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This piece was written in June 2002 in response to the erection of Israeli flags by some loyalists as a reaction to the display of Palestinian flags by republicans.
“If Fenians are For it—I’m against it” ...
How blinkered loyalist reaction hands propaganda victories to republicans. Two thoughts occurred to me as I sat down to write this piece. They may seem bizarre at first but hopefully by the time you've read the entire piece they should make some sort of sense.
The first was this - people in Ulster have a thing about flags. Whether this is natural or not is a moot point, but it is one of those stand-alone facts. At any given opportunity someone will design a flag, produce it and having it flying from the nearest lamppost.
The second point was this - At the moment on television there is an advert for a prestige German automobile marque, which to show how responsive it is, shows its owner having his reflexes tested and the car outside the doctor's surgery reacting to the blows from the reflex hammer.
What brings these thoughts together? I'll tell you now. Anyone who has travelled through parts of North Belfast lately will have noticed a preponderance of flags. Nothing unusual there, you might say, as flags are a sure-fire indicator of territory in North Belfast. What is different this time though is the fact that the flags are not Union Flags, Ulster Flags or Irish tricolours. They are the flags of Israel and Palestine.
I can hear you straining to find a connection with the car advert here, so I'll take away the suspense. The advert highlights reactions. One thing we're never slow to do in Ulster is react. Hence, republicans in an effort to show their solidarity with the plight of the Palestinians in the occupied territories hoist the flag of Palestine high over lamps in Ardoyne and New Lodge - Loyalists react immediately by hoisting the flag of Israel in areas across Belfast. Never mind German engineering, Ulster loyalists have better reactions. Why is this an issue?
Again, for two reasons. First is this - republicans have always played the international martyrs well. They have completely outgunned Loyalists and unionists in the propaganda stakes, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. With the hoisting of the Palestinian flag they allied themselves to a victim, and one that at the time of the erection of the flags, one that was receiving widespread support. Just as last year, with the Holy Cross issue and the spurious linking of it with the issue of school segregation in 1960's America, the republican community knew that it was on to a winner. Here, again, the loyalist reaction made sure that they would be able to do so unquestioned.
Republicans have a curious attitude to the truth, as anyone watching recent events over their handling of the Colombian affair will have noticed. They are extremely adept at telling different stories to different audiences. Hence, here we witness them be concerned about the plight of the Palestinians, the US embargo of Cuba and other issues; yet if you were to be aware of their message in the US you could be forgiven for thinking they had undergone a complete U-Turn. There are reasons for this. Some of the most prominent supporters of the Provos’ cause in the US - I'm thinking here about people like Peter King and Ben Gilman - are rabid Zionists as well as being heavily in favour of the Cuban embargo. So rather than alienate them, Sinn Féin simply don't mention the Palestinian issue or the Cuban one whilst in the States. The debacle of Gerry's on-off trip to Cuba in the immediate aftermath of the Colombian arrests was great to watch, but ultimately became a dead issue because no-one followed it up, enabling republicans to carry on with their little game of rank hypocrisy, and blatant opportunism for another while longer.
The second reason is this - loyalists are crap at looking at issues in detail before taking sides. Much of loyalist thinking can be summed up thus - 'Fenians are for it, I'm against it'. This blinkered attitude has been prevalent for a long time. A worrying aspect of it was the case in the 1980's of Unionist councillors in Armagh voting to allow a housing development on the site of Navan Fort simply because Sinn Féin and the SDLP were against it (with the notable exception of DUP councillor Douglas Hutchinson). So on the day, on which world opinion was queuing up to condemn Israel's actions in Jenin, North Belfast witnessed Israeli flags and pro-Sharon messages appearing on walls in loyalist districts. Shortsighted, naïve and also incredibly ill-informed. Once again loyalists handed a propaganda victory to republicans. Unfortunately it probably won't be the last time either. It reminds me of a line from a Billy Bragg song - Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards - in which he says - "If you've got a blacklist, I wanna be on it". Sums up loyalist media policy nicely!
A THIRD WAY FOR ULSTER
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