Belfast is very much inseparable from my experience as a Scot living in Ireland, no matter how limited my experience of this city. Travelling over land and sea for a decade, Belfast has been something of a personal purgatory; a waiting area between one home and the other. This has meant that once or twice every year I have had to pass through the city leaving and returning to Ireland, and so I have become increasingly familiar with the strange goings-on in Belfast and the North of Ireland. As an outsider-looking-in my take on events in the Wee North will always be that of the outsider, and it is important to be aware of this. There will always be things that the insider will see more clearly, know more intimately, but the outsider’s perspective can never be altogether without value.
Flags – as a signifier of identity – are important to a certain segment of the northern population, and have become increasing so the more the gun has been removed from northern politics. By ‘a certain segment of the northern population’ I do not mean Loyalists or Nationalists. That would be too easy a division. In spite of the Loyalist rancour of recent years over flegs, the fixation with patriotic haberdashery crosses the politico-sectarian divide; Nationalists/Republicans and Unionists/Loyalists each have a fascination with hoisting their respective flags on street corners and roundabouts. The real divide on the flegs issue is not socially horizontal, but vertical – this is a symptom of the North’s much ignored class divide.
Whether Protestant or Catholic, the northern middle and professional classes have never had much time for flag waving (certainly not in the vulgar sense of having tattered flags blowing on the lampposts of their streets). While it is not unknown, it is not so frequent in well-employed and so financially better-off working class areas. It is very much a feature – at the moment at least – in more socially disadvantaged areas of the lower working class – both Unionist and Nationalist. This to me is an interesting observation of northern politics. Whilst there are real historical and political reasons for the divide, there is a discernible socio-economic element to the northern conflict.
I’m not going to explore this much further here, as my own opinions (other than being irrelevant) are largely ignorant of the complexities, but I will comment very briefly on the class divide. Peace in Northern Ireland was brokered at government level, and encompassed the voices of better-off and more affluent northern society. One result of this is that the elements of the working class (on ‘both sides’), who had been useful to the power brokers during the violence, have found themselves by-passed and ignored as embarrassing relics in the peace. It is now rather frustrating to watch them being mocked by the more refined of their society. As they continue to hoist up their flags on either side of the peace walls one can only hope that they recognise their similarity and see more clearly the divide between themselves and those who have abandoned them.