Pimm’s and ProtestationsPosted: May 29, 2013
The sun was out in Belfast at the weekend, and with it the masses. I took a few (iphone) snaps on Saturday at Belfast City Hall, where Union-Jack-emblazoned protestors soundlessly demonstrated at the front entrance gates, to the seeming indifference of all but themselves, while behind them the Spring Continental Market obliviously hustled and bustled inside the grounds, with stalls selling plants, soaps, candles and all sorts of exotic foods, arranged around tents filled with beer and wine and those consuming them. And Pimm’s, of course.
The juxtaposition of protestors and continental-market-goers, while remarkable for their close proximity at the City Hall on a weekend like this, in fact speaks volumes about life more broadly in Belfast 15 years after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. For some, essentially the more affluent members of society, the Troubles are a thing of the past and today’s city is cosmopolitan, open, safe and shared. For the less affluent, many of whom live in segregated inner city residential areas, this very same city is closed, exclusive and divided, and they feel that few tangible benefits have come out of the peace agreements in terms of housing, education, job opportunities and quality of life (BBC article here). So the protests have come to be about a lot more than just a flag on a civic building, but also the fears – of change, loss of identity, and exclusion – of the working class members of a declining Protestant population in Belfast. And it’s not yet clear what’s being done to address these concerns.
If peace is defined as an absence of violence then Belfast is certainly a peaceful city, at present, and the very fact that two such contrasting activities can coexist peacefully in the same space at the same time is promising, in a way. Any society (any society where inequalities persist, anyway) will always consist of those who are protesting and those who are contentedly getting on with their lives. So until we are living in a society that is truly without inequalities, we may let some protest, while others drink Pimm’s!
[A bit about the flag protests for those not from these parts… The protestors, who are Protestant Loyalists, are objecting to the decision taken on 3 December 2012 to stop permanently flying the British Union Jack flag in front of the City Hall and instead fly it on 18 designated days of the year, in line with other public buildings across the UK. With a little encouragement (some say manipulation or propaganda) from the Democratic Unionist Party, this decision was met with much anger and distress from the Loyalist community who felt that their identity was being threatened with the flag removal and in other ways. Protests were initially widespread and violent – it was reported that over 100 police were injured in clashes and that policing the protests had cost PSNI (Police Service Northern Ireland) an estimated £20 million by March 2013 (BBC article here) – but have been non-violent and diminished in size, number, frequency and media coverage in more recent months. See here for a detailed, impartial and well-referenced Wikipedia entry on the flag protests if you would like to know more]