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Simmering rage that fuels the riots
(Suzanne Breen, Irish Mail on Sunday)
It's pelting rain on a bitterly cold night in South Belfast and the protestors are refusing to let a single car pass.
One driver winds down his window and pleads: "Look, I only want to get home to the wife and kids." "Did you not hear me?" roars the teenager with a scarf covering his face. "This road is closed."
As the man continues to argue, it turns nasty: "Are you a f***ing Fenian?" the loyalist asks. The driver wisely does a u-turn. "Take his registration number," another masked teenager shouts.
A couple of kilometres away, hooded youths waving Union Jacks block traffic in Great Victoria Street – the heart of Belfast's Golden Mile where the city's main restaurants and bars are found. Friday night is usually one of the busiest in the week but the place is deserted.
Tourism is suffering too. Great Victoria Street is home to the landmark Europe Hotel, once dubbed the most bombed hotel in the world for surviving the IRA's relentless blitz during the Troubles. But loyalist protests mean its occupancy rates are down 75% on this time last year.
Belfast's bus service has been suspended for the night after a double decker was hijacked and set alight in Rathcoole. Petrol bombs, fireworks and bricks are being hurled at police who turn the water cannon on protestors.
Down the road in Carrickfergus, more rioting is under way. Since Belfast City Council voted six weeks ago to fly the Union Jack on only 18 designated days, the North has been engulfed by protests.
The signing of the Good Friday Agreement 15 years ago was meant to relegate scenes of burning barricades and riots to the past. But now he Confederation of British Industry says the disturbances have cost the city £15 million in lost trade and warns that future foreign investment and jobs are in danger.
The protestors remain unmoved. "Couldn't care less, love," says a father of three at the Tates Avenue protest. "Sure we were promised the sun, the moon and the stars with the peace process. We would all have jobs and great lives.
"Well, I was on the dole then and I'm still on the dole. Nothing improved for my family. The only jobs that came were in call centres and even the call centres are packing up for India now because people there work for less money."
The mood at the Tates Avenue protest is relaxed compared to the confrontational atmosphere elsewhere. Mothers with babies in prams, well protected from the elements with rain covers, joke that if they had any sense they'd be at home watching Coronation Street.
What do they make of the warnings of economic gloom if the protests continue? "I burst out laughing when I heard yer man who owns all those restaurants (chef Michael Deane) on TV complaining that the protests were putting people off dining out at night.
"Sure who around here can afford to eat in his restaurants anyway?" says Nicole, a 32-year-old mother of two.
Meanwhile, nationalist grassroots understandably complain about the PSNI's softly-softly approach to the loyalist protests. Officers stand by and do nothing while a handful of youths illegally block roads.
During six weeks of protests, just over 100 people have been arrested. Compare that to 26 arrested over a single republican protest against an Orange march in Ardoyne on the Twelfth of July last year.
The protests started over a flag but those on the streets now are motivated by a myriad of grievances. The council's decision to take down the Union Jack has come to symbolise all that's wrong in their lives.
'Catholics get everything,' says a teenage protestor on the Newtownards Road. However, the reality is that while employment equality legislation has curbed anti-Catholic discrimination, the overwhelming majority of deprived areas in the North are nationalist.
But the perception among loyalists is that they're on the losing side. The protestors feel discarded, marginalised and betrayed. The new Northern Ireland David Cameron wants to showcase when the G8 summit opens in Enniskillen in June consists of the lush fairways and luxurious spas of the Lough Erne resort.
It bears no resemblance to the grim reality of life in working-class loyalist and republican areas. The blame for whipping up the initial anger at the council's decision to limit the flying of the flag lies with the DUP.
It saw an opportunity to politically target the Alliance Party which so dramatically won the East Belfast Westminster seat – the jewel in the DUP crown – from Peter Robinson in 2010.
But the protests soon spiralled out of the party's control and, ironically, most of those now taking part loath the DUP whom they regard as traitors for entering government with Sinn Féin.
The protests have gained their own momentum too. For young people in loyalist areas – just like their counterparts in republican areas – protests and riots bring excitement to humdrum lives.
Camera crews from the US, Russia, France, and Switzerland are in the North to cover the disturbances. Young people speak of "the buzz" and sense of power from seeing their actions make world headlines.
