Belfast is back in the news, with images of petrol bombs, riots and clashes between police and protestors beamed across Europe and the world for the past seven weeks. The unrest began when a majority of nationalist and non-partisan city councillors voted that the British flag, the union jack, should only be flown over Belfast’s iconic City Hall on 17 designated occasions and days of the year, rather than 365 days a year. Protestant loyalists, for whom the British flag is part of their identity, oppose the move. Their protests have frequently become violent.
Belfast’s ‘brand’ is on life support and is showing fading signs of life
The rioters damaging Belfast's hard-won peaceful and positive image don't speak for the overwhelming majority of the city’s citizens. The main feeling on the streets of Belfast is embarrassment. Belfast’s ‘brand’ is on life support and is showing fading signs of life, despite being carefully constructed by the majority of peaceful citizens over the last ten years. So often, we try to find political justification or socio-economic reasoning behind this trouble. The decision to take down the union flag was insensitive, but regardless, it was democratic. The real reason behind this trouble is an alliterative oxymoron that sounds almost as ridiculous as ‘friendly fire’. The reason is: recreational rioting.
Night after night, people of all ages block the streets of Belfast. The violence is indiscriminate. Ironically, protestants are being affected worst of all. Normal business is impossible as barricades are set up intermittingly across the city. The rioters’ supporters say this was the community worst affected by the thirty-year Troubles. But this line of argument becomes redundant when you read reports of eight-year olds rioting in the streets. Belfast has become their playground, with stones and petrol bombs their toys. There is a substantial peaceful majority, but they are getting drowned out in the cacophony of bigotry and idiocy that prevails. Initially, in protestant parts of Northern Ireland, there was sympathy for a peaceful protest. But now, as continual disruption affects their lives and their city, people’s patience is finished. The situation in Belfast is beginning to resemble the fall of Saigon; the cost of policing and the cost to city centre trade has been incredible. The real cost, the cost to the reputation of Belfast, is almost impossible to quantify.
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Image: (cc) Michal Osmenda/ flickr