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Wednesday, 21 June, 2000, 09:49 GMT 10:49 UK
Loyalist paramilitary flags explosion
UDA and UVF flags fly  on Tates Avenue in south Belfast
Paramilitary flags are flying in "mixed" areas
BBC News Online's Jane Bardon examines the reasons behind the proliferation of loyalist paramilitary flags around Northern Ireland.

You can't miss them - loyalist paramilitary flags fluttering on lampposts in districts, towns and villages all around Northern Ireland.

The light blue flag of the Ulster Defence Association - some marked UDA - 'simply the best', and nearby, the purple Ulster Volunteer Force flag.

Paramilitary flags vie for top position on posts
Paramilitary flags vie for top position on posts
Most Northern Ireland people, including nationalists and republicans, are used to seeing a proliferation of the 'traditional' Union Flags, red-white and blue bunting, and kerb painting in loyalist areas in the run-up to, and during, the Protestant marching season.

But this year an unprecedented rash of paramilitary flags has spread throughout the province in loyalist areas, in places where loyalist communities interface with nationalist or republicans areas and also in some moderate unionist and affluent 'mixed' areas.

'Protestant culture'

Newtownabbey councillor Tommy Kirkham's party is linked to the UDA and its cousin the Ulster Freedom Fighters, the largest loyalist organisation in the province.

He says he believes the "flags explosion" started in his borough.

The country towns and villages of south County Antrim have been pulled into Newtownabbey Borough after years of being swallowed up by Belfast city sprawling north.

Once self-contained communities have broken up as textile factories and mills closed down.

Newtownabbey UDP councillor Tommy Kirkham
Tommy Kirkham: "Opposition to flags provoked reaction"
Farmers have been moved closer to selling-up as beef, pig and lamb prices plummet. Small business owners feel the squeeze caused by new out-of-town shopping developments.

Bright young people move away to find new jobs in PR, HR, telecoms, telesales and dot.com companies.

And in between, badly planned estates like Rathcoole and Bawnmore offer little in terms of employment or entertainment.

Vandalism, drugs, underage drinking, car theft and joyriding - no-one seems to have an easy answer.

It's not surprising that it doesn't take much to spark off a sectarian row.

Tommy Kirkham says in Newtownabbey the reason was that a Sinn Fein representative stood in a by-election.

"The flag explosion happened in Newtownabbey before it happened everywhere else.

"What happened was that a lot of flags went up after the UFF issued a statement to the Newtownabbey Times (newspaper), that because of daily events and the need to promote Protestant culture in general, it was putting up 1,500 flags from Greymount to Ballymena."

Unionist criticism

Then, he said, comments by a local Ulster Unionist politician, Duncan Shipley Dalton, who was trying to win his party's parliamentary by-election nomination for South Antrim, condemning the flying of paramilitary flags sparked anger.

"The paramilitary organisations were concerned that people were prepared to take them down when they weren't worried about the (Irish) tri-colours in places like Bawnmore and Toome."

Local disputes over paramilitary emblems can be sorted out, Mr Kirkham says, quoting a case in which a UDA mural was not painted on a Housing Executive estate gable wall after the end-house resident objected.

But the anomaly is striking - many Protestants/unionists are now almost as uneasy about the paramilitary flags as republicans.

Sinn Fein education minister Martin McGuinness
McGuinness was targeted with paramilitary flags campaign
Sinn Fein education minister Martin McGuinness stoked the controversy over flags when he and his party colleague Bairbre de Brun in health, refused to allow the Union Flag to be flown from their departments on Coronation Day last month.

Taking the flag down outraged loyalists and unionists, and loyalist paramilitary flags immediately sprang up outside Mr McGuinness' department HQ in Bangor, County Down.

This led unionists to quip that the republican was "on the run again" when he announced he was also setting up an office at Stormont to save him "travelling time".

'Interface threat'

There is no doubt that paramilitary flags in interface areas are intended to intimidate, John White, a UDP representative for Shankill says.

The UDP's John White
John White: "Threat and influence"
"I think it would be an implied threat, for example, in the Limestone Road and Oldpark areas (of north Belfast) where Protestants are moving out."

But in many areas it isn't only Catholics, nationalists or republicans who feel threatened by the fluttering emblems. The whole community realises that they are the outward sign of a bitter underground power struggle between the main loyalist factions.

Despite the 1994 ceasefires a handful of murders this year, including those of former UVF commander Richard Jameson in Portadown, County Armagh, and of Martin Taylor in Ballysillan, north Belfast, have been linked by security sources to a feud between the UVF and hardline splinter-group the LVF, which threatens to involve the UFF.

John White says the flags are "an attempt by each organisation to show that they have influence in those areas".

"They want to show they have a power base. It may be an implicit sign that they haven't gone away and are a power to be reckoned with."

Complaints

Tommy Kirkham admits that his party office has received complaints from people like a man "who had a UFF flag flown outside his elderly mother's house and said she didn't want to be associated with that organisation".

And he says people with complaints should discuss them with the UDP and Progressive Unionist Party (who are linked to the UVF).

UDA mural south Belfast
Many more paramilitary murals have been painted since the ceasefires
But his reply in this case was: "What should she feel intimidated for?

