Northern Ireland

2012 review: From royalty to riots - the contrasting symbolism in Northern Ireland

The Queen and Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness shake hands in Belfast
Image caption The Queen and Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness shook hands for the first time in Belfast

Symbolism is substance when it comes to the politics of identity in Northern Ireland, and 2012 will be remembered for two acts of contrasting symbolism.

In June, the Queen visited Belfast as part of her Diamond Jubilee tour.

At Stormont, she was greeted by a crowd of flag waving admirers.

At the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, she shook hands with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

The gesture took just four seconds. But building on the Queen's historic 2011 visit to the Irish Republic, the encounter with a former IRA commander appeared to have the potential to mark a new passage in 40 years of troubled history.

Flag protests

However, six months on, the skilful diplomacy so evident in the Queen's visit appeared sorely lacking as Belfast councillors tackled another issue of symbolic importance.

Nationalists had been pushing for the removal of the union flag fluttering over Belfast City Hall all year round.

Unionists distributed thousands of leaflets in the Alliance party's distinctive yellow colour, pointing out that the cross-community party held the balance of power and inviting all those concerned to make their views known "respectfully" to Alliance offices.

When Alliance's suggested compromise of flying the union flag for just 18 designated days was passed by the council, there was nothing respectful about the reaction of the crowd of loyalists outside.

Image caption Loyalists protested at the decision to fly the union flag at Belfast City Hall only on designated days

Some forced their way into the city hall courtyard.

The disorder sparked weeks of more serious violence, which included the attempted murder of a policewoman, death threats to politicians, an arson attack on Alliance's Carrickfergus office, and the loss of millions of pounds in trade for Belfast city centre stores in the vital pre-Christmas period.

The first and deputy first ministers faced the embarrassment of explaining the disruption to visiting US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

'Motorway ambush'

Given the involvement of their own parties in the flag dispute, this was a more nuanced exercise than previous joint condemnations of dissident republican violence.

In November, all sides at Stormont condemned the shocking motorway ambush of prison officer David Black.

Many politicians attended Mr Black's funeral, but Martin McGuinness was told he was not welcome.

Dissidents were also blamed for the murder of Londonderry man Andrew Allen at his home in Buncrana, County Donegal, in February.

Over the summer a number of dissident factions announced they had come together under a joint "IRA" banner.

Image caption Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness attended the opening of the Giant's Causeway visitors' centre

The continuing violence was all the more depressing because of the contrast with advances made on other fronts.

'Impressive'

2012 saw the opening of a new visitor centre at the Giants Causeway, the successful staging of the Irish Open, the commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic and the opening of the impressive Titanic Belfast building.

The redevelopment of the former Maze jail, so often the source of acrimony, moved ahead with the appointment of a development corporation and the involvement of a renowned American architect.

Daniel Liebeskind is famous for his involvement in the plan for building on the site of New York's Ground Zero.

The executive brushed aside what might have proved an obstacle - the sunset clause on the deal by which the Alliance leader David Ford holds the justice portfolio.

The potential dissolution of the justice department on 1 May could have provoked a crisis.

Instead, the DUP and Sinn Fein cut the political knot by agreeing that Alliance would lose its other seat at the executive table, with the abolition of Stephen Farry's Employment and Learning department.

Alliance cried foul, but stayed in the coalition.

'Internal divisions'

By the end of 2012, Mr Farry was still in his job, as the other parties failed to agree on how precisely they should divide up the Stormont departmental pie.

The Ulster Unionists elected a new leader, former broadcaster Mike Nesbitt. Mr Nesbitt had the communications experience conspicuously lacking in his predecessor Tom Elliott.

Image caption Basil McCrea has had the party whip removed

But he had to wrestle with much the same problems of internal divisions.

His tenure has seen the departure of David McNarry, who joined UKIP, Lord Ken Maginnis, who made controversial comments about homosexuality and gay marriage, and the removal of the whip for Basil McCrea, who criticised his party's stance over the union flag issue.

Mr Nesbitt's rival for the leadership, John McCallister, also lost his job as deputy leader after expressing fears about the party "sleepwalking into unionist unity".

Another new appointment during 2012 saw Theresa Villiers replacing Owen Paterson as secretary of state in September.

Mr Paterson had been an enthusiastic advocate of cutting the rate of corporation tax.

But by the end of 2012, the Stormont Executive was still waiting for an answer from David Cameron on whether the tax would be devolved.

In the absence of this incentive, ministers travelled as far as China to seek investment.

Budget

However, they found themselves battling the economic tides, as demonstrated by hundreds of redundancies at the County Antrim engineering firm FG Wilson.

One Westminster policy which stirred controversy at Stormont was the reform of welfare benefits.

The DUP Minister, Nelson McCausland, won some degree of flexibility, but warned nationalists that if they delayed the reforms too long the costs to the Northern Ireland budget would ratchet up.

Over the summer and autumn, moral issues came to the fore, with the DUP MLA Lord Morrow proposing a ban on prostitution and a court over-ruling the Health Minister Edwin Poots' ban on gay couples adopting.

But the biggest furore was provoked by the decision of the Marie Stopes organisation to open a clinic offering medical abortions in central Belfast.

Pro-life campaigners protested outside the clinic and the Stormont Justice Committee considered what kind of an inquiry it might conduct.

A suggestion by the Attorney General John Larkin that he might assist by cross-examining witnesses on the committee's behalf provoked a debate over whether he was exceeding his remit.

Parade tensions

Earlier in the year, Mr Larkin had stirred controversy at Westminster when he used the ancient offence of "scandalising the court" against the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain.

The contempt of court action was settled after Mr Hain clarified his comments in which he criticised a judge.

Parades stirred tensions during the summer. A new flashpoint developed at St. Patrick's church in Belfast's Donegall Street, after footage emerged of a loyalist band playing the "Famine Song" outside the church.

Image caption Thousands of unionists took part in the Ulster Covenant parade in September

Loyalists engaged in serious rioting in north Belfast in September - however fears that the disorder would be repeated on the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant proved unfounded, after intense negotiations behind the scenes.

The covenant celebrations saw unionists come together to re-enact the signing and hundreds of loyalists take to the streets wearing period costume.

Combined with the DUP leader Peter Robinson talking up the growing attractions of the union to people across the religious divide, a commentator might have easily drawn the conclusion that unionists had discovered a new sense of confidence.

But the year ended with the union flag related disorder, raising questions about unionist alienation, the gulf between the politicians and working class communities, and whether the Stormont structures are strong enough to survive a prolonged "culture war".

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