Anyone who thinks the bitter religious divisions in Northern Ireland were a thing of the past has yet to meet William Frazer.
Mr. Frazer, 52, is a hardline Protestant activist who is the de facto leader of the protests that have rocked Belfast for more than a month. He has become a controversial voice for disaffected Protestants who feel let down by their political leaders and believe taking to the streets is the only way their concerns will be heard. And while he officially condemns the violence against police and Catholic republicans, he makes no apologies for those who engage in it.
“I’m not going to condemn the young fellows and the young girls out on the street doing that because it’s not their fault. It’s their politicianss fault,” he said in a recent interview in East Belfast where protests have been held almost nightly since city council voted last month to stop flying the British flag every day at city hall. “You are fighting a losing battle to try and condemn violence here in Northern Ireland.”
Outwardly warm, jovial and almost unassuming, Mr. Frazer harbours deep anger toward republicans such as Sinn Fein and the IRA and he rarely minces words. This week he told local reporters he “would not condemn anybody who shot an IRA man.” Sinn Fein called the comments idiotic and added: “These are clearly the ramblings of a well-known fantasist who constantly seeks publicity by any means possible.”
It’s that fanaticism that has driven so many Protestants to Mr. Frazer lately. During his tour of East Belfast last week Mr. Frazer’s cell phone range constantly with requests for him to speak at a gathering, lead a march or go on television for an interview. His 19-year old son, Philip, tried to keep up to him, answering still more calls and arranging interviews.
Like many activists on all sides in Northern Ireland, Mr. Frazer’s views have been shaped by years of conflict. He was born near Armagh south of Belfast. His father, cousin, brother-in-law, two uncles and six close friends were all killed by the IRA and his house was blown up repeatedly. He spent years leading a victim’s rights organization. But he had become less active in recent years after the group ran into controversy over its financial management and he battled cancer. The protests have brought him back and while he insists he is not out for political gain, he plans to run in an upcoming by election for a seat in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
He’s not afraid to be divisive, to embrace Protestant paramilitaries or to condemn all politicians, including Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson.
“We have been lied to,” he said of unionist parties. “Where we are today is where we were in 1969. Only this time it’s not the nationalist community who is on about civil rights, it is the loyalist community and the Protestant community who have said, ‘we want justice.’”