Victims in balaclavas, with guns

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(Photo from Belfast Telegraph)

 

A “new” and as yet unnamed Loyalist paramilitary group announced its presence on the scene this week by releasing a pair of photographs to the media (one of which is reproduced above) along with a statement in which they threatened to kill members of the PSNI and Parades Commission, which has had the temerity to place limits on the Loyalist community’s ability to celebrate their culture through displays of tribal dominance directed against their Catholic neighbors.

The statement that accompanied the photos played on what has become a familiar theme amongst many Loyalists in which they characterize an erosion of privilege as brutal oppression by the state they claim to love.

The group said that after police broke up a riot in a flashpoint area of North Belfast in a

brutal assault upon the PUL community and the random firing of baton rounds aimed to seriously injure our people we are left with no other option but to announce the PSNI and Parades Commission are legitimate targets.

We do not want to take this course of action but our people have suffered enough over the last few years and we as disengaged and disgruntled loyalists feel like the time has come for us to take action. No Surrender.

That Loyalists would threaten to take up arms against the British state is nothing new. The original Ulster Volunteer Force was organized in 1913 with the express intention of waging war against Britain to prevent it from granting home rule to Ireland.

But within Loyalism feelings and complaints of victimization have become much more open in recent years, fueled by a sense that their victory over the IRA, which has secured Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom for the foreseeable future, is in fact a hollow one.  As I wrote back in March, it is the belief that while they have won the war, the spoils of victory have passed them by.

I first heard this expressed back in 2010 when I interviewed several former UDA and UFV men active in the Loyalist ex-prisoner community. Today it is the sentiment behind the ongoing flag protests, the protest camp at Twaddlle Avenue, and the above mentioned riot this week which broke out when Loyalists attempted to storm police barricades blocking them from marching past a Catholic area.

It is reflected in the statement released by the Orange Order in advance of Twelfth of July celebrations which I wrote about last week, in which they decried the intolerance of Republicans and the “petty restrictions” imposed by the state on their right to march and parade where and when they wish, despite any objections from residents.

It is reflected in the tweets of self-described anti-agreement Loyalist provocateur Jamie Bryson claiming persecution and a war waged by police and Parades Commission against the PUL (Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist) people.

A recent unpublished study by a group of researchers from Queens University suggests that the flag and other protests stem from working class Loyalists’ feelings of economic and social dispossession, paranoid siege mentality, a belief that their avenues of expression are being systematically closed off, and that they are being manipulated and exploited by the system.

Others (such as doctoral student Sophie Long at TPQ) have written much more eloquently about the state of Loyalism than I can.  And it remains to be seen if this new armed group will amount to anything more than empty posturing.

But from where I sit, and based on what I’ve seen, the people I’ve met, and conversations I’ve had, when I think about future threats to the peace in Northern Ireland, I am much more concerned about the alienation of Loyalists than I am the ambitions of dissident Republicans.

 

Mordor on the Lagan

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The scene from atop Cave Hill last July 11 overlooking East Belfast. (Photo from Reddit)

 

Tomorrow night Belfast will burn, again, just as it does every July 11th when Loyalists light bonfires on the eve of the annual celebrations of the victory of the Protestant William of Orange over the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

This is one more of the tribal rituals that mark Northern Irish society.  It is akin to  marching season itself, in which Protestant bands and fraternal organizations parade in often provocative, hostility-tinged displays of communal dominance over their Catholic neighbors.

In years past Loyalists have decorated their bonfires with statues of the Virgin Mary, Irish Tricolors, effigies and posters of Nationalist politicians, and other unmistakable symbols of casually brutal contempt tinged with not-so-subtle threats of violence. When a banner with the initials KAT, meaning “Kill All Taigs”, is hung across your bonfire, the message is pretty clear.

Loyalist communities defend these bonfires and marches as cherished parts of their culture and integral to their British identity. The bonfires are typically built in public spaces, often dangerously close to homes.  In recent years the towering bonfire structures have grown more and more massive as neighborhoods compete against each other to have the biggest conflagration in the city.

