A piece I wrote for LAD Fleg, in a purely personal capacity.
3 December 2012. This is a date etched on many politically minded people’s memories – the date when the City Council voted to fly the Union Flag on designated days at Belfast City Hall; a date which was followed by the Council Chamber being stormed, by street blockages, and by mass disruption.
There were two prime sides involved in this dispute – the “Loyalists” (broadly inner-city Protestants) who wanted the flag retained 365 days a year and were broadly backed by Unionists, and the “Progressives” (broadly suburbanites) who were content to compromise on designated days and were in this case broadly backed by Nationalists. Here I will argue that the Progressives were right in terms of pure policy, but also that in fact both sides are guilty of similar types of strategic misjudgement. This will lead to a further, subsequent article about why “Loyalists” and “Progressives” need both to be aware of the “bogey man politics” used against them both (when it suits) by mainstream Unionists and Nationalists.
Loyalists were sure of their case. Despite being the majority community; despite being the very group for whom Northern Ireland was set up; despite being British people on British territory; their flag was “torn down” from their capital city’s civic centre. A campaign ranging from general disruption to mass voter registration would soon see it put back up again, however. How could it not? After all, almost everyone Loyalists themselves spoke to agreed with the obvious merit of their case. We were told, with certainty, that the quiet minority who had not been voting up until this point were also instinctively on their side and would no doubt be invigorated by their campaign.
Yet somehow we have arrived into 2014 and the flag still isn’t “back up”. Disenchanted, Loyalists mustered only 300 at a City Hall protest registered for 10,000; voter registration is lowest in the very constituencies Loyalists were targeting; general frustration with politics in inner-city, majority-Protestant areas has, if anything, increased.
There are three main potential reasons for this – first, that the campaign didn’t actually deliver; second, that it was on the wrong issue for most people anyway; and third, there was simply no evidence for the claims about “non-voters” they were making.
The campaign couldn’t possibly work in reality. Speaking to each other, Loyalists may have perceived they had numbers, but in fact they were nowhere near a majority; and outside their own social circles, their case was by no means obvious.
In any case, it was on the wrong issue completely. Asked if they want the flag “back up”, most in inner-city majority-Protestant areas will no doubt agree – but it’s not remotely a priority. Welfare changes, leisure provision, local jobs, perhaps immigration would all feature higher in their list of interests. As politicians have shown no interest in those, we should be unsurprised that they show no interest in politicians!
Of course, the census shows there is also a Catholic plurality in Belfast. Crudely, this means that if everyone in Belfast turned out to vote, Nationalists would still have more seats than Unionists. The “non-voter” was no more or less likely to be “Loyalist” than the “voter”!
What has this to do with people in the “moderate centre ground”, those I have come to refer to as “Progressive”? Did Progressives not support the Alliance position, backing designated days? They couldn’t be more different from Loyalists, surely?
In some ways, they are exactly the same – capable of making the precise same basic strategic errors. Like Loyalists, Progressives are inclined, from discussions with each other, to assume their positions have greater support among the general public than they actually have. Like Loyalists, Progressives can often pick issues with which they find wide-ranging agreement, but which are not in fact priority issues. Like Loyalists, this disconnect – assuming wider-ranging support than is the case, and picking low-priority issues in any case – leads to greater disenfranchisement among people who would be natural supporters (while being ignored by the majority of non-voters who were never likely supporters in the first place).
Before we determine what Progressives want, we may usefully ask who they are, and why they are who they are. I wrote some months ago that they tend to be from professional backgrounds, typically well-educated and most often suburban. That, alongside the fact they tend to be younger, means they typically knee-jerk social-liberal. Generally, they did not experience the brunt of “the Troubles”, although there would certainly be directly affected victims among their number (conceivably even disproportionately so). They are well represented in finance, in the arts sector, in the tech industries, in academia and in the third sector, but scarcely at all in politics (in the broadest sense). On economic issues their views vary, though they typically endorse both grammar schools (without necessarily advocating selection) and integrated education (including shared, to some extent). Sports-wise they tend towards rugby, and leisure-wise towards film/theatre. They have no time for parades, and little for local football (although they would almost unfailingly endorse the NI international team). As a result of all of this, they tend not to think much about identity, but insofar as they do, they are probably most comfortable with the designation “Northern Irish”. Most are content living in the UK but also enjoy regular trips across the border. They do not regard a “United Ireland” as something to be feared, but simply do not believe it to be feasible (even if it is their instinctive preference in some cases). If challenged (and they prefer not to be), they endorse the constitutional status quo on broad economic and social grounds, rather than on communal or cultural grounds.
I should emphasise that very few people in Northern Ireland fit this precise description; but when I did put it forward, a number did say they clearly identified with most of it.
It is important to note also that Progressives are not merely “moderates” or “liberals” fitting in somewhere between Unionists/Loyalists and Nationalists/Republicans; they are in fact entirely distinct from them. They do not attempt to balance out the competing aspirations and policy goals of each side; on the contrary, they have their own to pursue!
From a narrow sectarian point of view, “Progressives” look a bit like “Unionists”. “Nationalists” would often accuse them of this – but they are wrong to. Progressives are markedly different. Most obviously, Progressives are positive about the future and indeed cannot wait to move themselves (and Northern Ireland broadly) into it; this is the complete opposite of mainstream Unionists, who are negative about the future and would like, if possible, to move us back to the past.
Despite their different cultural interests and social backgrounds, we have established there are incredible similarities in the way Progressives and Loyalists go about their politics. Like Loyalists, Progressives are split between a growing number of small political parties, when this in fact deprives them of influence. Like Loyalists, Progressives believe some of their causes to be obvious (e.g. the case for an Assembly Opposition), when in fact no one else is interested. Like Loyalists, Progressives believe they have vast numbers (particularly among “non-voters”), when there is simply no evidence for this contention.
Like Loyalists, Progressives are a relatively small minority who have to work with larger minorities. So, like Loyalists, Progressives in fact need to pick their issues more carefully and then unite to argue for them. Perhaps it is time to discuss that…?