Given the enduring nature of violence and political unrest, it’s tempting to conclude it’s in our nature. And what nature doesn’t supply is made up for by nurture, as old bad habits are handed on to a new generation. I hope I haven’t done Malachi O’Doherty an injustice by extracting that as a central notion in his article in the Belfast Telegraph the other day.
Because it’s too easy. If you blame the enduring violence and political unrest on DNA and traditional habits, it removes the unrest from the need for analysis. It is, literally, mindless unrest, mindless violence.
But it’s not. The Troubles, although frequently referred to by British politicians as ‘mindless’ was nothing of the sort. The IRA knew just what they were fighting for. You might not agree with their means, you might even not agree with their end; but that they had a specific political goal is undeniable. That’s what the hunger strike of 1981 was about.
Likewise, the flag protest is sometimes dismissed as mindless. There’s indeed a temptation to do so, since for those of us old enough, it has some echoes of the civil disobedience of the 1960s: a group of people determined to demonstrate that they don't feel they are being treated equally, clashing with the police. But the differences are several.
For a start, the civil rights campaigners were led by men and women who were educated - most of them graduates, in fact. John Hume, Bernadette Devlin, Eamonn McCann - you can make up your own list. The flag protestors are notable as working-class, and certainly not educated working-class. Whereas the civil rights campaigners could draw their inspiration from similar movements in the United States and South Africa, the flag protesters would have a difficult job locating a group anywhere that is similarly flag-obsessed. The link they often establish is with British soldiers fighting and dying under the Union flag in Afghanistan and Iraq. And of course the civil rights campaigners of the 1960s knew exactly what they wanted - one person one vote, an end to housing and job discrimination. The flag protesters want the Union flag back up over Belfast City Hall 365 days a year, but they also want as many inquiries as them fenians are having, they want jobs and investment, they want their leaders to represent them, not use them. It’s not that the flag protesters don’t have any goal for their lawlessness; they actually have too many.
There’s a part of me that feels sorry for the protesters. Not because they don’t get to fly their flag 365 days a year, nor because they engage in mindless violence, which they don't; but because they have so many other legitimate grievances, rooted in poverty and lack of educational achievement, that will continue to be ignored. They’re not mindless. They’re focus-less and leaderless, and panicking in the face of inevitable change.