Flag-flapping British loyalists not waving but drowning in the north of Ireland
The flag wars are over but there are still plenty of flags flapping this summer. Well, flopping in the rain might be a better description. Ninety-nine per cent of them droop in what are known as loyalist areas – in other words, pockets of poverty controlled by UDA gangsters.
Yet, only two years ago a large proportion of the north's highways and byways were festooned with Irish tricolours, Palestinian flags and on the other side of the fence a vast array of UDA, UFF and UVF flags, the unionist version of the Ulster flag, Israeli flags and so on. Now only impoverished unionist districts are defaced with bedraggled remnants of flags.
What happened? For a start, Sinn Féin opted out of the whole nonsense after the IRA decommissioned and stood its members down.
It was a smart move because it instantly improved the appearance of republican districts and at the same time drew attention to the general chaotic struggle in loyalism between the UVF and UDA and within the UDA as each faction marked out its territory.
It also pointed up the question why the police allowed gangs of men, who were clearly members of those illegal organisations, to take over roads with ladders, hoists and even cherry-pickers to erect the flags of their illegal organisations.
No-one was fooled by the UVF's lying excuse that its flag was actually the flag of the 1913 UVF.
Eventually in 2005 both groups were persuaded to stop flying UFF, UDA and UVF flags and replace them with 'official' flags – namely, the Union flag, their version of the Ulster flag and strangely, the flag of Scotland.
So that's what you see now – or for the most part don't see because only people who live in districts like Rathcoole, the Kilcooley estate in Bangor, the Wakehurst estate in Ballymena and similar salubrious locations across the north have to endure the fly-blown tawdriness their local loyalist terror gangs inflict on them.
Add in too a few feet of dirty bunting dragging across a wall with a wondrously creative mural of masked loyalist killers breaking in the doors of Catholic families and you have a typical loyalist enclave.
There are exceptions like Bushmills where, instead of having the flags confined to the more rundown areas, the entire miserable, cheerless town is transformed into your typical loyalist enclave with flags and emblems everywhere and placards of alleged unionist luminaries screwed to lampposts. What an uplifting sight for the tour buses coming in to visit the distillery – a glimpse of the full flower of genuine loyalist culture. You can only wonder what the guides say to explain the whole tasteless display.
Presumably the smart guides take the buses into the distillery at the edge of town and leave the same way without letting any visitors gawp at the mess the natives have made of their own town.
Yet a place like Bushmills is a perfect illustration of the fate of unionism.
What should be an outstanding tourist site, a cash cow for the district, is instead an embarrassment because of lack of local leadership, political cowardice and bloodymindedness.
It's more than that, of course.
The whole flag culture in unionism signifies a lack of confidence, a crisis of identity, an absence of vision for the future.
Once the ability to hang flags outside Catholic schools and churches with impunity used to demonstrate the dominance of unionism and its control over the levers of policing and justice. Now the flying of flags confined to loyalist districts is a sign of weakness, the retreat of unionism into itself.
To reinforce this point there is a direct correlation of flag-flying and poverty.
Where the flags and emblems and murals are at their most dense is on loyalist housing estates
where unemployment and hopelessness is highest and mainstream unionist politicians have walked away, leaving people to the paramilitaries and their drug dealing.
If they vote at all they vote DUP, a party that ignores the drug problem. Drugs? What drugs?
The flag-waving in those places is reminiscent of Stevie Smith's poem Not Waving But Drowning:
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
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