Belfast Telegraph

'I don't agree with loyalist protest in Belfast over Union flag anniversary but it shouldn't be called off'

'This of course assumes the protest will be peaceful'

By Steven Agnew

It is anticipated thousands will descend on Belfast city centre on Saturday to protest last year's decision to fly the Union Flag at Belfast City Hall only on designated days.

Many commentators have cited the impact on trade as a key reason for the parade not to go ahead.

Businesses in Belfast have suffered a significant reduction in sales due to the flag protests, so it is understandable that they face the upcoming protest with a degree of trepidation.

While I agree that where possible accommodation should be reached between any protest group and traders, I am wary of calls to prevent the protest altogether.

Article 11 of the European Convention on Human Rights protects the right to freedom of peaceful assembly providing it is within the law.  The impact on trade from a protest cannot (and indeed should not) become a justification for restricting anyone’s democratic right to peaceful assembly and peaceful protest. This of course assumes the protest will be peaceful, which I hope it will be.

General criticism of citizens taking to the streets to protest is to be expected from the people who want power and political expression to be from the top down only.

However, what concerns me is the language that has come from some in liberal/left who have been arrogant in their derision of the protesters. I am saddened to see people who lament educational underachievement mock those who may be unsophisticated in their political expression.

I am particularly saddened with the ease at which some seemed to be willing to undermine the democratic right to assemble and show dissent. Like me, these people will have doubtlessly marched through Belfast on various rallies with trade unions or other groups, in support of causes they deemed to be significant to them. In the Assembly SDLP MLA Alban Maginness stated;

“These people have made their point about flags and should therefore desist from future demonstrations."

Similar logic could have been applied to the civil rights movement, but thankfully they didn’t just pack up and go home.

Of course the comparison only holds up if the protests are peaceful. Ultimately I do not agree with the cause of the flags protests and when they are not peaceful it is right that those involved face criticism. When frustration and confrontation descends into violence then any legitimate political concerns get drowned out and the ends cannot justify the means.

Therefore, if for nothing else but clarity of political expression and promotion of respect, I urge the organisers of this week’s march in Belfast to ensure that it remains peaceful so their real concerns are actually heard and not simply manipulated for the sake of political expediency.

A quote attributed to Voltaire states: "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it".

We must be wary of attacking the unalienable right of others to protest because in doing so we ultimately undermine our own.


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