Much opinion has been offered to explain what is going on with regard to the flags protests. Loyalist communities experiencing identity crises, disenfranchisement, social justice issues including education and access to power, under representation and lack of political voice have all been offered as explanations of what is going on. Ironically the ‘class divide’ that has become evident over these last weeks has not been bridged by the protests but is more likely to have been emphasized given that ordinary unionists don’t want to be associated with protest and challenge to democracy any more than they have wanted to be associated with trouble at parades over the years. Already doubt has been expressed as to the efficacy of the proposed unionist forum and if it doesn’t include thinking loyalists who can represent voices that too often are marginalized then it is unlikely to resolve matters to the benefit of those who feel most deeply the loss of the symbol from the City Hall.
Of course it is retorted that this is not a Loyalist or even a Unionist problem. There is strong feeling that this was all caused by Republicans who were intent on their equality agenda no matter what the implications for relationships and future-building. While the anger has played out at Alliance Party doors they are viewed as the people who allowed the horse to bolt, not as the people who actually spooked the horse in the first place.
Politics are part of the landscape too. Political opportunity for unionist representatives to connect back into the large number of non-voting unionists. Political opportunity for a Loyalist voice to be heard. Political opportunity for Unionism to bind itself together and strengthen its own hand.
But there are dangers abroad. It is dangerous to focus energy on resolving the flags issue without attending to the causes. It is dangerous to believe that the peace achieved is enough to hold back from violence. It is dangerous to believe that those rioting are only kids who won’t follow this through. It is dangerous to remain blind to the reality that in this time the call to battle is being heard across the board. Opinions should not deafen the realities in which we are living or to the shadow of our doppelgängers, those ghostly selves that throw their shadow across our paths from a past that we have not yet managed to divorce ourselves from or to bring to a conclusion. Those sinister shadows powerfully threaten stability and bring to mind the old feelings and emotions, the times when we were more certainly enemies and the realities of a place of familiarity in which we might feel more comfortable.
The past is not yet past and gone but a simplistic approach or an uncomplicated remembering only invites us back. Things are not black and white and when we cast each other in black and white we miss the journey we have made and we miss, perhaps more importantly, the place we had hoped we would go. A shared future in which society cohered around new vision and principles and experienced an as yet undefined integration remains as a goal which is in our gift. But somehow we have reached a place where a number of people across the unionist community believe that what is intended is obliteration and still others are suspicious that they will be consumed by the political vision of Republicans.
So perhaps it is time to make the struggle to allow opinion and reality to talk to each other in order that the shadow of the doppelgänger doesn’t overshadow a potentially better future. Analysis is needed, as well as honesty. And courage will be required to halt narrow political agendas all around and open up hearts and minds to the new politics of working with others and sharing the space. Perhaps we have not yet come to terms with the idea of sharing and we have not yet begun to work out what sharing will and can mean.
All the time the past runs around us and a more nuanced language and insight is called for in the face of stark realities. So what might a more nuanced language and insight look like? How might we begin in a way which allows us to acknowledge that we are sharing and not running on separate tracks?
Republicans are often blamed for the pursuit of the State when it comes to the crimes and misdemeanours of the past. They are accused of asking others to hold their hands up without any willingness to hold up their own hands. Yet it might be said that by this pursuit of the State they are in fact setting the State above other actors in the conflict. Making ‘their army’ sit outside the investigative process suggests that they were not in any way equivalent to the State but quite outside it.
Unionists have been sharing power but still acting like it was a concession. Every time they dig their heals in and require those on ‘the other side’ to vigorously pursue their equality agenda, they suggest that the old fault lines haven’t gone away and that ‘big house’ unionism is alive and well. They hand the equality agenda to republicans on a plate.
Republicans are responsible for the equality agenda out of which arises decisions about flags. They are blamed for holding to their agenda without regard to their neighbours. Yet Republicans modified their position on the flying of the flag at Belfast City Hall and voted to fly the British flag, including on the Queens birthday.
Unionists hold to the investigative processes that we have, the justice system, as a means to bring those who deserve it to justice. Yet they fail to find a way or push for a way for that system to bring many to justice, or at least a form of justice, in the same way that the State actors are brought to justice. They do not want to consider an alternative way of dealing with the past yet they complain that what we have allows republicans and their supporters to pursue the State.
There is a resistance to changing language and to thinking outside of the box. Yet the doppelgänger thinking allows the past to persist and suck us back into dangerous times when differences and fault lines are more clearly visible than they have been for a very long time. Undoubtedly they have always been there. It would be foolish to believe otherwise. And this is not a time for blame. It is a time for stretching sinew and imagination to will and to make a way out of the past and into a different and shared future.