Part of the reason why I'm still a unionist is because I'm convinced it must be right in some way, because how else could it have survived for so long given its leaders? It has been Irish unionism's fate to be led, and controlled, by a combination of people who are either unpleasant, incompetent or both. No other political creed in history has enjoyed such longevity, whilst also being led by such a gallery of grotesques. Its survival is also all the more remarkable when one considers that, unlike Irish nationalism, Irish unionism has no real links to its past; only vague, and often confusing, messages, almost all of which resort to defining itself in opposition to nationalism. In a nutshell, what nationalism is, unionism is not. It has, moreover, no real heroes - again, unlike nationalism, most unionists know next-to-nothing about the great "heroes" of the unionist past. While figures like William III and Sir Edward Carson may gaze out haughtily from the banners of the Orange Orders or from six-foot-tall murals, the details of these men's biographies are practically unknown. Devoid of political folklore, unionism therefore resorts to putting much of its cultural identity into symbols, rather than people - the monarchy, the army, the RUC, the Poppy, the parades and, above all else, so it would seem, the flag. Once you understand that, you begin to understand why they're so protective of things that seem trivial to outsiders.
On 3rd December 2012, Belfast City Council voted to remove the British flag from flying above City Hall. A majority of councillors wanted it to remain, but a republican-backed initiative to have it taken down forced a split in the unionist vote and the resulting decision was that it should fly only on designated days, like state holidays or royal birthdays. The corresponding explosion of sentiment across Northern Ireland took everyone by surprise. But it shouldn't have. This has been coming, in one way or the other, for years. Like a penny machine in an old arcade, there was always going to be something that pushed everything right over the edge. And on 3rd December, we found out what that was.
Riots swept the city, particularly in the working-class and Protestant-dominated east. The estimated cost, so far, to local businesses is somewhere in the region of £15 million in losses. And while life ticked along as normal in the city's wealthier quadrants, like Malone, Stranmillis or Ballyhackamore, and the vicious drip-drip-drip of unionism's thinly-suppressed snobbery (even for its own compatriots) led everyone there to dismiss the riots as the actions of ill-educated, jobless and tracksuit-wearing scum, to anyone who knows (or cares) about unionism and loyalism's increasingly-unstable sense of identity, these riots were not only a long-time coming but a warning. A warning that everyone is doing their level best to ignore.
When the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 brought the Troubles to an end, the onus was very much on the Protestants of Northern Ireland to make the concessions. For years, they had been (and still were) the majority; it had been in deference to their wishes and the aftermath of the First World War that Northern Ireland had been created in the first place back in 1921. They had squandered much of this honour by creating a state apparatus that served their own interests first and the Catholic minority's second. That is reductive and it is not the entire truth, but there is much truth in it. Many of the symbols of old Northern Ireland were, fairly or unfairly, loathed or mistrusted by Ulster's nationalist population. Attempts were made to reform this in the 1960s, but the Troubles took over. By 1998, in order to create a functioning pluralist democracy, some of the symbols of "old" or "unionist" Northern Ireland were quite simply going to have to go. The bitterest pill to swallow for many unionists was the dismantling of the police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and its replacement with the less-unionist-sounding Police Service of Northern Ireland. As far as unionism had a folklore, the RUC was woven into it. Stories of bombs under cars, young constables ambushed by IRA men hiding in bushes after answering false burglary calls and maimed veterans walking in the Remembrance Day service, had all elevated the RUC to the status of the de facto heroes of Northern Irish Protestantism - particularly to the upper and middle-classes. When it went, as everyone knew it must go to gain nationalist support for the peace process, Unionists regarded it as the ultimate sacrifice - the ultimate pledge of good faith, if you like, in the shared future. History would teach us that all these things - a new police force, a power-sharing executive, amnesty for ex-terrorists (oh, how that one stuck in the throat for thousands and not just unionists) - were part of a process of compromise. Peace was the prize; compromise was the price. Unionists may have muttered, bitterly in some quarters, but they ultimately accepted that it had to happen if they wanted their children to grow-up in a world where army road blocks were not a feature of everyday life. Why then, after accepting all that with only a few murmurings, did the working-class sections of Irish loyalism explode into petrol-bomb-throwing wrath over the issue of a single flag over one building in the city centre which can still fly on certain designated days? They hadn't been anywhere close to this angry when an ex-IRA commander was appointed Minister of Education back in 1999. What was it about the flag, years after the peace agreement, that made them so angry?
Well, part of it is that the flag issue seems like a deliberate slap in the face from Sinn Fein, the major party of Irish republicanism. Why, unionists ask, when the flag had been there for years did they try to take it down now? Why, when so much has been given up already and at a time when thousands of young Northern Irish men and women are abroad serving to defend that flag in Afghanistan and Iraq, did the nationalist parties decide to pick a fight over the city hall standard? Why did the liberal Alliance Party "help" them? And why, oh why, did the unionist leadership not do more to stop it? These are all valid questions and, for what it's worth, I think far less of Sinn Fein for kicking the hornet's nest. (I think far less of the DUP for not trying to calm the hornet's nest, but then I have no faith, really, in any of our political parties anymore.) Anyway, while we can maybe reach an understanding of why the vote happened in the way it did, no-one seems to be asking why so many working-class Protestants have been so terrifyingly angry about this one flag?
Part of it is, undoubtedly, that most of the rioters come from disadvantaged backgrounds, in which they cannot find work, have little education, few opportunities and an inveterate distrust not just of authority, but also of the hated outsiders. In their case, heartbreaking to say, outsiders equate with Catholics. Equally, the unionist leadership has never been able to control the working-class segment of its electorate. Anyone with a good knowledge of Irish history would recall how Southern unionism had struggled to rein in the dragon of the Orange Order at the end of the nineteenth century, only to lose spectacularly. The unionist leadership's deafening silence about these riots is a tribute not just to their cowardice, but also to their uselessness. They fear that they will not be listened to. So rather than take the risk, they do nothing and hope the problem will eventually go away. But there is a bigger issue here and it speaks right to the heart of both the tragedy and the folly of Irish unionism. Where nationalism is built far, far too much on its own concept of its history, unionism does not teach its history, does not know it and definitely does not understand it.
