Perhaps a bit late, but here are some personal comments on the current flag protests here in NI.
At the press conference I stood behind those who had put the effort in to drafting a statement and securing agreement calling for the end of the violence. The community solidarity was empowering, comforting and allowed us a moment of hope that this violent period could be brought to an end.
But I was also painfully aware of some other things. All those at the table, and most standing behind were middle aged men. We’ve been around a long time. And this current period of unrest is unlike any we have endured before. It’s facile to say it, but this may be Belfast’s version of the Arab Spring, not necessarily in terms of what is demanded perhaps, nor in the scale of support or the threat, but in how it is organised.
This is Northern Ireland’s first social network protest. And it matters.
It matters because what may be emerging is a new generation of leaders for Unionism and Loyalism. Watching the Nolan Show on TV the other week I couldn’t help but notice that Jeffrey Donaldson’s offering looked old and tired. For want of very little competition on the night, Jamie Bryson looked composed, confident, articulate and unafraid to press Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein. And he spoke, and speaks, making frequent reference to young Loyalists and Unionists. The various facebook pages and twitter feeds supporting the protests proclaim that ‘We will not be the generation of Loyalists to fail Ulster’. A not so subtle rebuke to the current leadership, and no doubt to those who issued the call for an end to violence.
So we issue leaflets. Hold press conferences. Visit TV and radio studios. The old reliable ways. And meanwhile social networks hum with the activity of spontaneous organisation and encouragement.
Not only that, even as we could proclaim the support of the three Loyalist groupings, facebook and twitter were not slow to criticise these same organisations for selling out – the worst insult possible for Unionists and Loyalists. And many of these criticisms were made accompanied by the photos and real names of the complainer. These were not anonymous.
Foolishly and arrogantly, I felt that Conall McDevitt of the SDLP criticised Bryson on that same Nolan Show. Telling him that if he thought he would create a political career out of these protests he was wrong. The meaning was the old one – leave the politics to us professionals. Now I have no idea whether Jamie Bryson will have a future in politics, but I tell you what, neither does McDevitt. And Irish history is full of those who found a political vocation out of protest. And maybe one of the reasons why the DUP have been slow to criticise is because they know that street protest is exactly how they got their start.
This is a difficult time. It has the feel of a changing of the guard and what emerges will be different in its form and leadership. It’s not just a generational thing though, the contrast between those who grasp the power of social media as an instinct, and those who are trying to catch up. But it is also about the shifting of ground, between those who lived through the Troubles and shaped the following peace, but then failed to explain effectively how it all worked, because to do so meant sacrificing their powerbase. That base is now being taken from them. Politicians and community workers both.
Maybe the theorists can describe this in terms of phases and stages but for those engaged it is all a bit disconcerting. Yesterday, we knew what to do, who to talk to, and who the bad guys were. In this new dispensation the old certainties are not so certain any more. It does seem that, this time, our efforts have yielded some positive results. The violence appears to have ended, which will be a relief to communities but also to us. We’ve had another hurrah, occupied column inches and seen our names and faces in the international media. But look how long this took! Something like this was never so extended before.
The times they are a-changing, and we’re getting old.