Belfast Telegraph

Flying paramilitary flags, like UVF banners in Belfast, is menacing attempt to exert control over vulnerable communities


By Henry McDonald

About a decade-and-a-half ago one of my oldest friends held his own solo protest related to the flying of flags. It took place not in Belfast, but rather Benidorm - although the flags on display were familiar to anyone from Northern Ireland.

He had arrived for a relaxing week in the Spanish resort with his twin girls, hoping to get away from the trouble at home related to loyalist parades, nationalist counter-demonstrations and the ubiquitous flying of flags from almost every available lamppost back home.

His concerns had been raised on the plane over the numbers of young men and couples wearing Celtic and Rangers shirts, who were inebriated even before they got on the flight. By the time he and his daughters boarded their coach from the airport my friend realised that most of those he had been worried about on the aircraft were now heading to his hotel.

The next morning, to his horror, he found out that many of these younger people, groups of young men and couples, had decided to make themselves feel at home by draping Union flags and tricolours from their balconies overlooking the communal swimming pool.

Acting quickly, he called aside the holiday rep in charge of his group and demanded to be moved to another hotel, expressing fears about his and his children's safety on top of the unpleasant vista of the "war-of-the-flags" being transported to one of the Spanish Costas.

To their credit, the tour operator agreed to my friend's request and he and his kids were moved to a quieter hotel, full of English pensioners, further up the coast.

The story about his and his daughters' holiday nearly being ruined by a bunch of morons, who were unable to leave behind their obsession with marking territory even when they left the country, came back to me when considering the latest controversy over the flying of UVF flags in south Belfast.

The displays of UVF flags, in particular, close to a socio-religiously mixed new housing development built by Together Building United Communities, is yet another disturbing twist in our local culture wars.

It is as menacing and tacky as the flying of the tricolour in a mixed area of north Belfast last year.

Newly-elected South Belfast DUP MP Emma Little Pengelly might protest that the residents don't "want a public fuss" over the flying of paramilitary emblems, but the message from their presence is clear: it is again marking out territory, telling those who live there where the power lies.

Those defending the flying of this specific emblem may claim that the flag actually relates to the original UVF of 1912-1914 and is erected to commemorate the 101st anniversary of the Battle of the Somme coming up on July 1.

Others, however, particularly Catholics living in the area and the environs around this new community, will associate these flags with the UVF of the Troubles.

They will, justifiably, feel these flags are a reminder about the presence of that UVF in the south of the city despite the peace process, ceasefires and political agreements.

Perhaps an even more offensive example of flags being used to intimidate and insult can be found in Lisburn.

SDLP councillor Pat Catney revealed on Tuesday that among the many emblems being flown in the city is the US Confederate flag. Councillor Catney correctly labelled this as a "racist act", given the Confederate flag symbolises slavery and segregation in the old American South.

The only message that could be concluded from those flying this symbol of the enslavement of millions of black people was one of intimidation and hatred.

It was, indeed, as Catney put it, "a direct insult" against foreign workers, their families and others from abroad who had settled in the Lisburn area.

Complexity is the enemy of the ignorant and the bigoted, especially when it comes to history.

You have to wonder if those "loyalists" who thought it was a good idea to erect such a revolting symbol had any idea about the proud history this part of the world has in relation to opposing slavery.

Perhaps they have never heard of New Enlightenment Presbyterians like the Rev Thomas McCabe, who pioneered the anti-slavery movement in the 18th century by organising a campaign against the iniquitous trade being introduced to Belfast.

Maybe, too, they would have been unaware that, after slavery was abolished in Britain in 1807, the Royal Navy that these loyalists always look up to had played an important part throughout that century in policing the high seas, intercepting slave ships from West Africa and enforcing the Anti-Slavery Act.

Ironic, too, that one of the most stubborn Irish defenders of slavery was, in fact, a Fenian militant, who had escaped from a penal colony in Van Diemens Land (modern-day Tasmania) to make a new life in America.

John Mitchel, a journalist as well as a rebel, established a newspaper called The Southern Citizen in 1857, which promoted "the value and virtue of slavery, both for negroes and white men".

Mitchel, an Ulster Presbyterian turned radical Irish republican, went on to join the Confederate Army opposing Abraham Lincoln's Union forces in the American Civil War.

Even after the southern states were defeated and the Union triumphed, Mitchel remained an unapologetic supporter of slavery right up to his death - even while he was a representative of the Irish Fenian movement in Paris.

No doubt, then, that during and even after the American Civil War, Mitchel continued to salute the emblem of slavery that continues to this day to be a symbol of race hatred in parts of the United States.

Think about the irony of all this. The loyalists in Lisburn (just like the ones near Dee Street in east Belfast a few years ago) erecting a flag that was once so dear to one of the Fenian icons of the 19th century. If you are seeking out just one example of how idiotic and stupid are those that are obsessed all the time with the flying of flags, look no further than those who think it's big and clever to put up the symbol of the racist Confederacy in an area of Lisburn as part of the build-up to the Twelfth.

Maybe it's time the Orange Order, which has black brethren in parts of West Africa once blighted by the slave trade, should tell its supporters to pull that particular offensive symbol down from the lampposts.

  • Henry McDonald is co-author (with Jim Cusack) of UVF: The Endgame (Poolbeg Press). His debut novel, The Swinging Detective, has just been published by Gibson Square

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