Northern Ireland

Loyalist flags protest: 37 jailed amid 55,000 'incidents' says report

flags Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption Flag protests took place across Northern Ireland, including this one at Belfast City Hall

Thirty-seven people were jailed for their part in the loyalist flag protests in Northern Ireland, according to figures in a new report.

That is 10% of the total sent by police to the Public Prosecution Service.

The figures are contained in a report published on the second anniversary of the start of the protests.

Dr Paul Nolan said the average jail sentence was six months compared to an average term of four years given in the 2011 English riots.

"There were 55,000 incidents relating to the protests," said Dr Nolan, one of the authors of the report - Flag dispute: Anatomy of a protest - which was commissioned by the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin and carried out by academics at Queen's University, Belfast.

In 2012, many people within loyalist communities were angered by the decision of Belfast City Council on 3 December to restrict the number of days on which the union flag is flown at the city hall.

'Inflamed the mood'

They took to the streets to protest and some protests resulted in violence with many police officers injured.

Major flags protests took place on Saturdays from December 2012 and into the first months of the year.

The report's authors found that loyalist paramilitaries, the UDA (Ulster Defence Association) and the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force), were involved in the protests but not in "executing a plan".

The study found that one factor, more than any other, inflamed the disorder.

"There is no doubt that the 40,000 leaflets distributed by the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) and the UUP (Ulster Unionist Party) had a catalytic effect in the run-up to the city hall vote," the report states.

"It was this, more than anything else, which inflamed the mood at that point."

Image copyright DUP/UUP
Image caption Weeks before the in 2012 flag vote, the DUP and UUP distributed thousands of leaflets across Belfast which the report's authors said "inflamed" the flag protesters

The authors had full access to police records of events from December 2012 and interviewed 60 protesters.

The report states that the loyalist community is now looking inwards rather than outwards in efforts to improve community relations.

"The loyalist community is now more concerned with internal healing than with any engagement with the nationalist community," it states.

"We have a found a striking lack of interest in the concerns of the nationalist neighbour, or any willingness to concede that nationalism has also had to make compromises during the peace process."

'Identity'

It is a point backed up by regular protester Wayne Gilmour.

He told the BBC: "The concentration now has to be on single identity work until they are comfortable enough within themselves to feel secure in their identity and their political standing."

Mr Gilmour has attended almost every protest at Belfast City Hall.

Asked if he thought the flag would ever again be flown daily at city hall, he replied: "I have no crystal ball, but I would like to think at some point in the future, it will."

Politicians are also criticised in the report which states: "Some political parties, rather than modelling good relations, act to encourage mutual hostilities.

"They must do more than simply express grievances; instead they must work to find solutions."

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