On Monday 3 December, Belfast City council resolved by 29 votes to 21 to remove the Union Flag from the top of City Hall on all but 15 designated days a year.
The motion, a compromise from the liberal Alliance Party, was passed in preference to a nationalist-supported proposal to remove the flag completely.
Violence ensued, with loyalists breaking into the building.
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) councillor Christopher Stalford was typical of much of the unionist response. There was “absolutely no excuse” for what happened after the vote, he said, but "those who started this debate should have known from the outset that it would stir up tension and cause division.”
The hypocrisy is astounding, given that the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the DUP jointly put out 40,000 leaflets before the vote attacking the Alliance and encouraging people to complain. Alliance Party leader Naomi Long received a death threat, and party constituency offices have been attacked.
It is legitimate for nationalist councillors to vote to remove, or limit, the flying of the Union Flag on public buildings. This principle is important and the national question is not just a “distraction” from economic concerns.
Northern Ireland was created following the partition of Ireland to ensure a unionist majority in the largest possible contiguous territory on the island, whilst simultaneously locking in a nationalist minority. State institutions are still the site of contested national identities, with unionism winning out for purely majoritarian reasons.
Removing the Union Flag is part of the removal of this vestigial, British, national privilege, without forcing a rival, Irish, national identity upon the unionist majority. Attempts by loyalists to resist, with violence, the neutralising of public space are wholly reactionary.
Much of the loyalist violence has involved paramilitary organisations, especially the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), and it is likely that the networks in and around such groups have played a role in facilitating the mobilisation of discontented loyalists.
At one rally the crowd was addressed by the fascist former BNP member and anti-abortion fanatic, Jim Dowson. The UVF-aligned Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) leader Billy Hutchinson and Ulster Defence Association (UDA) leader Jackie McDonald were also in attendance.
But the nationalist parties are guilty of double standards too. Loyalists can point to Sinn Fein and SDLP councillors in Newry voting to name a children’s play park after IRA hunger striker Raymond McCreesh.
It is not unreasonable for unionists to see the partial removal of the Union Flag as a continuation of the nationalist political project to promote an Irish identity at the expense of their own.
At a time when all the major Northern Irish political parties are involved in an Executive attacking working-class people, the labour movement in Northern Ireland urgently needs a political expression.
Trivial as they may seem, issues such as the flying of flags still have the potential to divide workers in Northern Ireland and need to be addressed with a programme which “prohibits any privileges whatsoever to any one nation and any encroachment whatsoever upon the rights of a national minority.”