. All the puff has gone out of the protest.

It is deflated.

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