By Jason Michael

The colours are changing in Loyalist West Belfast, and this is more than the changing of the seasons. Less flags are flying on the Shankill Road and we have to wonder why this is. Are we beginning to see real changes in the North after Brexit?

Here and there some flags are flying along the Shankill Road in West Belfast. Mostly they are union flags, but every now and again there are loyalist and orange banners. All of them are on flagpoles standing beside memorials to victims of the Troubles or at one or two other permanent locations along the length of this famous Protestant enclave in a predominantly Catholic part of the city. A decade ago, when I was on placement in this part of Belfast, this was all very different. Then flags were a ubiquitous marker of the community; of territory, hanging on almost every lamppost and from every pub. That was during the summer, but their tattered condition spoke of their perennial status as highly visible features of this fiercely proud, loyalist and unionist, working class area.

Quite unfairly, I hoped, given that already one resident on the neighbouring Falls Road had warned us of the potential of violence on that street, the reputation and atmosphere of the Shankill did not invite casual conversation. So it wasn’t easy to tap into local reasons for this change. It had changed. The reduced number of flags and the better repair of those that were to be seen turned down the volume of the palpable sectarianism that hangs in the air, and we were left wondering why this was and what had changed to make this so. Northern Ireland – or “the North” – is changing, and the gradual transformation of the vexillary on the Shankill is an essential part of that change.

All that I have are a couple of ideas. Being familiar with the Northern Irish and Scottish trait of taking great pleasure in noising up the neighbours, it is more than possible that the so-called “Peace Wall” – a concrete and wire barrier that now runs between the two Belfast communities – has removed the element of devilment in the overt show of ownership. Now that the wall dividing the Falls from the Shankill is complete there is little chance of people from the other side being intimidated or annoyed by the flags, and it is possible that they simply have less purpose now. Besides, if this is about marking territory – the wall does a sterling job.

Then there was the whole issue of flags itself – the now infamous “flegs” dispute of a couple of years ago. When the Sinn Féin dominated Belfast City Council voted to reduce the amount of times the union flag was to be flown over City Hall members of the working class loyalist community took to the streets and roundabouts of the city with their British flags to protest. There was no response to this other than ridicule from the rest of the city, jokes and internet memes from the rest of the island, and distance and embarrassment from the middle class unionist establishment. The refined and political class that used the Protestant working class as a cat’s paw through the Troubles has now, in the peace, rejected and abandoned it.

Now we have Brexit. In the past the flags were a symbol of loyalty to a political union, to the Crown, to Britishness. They were about security and belonging. When Northern Ireland rejected Brexit, it did so as a small, rural nation whose economy and survival depends on membership of the European Union. Voting to remain European united Northern Ireland under a single flag – possibly for the first time in its history. By voting to leave the EU and by insisting that the people of Northern Ireland and Scotland leave with “Britain” regardless of their needs and interests, London has shown its true contempt for its loyal citizens in Belfast. An action like this must have an effect on how Britain’s flag is seen.

The removal of the flags and the subtle change in the atmosphere may have something to do with one of these possible reasons. It may be a mix of two or all three. It may be due to something else entirely. Yet it has changed, and it is continuing to chance. It will be interesting to see what happens on the street over the next ten years. Stay tuned.

Shankill Road – This is the Road

Author: Jason Michael (@Jeggit)

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