|Protesters with covered faces object to the removal of the Union flag from Belfast City Hall|
I lived the vast majority of this year in Belfast, and a very happy time, for the most part, it was too. It was a very busy year, with "Our Time, Our Place" posters strewn about the place, Titanic and Solemn League & Covenant centenary celebrations, and a Diamond Jubilee revelry in there for good measure.
In July, Martin McGuinness even shook hands with the Queen. At the height of summer, City Hall was baked in sunshine as it blasted out the Olympics from their jumbo screens. It seemed that Belfast, and Northern Ireland as a whole, had genuinely moved on and was realizing its potential as a modern, vibrant, confident city. But just under the surface, something was amiss.
In the aftermath of Belfast City Council's decision to only fly the Union flag only on special occasions, what quickly became known as the "Flegs" debacle soon exploded in everybody's face, and still drags on as we speak. The effects are palpable and varied. Not only is it having an adverse affect on business, the Christmas market, shopping and a general ability to get on with life, but the violence was so bad at one point that Childline had to vacate their building for a time. Sure, some vulnerable kids might not have been able to get through to someone they needed to talk to, but hey, it'll be worth it if those brave loyalist souls get their flag back!
While the violence and laughable uproar has caused a flare-up the likes of which we haven't seen in a long time, the underlying problems did show themselves earlier in the year. In May, perennial agitant Willie Frazer sounded off about a primary school in Tyrone having an Irish flag outside, suggesting the IRA was training kids to use weapons in there. Except, possessing narrow vision to match his narrow mind, it wasn't the Irish flag he saw, but the Italian. It was there as part of school project, along with the Polish and Turkish flags which he somehow missed.
This year also had people on the other side of the fence fulminating over Rory McIlroy daring to say he felt British. Honestly, the gall of him! You'd think a man raised Catholic would know better! Following his revelation next came the inevitable boycott campaigns, which mercifully gained negligible purchase. And in fact, amdist the depressing elements of community relations this year, that is something we can take a positive from.
In times past, such altercations and conflagrations such as this would carry with it a certain degree of community justification, as ammunition in an eternal rally of "Whatabouttery". But in today's Northern Ireland at least the daft actions of the 1% are ridiculed by the rest of us. All progress, so it's said, depends on the unreasonable man.Northern Ireland has made great progress in this last year, sportingly,civically, commemoratively, things we can be proud of and build on for 2013. It's important we don't let the unreasonable flag-beaters undo it all.