Many Catholic schools in Northern Ireland should be wrapped harshly over the knuckles for the frankly shocking way in which some teach Irish history. In many schools, but by no means all, it can often amount to little more than a party election broadcast for the ghosts of Michael Collins, Eamon de Valera or Cathal Brugha. Equally, many state schools should be wrapped even more harshly for the fact that they don't teach it, at all. When they do teach twentieth century Irish history, they generally teach the nationalist movement, but they teach it in a curiously passionless way. Unionism, if it's mentioned at all, is the sideshow. A policy which I'm sure has a lot of students gaping in confusion when 1921 rolls around and 1/3 of Ireland was preparing to burn itself to the ground rather than be separated from Britain. The upshot of this dereliction of duty by our country's educationalists is that Irish nationalism still has a cultural tendency to not consider unionists to be "real" Irishmen and women, it makes next-to-no effort to understand any of Irish Protestantism's attachment to the military or the monarchy, and it has completely written unionism out of the grand narrative of Irish history - which always seems to start with the words "800 years ago," and then a never-ending list of the wrongs done on Hibernia from Henry II to Cromwell to Thatcher, all of them, apparently, sprung from the same heartless vortex of Hell as Judas and Nero.
But if nationalism knows too much of its own history, then loyalism does not know enough and because of this it is allowed to trundle on like some sluggish dinosaur, carrying all of its old bigotries and prejudice because it's never been properly educated about what really happened in this island's past. There is much to be proud of or, at the very least, interested in. The achievements of the Ascendancy in the eighteenth century are nothing to be sniffed at; neither is the industrial miracle of Ulster and Belfast in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries or the heroism of the Irish battalions in the great wars. There were also brave and noble men from Ireland who believed deeply and truly in the unionist message - that unity within the British Isles could bring more benefits than separation. Men and women who believed that it was possible to maintain an Irish identity, whilst also keeping British loyalties. A firmer knowledge of their past - and pride in its better moments - would give all unionists, whether rioters or not, something to focus on and an appreciation of Ireland's complex history. As it is, most unionists operate under the festering fear that once a united Ireland happens, they'll have to flee for their lives and every bit of their culture will be swept away in a relentless torrent of nationalist triumphalism. That may be a paranoiac fear, but things like the flag vote fan it; they speak right to the deepest of unionism's fears. A fear which, I think, has kept its pulse beating for years.
A knowledge of Ireland's Protestant history, however, could also teach and warn, as much as it could inspire. After all, isn't that the point of history? Just as nationalism must eventually confront the darker side of its history, unionism could learn much from looking back at its less savoury moments. The Protestant Ascendancy's role in kick-starting the Gaelic Revival might allow Ulster Protestants to stop reacting with such revulsion and anger to things like the Irish language or arts; a knowledge of Edward Carson's plea that the new Northern Ireland should not become a sectarian state could show them that unionism was once-upon-a-time supposed to be a creed for all religions, not just one; Lord Craigavon's repulsive proclamation that he had fashioned a Protestant country for a Protestant people could finally allow Protestants to understand that mistakes had been made and that the bitterness of sectarianism can only poison for generations; Lord Brookborough's petty and vindictive sectarian legislation; Protestant nationalists; Catholic unionists; agnostics (here's looking at you, King Billy, and that handsome young chap you liked to go everywhere with. Don't tell the DUP, though...); the nobility and purpose of many nationalist politicians and figures; moments of compromise between both sides; the forgotten legacy of southern unionism. All of this could let loyalists see that this is not a "them and us" situation, it's not a simple situation and that parts of unionism once tried to overcome the bigotry of many of its followers. So far, only the Alliance Party has made any real and concerted effort to put that principle into practice.
There is much, in any community's history, to be proud of and to be ashamed of. There is much simply to be interested in. These riots spring from a community that does not know enough about its own past but fears that one day, when the last British flag is taken down in this part of Ireland, that they and everything they know will vanish. Although they do not know it, they are carrying with them the greatest of Irish Protestant fears - the fear that sprang from the massacres of 1641. But they don't know that date, or what it means, even though it's shaped every moment of their political lives and every major piece of Unionist action for the last four hundred years. They don't know anything about themselves, not really, or the people they're allegedly fighting against. It's ignorance and fear - blind and stupid, vicious and lethal - that has prompted this community to take to the streets in a repulsive display of lawlessness and cruelty. They're clinging desperately to that flag because they don't think they have anything else left.
Irish unionism's history is one of great achievements and repellent prejudice. But then, so is Irish nationalism's. And it's only once you understand that that you can begin to understand that all these big questions - British crown or Irish republic - have to be decided on the basis of today and tomorrow, not yesterday. It's only once you understand history that you can let it go. But because we don't understand it and because we've reduced it to a myth, oft-repeated but seldom-understood, we can't let it go. This strange, bastard, butchered version of history is all that most of us have in Ireland. So we cling to it. We cling to things like the flag, because it's where we came from. And because many of us still think that one day, somehow, one side in Northern Ireland has to "win". But we're not going to win if we keep trying to score one-up on each other. There haven't been any winners in Irish history, not really - not for the last century or so, if not longer. Next time you look into the masked face of a boy barely more than a child as he hurls bricks at a police officer's head, remember that. We are all paying a heavy price for our ignorance, but they're paying the highest. For them, this folly is all they have.