"It's bull***t to say violence doesn't pay," says Ryan, a 21-year-old rioter. "Sure look where it got Martin McGuinness." Question loyalists about the fact that it's cost £7million to police their protests so far and they'll say 'well the Bloody Sunday Inquiry cost £30 million'.
The UDA, the largest loyalist paramilitary group, has tried to stop the riots. But for its own selfish reasons, the UVF has not. Last year, former senior UVF member Gary Haggarty turned supergrass.
In 30,000 pages of evidence and 760 taped interviews, he gave police information on every major Belfast UVF figure and their involvement in murder, extortion, robbery and drugs.
Haggarty's evidence is expected to lead to a string of high-profile UVF arrests. Sothe paramilitary group is hardly in the mood to make life easy for the state. Championing the flag also gives the Progressive Unionist Party, the UVF's political wing, a much needed platform after years of irrelevance.
For others, the flag issue is about old wounds that have never healed. Willie Frazer from South Armagh had five members of his family – his father, two uncles and two cousins – killed by the IRA.
"It's not just about a piece of cloth," he says. "When they took down the flag and put it in the broom cupboard, they were putting us – the Protestant community and everything we stood and died for – in the cupboard too."
Amidst the rolling countryside of South Armagh, Frazer points out the spots where atrocities occurred. "It may look beautiful but the land is dripping in blood. Republicans murdered 400 people here," he says.
"They claim it was a war. Well, the war criminals got away. They should have been hunted down and jailed but instead some of them are sitting at Stormont in Sinn Féin running the country with the DUP."
Frazer drives to Kingsmill where 10 Protestant workers were taken off a minibus and shot dead in retaliation for loyalist murders. "They lined them up there," he says, pointing to a spot on the road. "They fired 136 bullets into them. Some men were on their knees praying when they were executed."
A mile on is Whitecross, the Catholic village where Frazer grew up. "That was our house," he says, pointing to a small terrace. "It was more like a prison than a home, we'd that much barbed wire around it.
"Once they left a bomb on the kitchen window. Another time my father came back to find a sledge-hammer stuck in the door where the IRA had tried to smash it in." Another mile away, Frazer stops. "That's where the IRA murdered my oul' boy," he says.
Robert Frazer, 49, UDR man and father of nine, was shot dead leaving a friend's farm. "Nobody was ever charged," says Frazer. "Over 98% of republican murders in South Armagh remain unsolved. You don't hear the furore over them that you do over Pat Finucane."
We come to Tullyvallen Orange hall where five Protestants were killed in 1975 by the IRA. "I was 15 but even now I can remember the awful stench of burning flesh," says Frazer.
Frazer, often a lone voice demanding justice for IRA victims, has shot to prominence during the flag protests. "I'm doing 18 hour days," he says. "I've spoken at 60 meetings across Northern Ireland in recent weeks. The dead and for the widows and mothers left behind – that's what motivates me."
In contrast to veteran campaigner Frazer, Jamie Bryson (23) from Donaghadee, Co Down, is one of the young rising stars of the flags' protest. He looks more like a member of a boy band than a hardline loyalist.
He didn't grow up during the conflict, so it seems odd that he feels passionate about the Union Jack. "The Provos mightn't be murdering people but they're still chipping away at my community's Britishness. That's why they wanted to remove our flag," he says.
But on the British mainland the Union Jack is flown only on designated days from state buildings – including Buckingham Palace – so why should the same not apply in the North?
"It's different on the mainland – their culture isn't under attack," says Bryson. "If you're threatened politically and culturally, special measures are needed. In 1982, when Argentina took down the Union flag from the Falklands, Mrs Thatcher sent the military to restore it and reassert Britishness."
Like Frazer, Bryson wants Sinn Féin removed from government. He sees the flags protests as "a people's revolution". But loyalist muscle is not what it was. In 1974, hundreds of thousands of Protestants took to the streets and brought down the power-sharing government at Stormont.
Around 100,000 took part in a monster rally against the Anglo-Irish Agreement at Belfast City Hall in 1985 yet their efforts failed. And the current protests are attracting only a fraction of that number.
Those taking part may win minor concessions but they won't secure any radical change in the political order. History will record the flag protest as a temporary political irritant rather than a landmark event.January 16, 2013
This article appeared in the January 13, 2013 edition of the Irish Mail on Sunday.
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