"If it was just one outside her house I could understand that she might be worried about being affiliated, but they were all down the street."

Other Protestants living in unionist/mixed flagged areas say they feel uncomfortable with the change from Union Flag to UDA and UVF flags. They don't want to give their names while being interviewed.

A Protestant living on Belfast's Ravenhill Road said: "If they want to fly flags it should be the Union Jack and only on the proper days. The whole country is covered in flags because they are fighting over territory. I think it is intimidating and people are getting a sickener of it."

The nearby Markets area, he said, is "covered in green, white and gold - but you just ignore it - I think this is going too far".

'They want to stir it up'

An elderly woman, who moved to Ravenhill after her Abercorn Street home was flattened by a bomb in the 1970s, said: "Both sides are trying to stir it up and start trouble. They want to keep it going. They don't want the ones who want to live with each other in peace just get on with it."

There are still many people who are proud to fly flags outside their houses during the summer-long marching season. In areas like Shankill some houses now add their own UVF or UDA flag to the columns along the main road.

Union Jack shop, Newtownards Road, East Belfast
Many people buy flags to fly outside their own houses
"It goes out from the Whiterock (Orange parade) to the last Saturday in August every year," a woman from Glenwood Street said.

"We want to show our religion and culture and to support the marches. We don't like the re-routing."

Another Shankill resident said it doesn't make a difference to him whether it is the Union Flag or a paramilitary flag being flown.

"If they want trouble again, they can try and take them down," he said.

"The only ones ever took mine down was the army during the Troubles - I had three taken. They used to steal them for a souvenir."

On the nearby Crumlin Road, Catholic residents of Kerrerra Street say no flags should be flown by any side.

"They just create trouble. The UVF-UDA flags are more intimidating. The police won't do anything about it. They're all in conjunction."

Parades tension

John White says that although some of the paramilitary flags are put up locally, most flag hanging has been organised directly by the paramilitaries.

Belvoir Bar, Newtownards Road, east Belfast
The RUC say they cannot take action against paramilitary flag flying
"The flags cost 6-10 each. The loyalist organisations have the funds to pay for them and the equipment to put them up."

The police say their hands are tied.

With tension running high about what will happen during the marching season, in the absence of an agreement at the Drumcree parade flashpoint, and the debate about police reform threatening to undermine the peace process, the last thing they want to do is become entangled in another explosive row.

"The emergency provision says it is illegal to display an emblem as support for a proscribed organisation. But the problem is proving that whoever put a flag up is supporting the organisation," an RUC spokesman said.

"It is not an offence to put up a flag unless it is a hazard. There has never been a successful prosecution proving that someone was putting up a flag in support of a proscribed organisation. Being in possession of the flag is not enough."

He added: "It's a localised issue, depending on local circumstances at the time. A heavy-handed approach can cause a breach of the peace.

"It's a political issue. The police can't solve it on their own."

Unionist division

Local problems can sometimes be sorted out at a local level.

But overall, the flags issue has become another "touchstone" issue which political leaders can exploit in the newly re-established Northern Ireland Assembly.

DUP Regional development minister Peter Robinson
Peter Robinson said his staff would remove flags
While the paramilitaries battle for control in the community, pro and anti-Good Friday Agreement factions within unionism battle for hearts and minds.

Sinn Fein's opposition to the Union Flag was a gift to opponents of Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble's return to powersharing with republicans.

However, even hardliners have refused to condone the flying of paramilitary flags.

The comments from regional development minister Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionist Party that his department would remove all flags from areas where there were significant numbers of complaints, or where they caused a hazard, would have sparked grave concerns in Roads Service workers, had the circumstances under which he said this would happen not been so ambiguous.

'Flags or guns'

Several thousand of the blue UDA and purple UVF flags have been imported into Northern Ireland from Taiwan and thousands more are on order - at 6-10 each, substantial sums are being spent by the paramilitaries on cloth.

"It's a sign of protest. The UDP advice centre is being inundated with people who are concerned about flags, bonfires, graffiti and kerb-painting," Tommy Kirkham said.

Armed UFF men delivered new threat on Tuesday
Armed UFF men delivered new threat
"But during this time of tension, which I think will get worse, if that is all that happens I will be happy."

"The flags (in Newtownabbey) have cost in the region of 1,500 to 2,000. If it wasn't being spent on flags what do you think it would be spent on?

"They could have used it to buy weapons."

This thought would be more reassuring if the UFF had not issued a statement on Tuesday saying it "reserved the right" to "breach" its ceasefire for the first time since 1994, if any person was found attacking Protestant homes in north or west Belfast.


Analysis

Background

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See also:

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31 May 00 | Northern Ireland
Funeral of 'feud victim'
11 Jan 00 | Northern Ireland
Murder as loyalist feud boils over
28 Feb 00 | Northern Ireland
'End feud' loyalist politician appeals
02 Jun 00 | Northern Ireland
Tension over flag flying
06 Jun 00 | Northern Ireland
DUP flags motion defeated
08 Jun 00 | Northern Ireland
McGuinness denies 'retreat' claims
02 Jun 00 | Northern Ireland
Tempers flare in flags row
02 Jun 00 | Northern Ireland
Sinn Fein criticised over flag stance
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