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Belfast comes apart at the seams over a flag

Pedestrians pass a union flag flying on a building on the Newtonards Road in East Belfast, Jan. 8, 2013.

Cathal Mcnaughton/Reuters

When Claire Campbell moved into a row house in East Belfast she didn't worry too much about her neighbours, even though the building sits along a divide between Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods. There were few clashes and people had more or less learned to live together, albeit separated by a giant fence that runs behind Ms. Campbell's home.

Whatever harmony had been established has evaporated. Riots have become commonplace in recent days and many of the properties along Ms. Campbell's street are strewn with rocks, golf balls and other debris. More than 100 people have been arrested in the last few weeks and police fear the return of paramilitary groups that plagued Belfast during the years of the "Troubles," the three-decade struggle in Northern Ireland between republicans and unionists.

"It's just made mayhem happen," says Ms. Campbell. A Protestant, she says Catholic neighbours have been heaving rocks at her and her children. Those on the other side of the fence blame Protestants and say Catholic homes have been targeted too.

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On one level the protest is about the very symbol of British rule in Northern Ireland: the Union Jack, and when it should be flown over the City Hall. But there are deeper issues at play here, and they reveal the changing nature of Belfast and the struggle of many working-class Protestants who feel they are being left behind and ignored by their political leaders.

It all began in early December, when a majority of Belfast city councillors voted to stop flying the British flag on City Hall every day. Instead the council, led by Catholic republicans, moved to fly it only on 18 designated days, those honouring some British or royal event. Catholics argued the flag is a divisive symbol and raising it on those 18 selected days was a fair compromise. Opponents, largely Protestant unionists, said council was going against 103 years of history and attacking the majority of the population.

It is not a simple issue. Flying flags in Northern Ireland is a passionate and complicated business and there are reams of rules stemming from the ongoing peace process about where and when they can be flown. But City Hall had operated largely unto its own, excluded from most rules and flying the British flag daily while other government offices, including the Northern Ireland legislature, restricted its use to avoid controversy.

The decision has been met with constant protests by Protestants and nightly rioting by extremists who have barricaded streets and attacked police. It has also exposed some of the new realities of Belfast. For one, Protestants are still in the majority but they no longer hold all the political and economic power.

Just look at City Hall. For the first time, republican parties hold more seats than the two main unionist parties, with the balance of power in the hands of a small unionist party that is far more liberal than the other unionists and voted for the flag restriction. There other changes afoot as well. Workplaces are much more equal, while employment levels among Catholics and Protestants is nearly the same after years of massive differences. Politically as well, the republican parties have shown far more cohesion lately than their unionist rivals which spend more their time attacking each other.

All of this has left many Protestants in hard-pressed places like East Belfast's Newtownards Road district disillusioned. "We feel as if we are second-class citizens at the moment," said one resident, Steve Baine. He noted that jobs in the area are scarce, the dropout rate is high and prospects overall are grim. Like many, he blames Protestant politicians for failing to deliver.

The Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party "are not doing anything for us," he said. "We have the UUP and the DUP fighting against each other and [republican] Sinn Fein slipping in and taking seats off them. … We've been sitting back and sitting back and letting Sinn Fein do what they want."

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The anger has become serious enough that many are turning to a new group called the Ulster People's Forum, led by William Frazer, a hard-line Protestant activist who believes the only solution to the current problems is to return Northern Ireland to direct rule from London. Mr. Frazer has no time for the unionist parties, believing they have become out of touch with the local populace.

"There is anger and frustration at our [unionist] politicians," Mr. Frazer said Wednesday as he toured homes around Newtownards Road. "They have betrayed us." His group has refused to attend a meeting of unionists on Thursday to discuss the flag issue. The meeting has been called by Northern Ireland's First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson as a way of ending the rioting. "There is no point in closing the door when the horse is gone," Mr. Frazer said.

Robin Newton, a DUP city councillor for the area, knows people feel hurt by the flag decision. But he rejected claims the party is out of touch. "People inform me that you don't represent me," he said. "First of all many of them never have voted in their lives. And many of them are members of another political party."

He also said Mr. Frazer is only hurting the community more. "There is a demand for unionists to work together but here we see another group coming in and wishing to shred further the unionist vote," he said.

For Republicans like Patsy McGlone, who sits in the legislature for the Social Democratic Labour Party, the flag protests seem silly but dangerous. Mr. McGlone has been around Northern Ireland politics for more than 30 years and he is all too familiar with the Troubles. He got a nasty reminder of the past last week when someone sent him a sympathy card that contained a 9mm bullet.

While a sad reminder of the past, Mr. McGlone said the current trouble has to be addressed by politicians on all sides. "We can ignore the [protests] and hope that they fizzle out, or we can face up to the challenge that they present us with," he said. "And that is the challenge of how do we accommodate diversity of political, cultural and even religious identities."

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Amid all the debate and protest the Union Jack actually flew on Wednesday. It turned out to be the first designated day for the flag, to mark the birthday of the Duchess of Cambridge, and during the day at least the protests stopped. But when the flag came down after dark, the protests headed back to the streets, throwing rocks, putting up barricades and shouting slogans.

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