This post was originally published here and used with kind permission

December 3rd 2013 signals the first anniversary of the restrictions placed on the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall, a decision so incredibly benign that the overblown reaction to it could only spring from a place as barking mad as Northern Ireland.

Anti-Alliance leaflets distributed by UUP/DUP - the spark that lit the flame?

It was all the fault of the Alliance Party - apparently
In the time since that day, it is hard to imagine ‘Ulster’ loyalism damaging itself any more than it already has. Over the course of 12 months, a community already bereft of leadership and direction has been reduced to the role of noisy toddler; red-faced, incomprehensibly angry and completely unrepentant. A tantrum of epic proportions, played out all year, has served to leave loyalists, once again, on the outside looking in. Winter in that caravan will be cold. Very cold.

Unable to articulate an argument about why the ‘fleg’ restrictions were so heinous, loyalists simply ignored all the obvious points in their column. That Sinn Féin had been defeated in its mission to remove this symbol of British influence on the island was irrelevant apparently. So too was the fact that Belfast was now on a par with cities as solidly British as Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and Sheffield. Even Buckingham Palace manages to survive without the flag rippling from its roof every day, a fact conveniently ignored by those throwing their toys from the pram.

No, instead rank and file loyalists went off half-cocked, as they often do. Fuelled by misinformation and manipulated by nefarious elements within their own communities, they placed faith not in reason, nor mastery of the facts, but in gut instinct and predictable levels of fevered paranoia. 

In the eyes of many, these new flag provisions represented a further step forward, not to Irish unification - something most loyalists never tire of dismissing - but towards the shared future most of us truly desire.

It is a future which those hurling rocks at the police certainly do not wish to be part of.

Castlereagh Road, Belfast
It didn’t matter that Sinn Féin’s true goal had been thwarted. They still scored political points from the subsequent loyalist meltdown, brought on by the horrifying suspicion that the taigs had got one over on them. To see any restriction on this totem of dominance in the country’s largest city was simply too much to bear.

By July, loyalism’s perpetual cycle of protesting and not surrendering was slowing, as it always does. In refusing the Orange Order (along with its paramilitary bands and swaggering followers) permission to return to Ligoniel via the Crumlin Road and the lower Ardoyne, the Parades Commission gave Loyalism 2013 a new self-pitying drum to beat.

The resulting mob violence (‘peaceful protesting’ if one wishes to be euphemistic) and predictably petulant reaction to a situation which was, at its very core, a compromise, couldn’t have have dealt more of a blow to the loyalist cause. Loyalism frequently gives off about the republican advantage in the image war and while Sinn Féin does possess skill in this regard, it is aided in no small part by its opponents being so monumentally bad at the game.

July 12th, Belfast "peaceful" protest
The farce of the Twaddell ‘civil rights’ camp is too silly to fully address but needless to say it has failed to strike a chord with anyone beyond the usual narrow collection of sympathisers. As to the cornucopia of wider, mostly imagined, loyalist political grievances the silence from the broader unionist community has been deafening. Support from those across the Irish sea - government, monarch, the man in the street - has been just as conspicuous by its absence.

Twaddell "Civil Rights" Camp
On a more human level, yet another generation of disaffected working-class Protestant youths now exists. Unemployable thanks to criminal records earned in the heat of yet another nothing-else-to-do ‘peaceful protest’, they believe more than ever that the whole system is rigged against them and in favour of the other side. It is these people who will swell the ranks of the paramilitaries orchestrating the disorder.

A cynic might suggest that this was the point all along…

Unionism does possess reasonable voices but as a whole they have been outflanked and suffocated by the ravenous extremism of those who have gained prominence since December 2012. In this vacuum, a veritable circus now holds court, if not sway. Willie Frazer has always been a pathetic figure more than anything else, a cartoon character never fully in step with the joke. He has, nevertheless, gained a second wind during the period in question, though the none of us, Willie included, have any idea of his endgame.

Wee Willie Frazer - he's not well you know
Fellow traveller Jamie Bryson - Ulster’s very own Walter Mitty - possesses far more sinister motivations, summed up best by Brian Spencer. Given Bryson’s almost comical regard for the UVF (a designated terrorist group in the UK) one shudders to think of his ideal alternative to the institutions he wishes, naively, to do away with. Those in the relative mainstream of local politics continue to cede ground to Northern Ireland’s idiot fringe and Spencer’s assertion that feeding the fanatics is far from conducive to progress is a sound one.

Jamie Bryson - The 'saviour' of Ulster?
For all the noise emanating from the Bryson end of the loyalist maw, it remains to be seen just how influential, or wide-reaching, this kind of rhetoric really is. While the established sectarianism of our electoral process is maddening on the one hand, it also equates to a shrunken voting base for each side of the toxic divide. The unionist electorate has rejected the various iterations of far-right loyalism before, tacking closer to the middle than anything else. To most in the unionist-Protestant community self-promoting whingers like Frazer, Bryson et al are an embarrassment, plain and simple, and people to whom they will be ever unresponsive.

In all honesty, it is not the wider unionist community with which loyalism need be concerned. A fissure has always existed between the two sections of the broadly Protestant populace and there is little common ground to excite either. As is clear to anyone willing to see it, moderate, middle-class unionism continues to prosper as much as it can in the current economic climate. If anything, it is the corrosive, flailing influence of madcap extremism that unionism must be wary of going forward. That said, when has this ever not been the case?

Bad puns aside, it is up to the loyalist community to arrest their slide into irrelevance if they are not at that point already. There may well come a time when they no longer count and when nobody else cares.

While usurping her law and order, and the democratic processes she has always promoted, grassroots loyalists remain blindly devoted to the Queen - or at least some sepia-tinged version of her. It is perhaps apt then to describe the past year as an ‘annus horribilis' for loyalism. Discounting the chaos that engulfed Northern Ireland for 30 years, it is difficult to see how things could have been worse.

(Originally published here and used with kind permission)