This year, more than 50 homes have been boarded up in one neighborhood and the residents encouraged to evacuate because the bonfire being built is so immense, and so close to residences, that there is real fear that the houses could burn along with the towering structure of pallets and tires.

It comes as no surprise that the committees which take charge of building the bonfires are cut checks from public coffers, with the money distributed as community development funds. It comes as no surprise that many of my Catholic friends will choose to stay at home on the night of the 11th, just in case.

When I was in Sandy Row in March, the young men who met me at the community center to take me on a tour of their neighborhood invited me back for July 11th to experience their bonfire. They described it as a positive, welcoming, family-friendly event, like a backyard barbecue and block party rolled in to one.

And they were astonished that anyone, anywhere, would consider it otherwise.

 

Confederate flag update: Hypocrisy watch

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The flag still has its defenders. (USA Today photo)

By a vote of 37-3, South Carolina state senators voted this afternoon to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state house. The measure moves next to the state House of Representatives, where it must also pass by a two-thirds majority before Republican Gov. Nikki Haley can follow through on her promise to take the flag down.

Despite the lopsided vote, there were still some interesting moments from the Senate debate, courtesy of Sen. Lee Bright. While others have pointed out how the good state senator used the opportunity to launch into an anti-gay marriage rant, another of his remarks caught my attention.

Bright argued that calls for the removal of the flag were being driven by an emotional reaction to the misuse of the flag by accused white supremacist terrorist Dylann Roof, who had posted online photos of himself wrapped in the Stars and Bars before slaughtering nine black churchgoers in Charleston last month.  Said Bright:

I’m more against talking it down in this environment than any other time just because I believe we’re placing the blame of what one deranged lunatic did on the people that hold their Southern heritage high.

I wonder if the senator is just as careful not to blame an entire people for the acts of a few when the terrorism is carried out by those who claim to be Muslim.  Somehow I doubt it.

 

Context is everything

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I wrote the other day about the Confederate flag and the renewed controversy over that symbol in the wake of the mass killing by a white supremacist terrorist in Charleston, S.C. I want to revisit the topic briefly to try to make a few points more clear.

I accept the argument that the Confederate flag is a hate symbol, but I want to continue to argue that it is more than just that, and like any other symbol, context is key to our understanding of its meaning. So let me present two visual examples to try to make the point.

The picture at the top of the post is from the Confederate cemetery in Marietta, GA. In this context, marking the grave of a soldier killed in the war, I struggle to read the flag as a hate symbol. I see it here as a recognition of an individual’s sacrifice in a long, brutal struggle, even if we cannot today know the motivation for which he fought and ultimately died. We cannot know whether he was an eager volunteer or an unwilling conscript. All that we can know is that he was one more victim of a war which has defined the American experience in ways positive and negative.

In this context, the flag represents history and memory, not hate. It should continue to fly in such a setting. I see this as akin to and consistent with President Obama’s perfectly reasonable admonition that the Confederate flag belongs in a museum.

The second example, below, is by now a familiar one. It is the Confederate flag flying on the lawn of the South Carolina statehouse, and while all the other flags were lowered to half staff to honor those slain at Emmanuel AME church, by state law this one can never be.

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In this context, the symbolism of the Confederate flag is painfully, obviously clear. It is a statement of defiance against racial equality and forced desegregation, and of longing for a past in which one group of humans could legally own another group of human beings. As this excellent article from the The Atlantic makes absolutely unmistakeable, in this context the Confederate flag is a symbol of proud, unabashed racial hatred, bigotry, and white supremacy.

The Confederate flag has no business flying over the offices of any level of government in any state, especially in South Carolina, and especially today. And so I join the voices of those who call for it to come down.

But let it remain where it today belongs. In cemeteries, at war memorials, historic battlefields, and yes, museums. It needs to continue to fly in such contexts to remind us of how far we have come as a people, and how far we still have to go.