Northern Ireland

Why the Alliance party became a target for loyalists

Loyalists erect flags on Alliance Party offices
Image caption The offices of the Alliance Party provide an easier target than those of other parties

The plan to remove the Union flag from Belfast City Hall was conceived by nationalists, yet Alliance, a party neither nationalist nor unionist, became the target for loyalist attacks.

There are a number of reasons for this.

Alliance holds the balance of power on Belfast City Council, and could have voted down the original motion to remove the flag on all days.

Instead it came up with a compromise, suggesting that the Union flag should be flown only on designated days.

This is in line with many other councils across Northern Ireland and at Stormont buildings.

The Alliance party has been enjoying electoral success of late, including in some traditionally loyalist areas - most notably in East Belfast.

At the last general election the party unseated the Democratic Unionist Party leader and Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson.

Losing ground

Naomi Long MP did so with some loyalist votes. As such, loyalists feel aggrieved, and the offices of the Alliance Party provide an easier target than those of other parties.

Many are positioned in unionist and loyalist towns, like Carrickfergus and Bangor, the scenes of last night's attacks.

The wider mood within loyalist circles is, at best, disgruntled.

Many feel that they are losing ground fast against their traditional enemy, Sinn Fein.

They complain that their parades are facing more and more restrictions in terms of where and when they can march, and what emblems they display and what tunes they can play.

Image caption Loyalists view Union flags as expressions of their culture

Parades and flags are the most important symbols to loyalists, who describe them as expressions of their culture.

The decision at City Hall follows a difficult but not explosive marching season during which there were numerous arguments and disturbances over specific parades.

Many loyalists genuinely believe that some nationalists are trying to erase their identity from Northern Ireland, and for a community that has struggled to translate its considerable support into electoral success, violence has always proved an easy option.

Loyalist leaders cannot always contain the crowds that pour onto the streets, and it often takes only a few troublemakers to start a riot.

2012 has seen the most expensive tourist marketing campaign in Northern Ireland's history.

Tomorrow the US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton will visit Stormont and the sparkling new Titanic building to discuss further American economic investment.

Little wonder the Chief Constable reminded rioters that the world is watching. Arguably no section of the community needs jobs more.