Belfast flag protests: cause and effect
Cause: a couple of sustained flashpoints and rioting for a month now in one small part of one small area of one large city.
Effect: millions of pounds of costs in terms of extra policing. Millions going down the drain in the Belfast economy.
There are three examples that have come my way in the past 24 hours.
I’m sitting in Belfast’s Harlem cafe and restaurant yesterday with a friend who works hard to promote this great city:
“Great to see this place so busy – eh?” I say
“No way,” she sighs. “You’d be lucky to get a table normally without reserving and look at it – lots of empty tables.”
A crying shame given the delicious food and lovely surroundings typical of the new “post-peace” Belfast.
Late last night in the taxi and our driver leans round and says: “Do you realise you’re the first fare I’ve had tonight. It’s terrible. Nobody’s coming out. Friend of mine here – see he’s been driving 20 years in Belfast. Never had a worse Christmas than the one gone by.”
And so to tonight. Just a short distance from the Newtownards Road flashpoint in east Belfast, the Belfast Giants ice hockey team play the Dundee Stars at the Odyssey. They start at 7.30pm.
Several more thousand pounds will be lost as people cannot or will not go.
For 7.30 is slam in the middle of the early evening wave of protests dubbed “Operation Standstill”. Organisers like Willie Frazer predict scores of protests across Northern Ireland – plus one in Liverpool and one in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Mr Frazer said: “I’ve no idea how many of these protests will actually block any roads or if that is the intention. But we intend peaceful protests.”
No doubt he does. But they’ve called this Operation Standstill; they’ve timed it for the Friday rush-hour period; and they know fine rightly, as they say here, that calling people onto the streets means disrupting those streets. Do the maths.
The police (PSNI) tactic appears mostly to be to let it happen, to let the streets be shut and hope they’ll get bored and cold and go peacefully.
They usually do. But that going often means moving off to the known flashpoints to actually do something fun and exciting in young lives seriously lacking both: engage in some somewhat ritualised rioting with the police for a couple of hours.
What’s odd is how in east Belfast the splinter UVF paramilitaries have kept it all going for a month. That’s a long time even by Belfast standards, and we’ve seen nothing this sustained for many a long year here.
What’s significant also is that so far, sustained trouble is not happening in any other loyalist areas where paramilitary groups have influence.
Should that change, then the situation becomes far more serious. But it has not done so thus far. Though even that fact’s obviously of little comfort to Belfast’s restaurateurs, cabbies and ice-hockey players who have a stake and a future, away from the alienated kids who see no future beyond the coming buzz of the next night’s futile streetfighting.
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