Newton Emerson: Road-blocking loyalists should heed the lessons of the flag protests

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Irish News and is a regular commentator on current affairs on radio and television.

Flag protesters block off Boucher Road and Tate's Avenue Belfast in December 2012. Picture by Justin Kernoghan
Flag protesters block off Boucher Road and Tate's Avenue Belfast in December 2012. Picture by Justin Kernoghan Flag protesters block off Boucher Road and Tate's Avenue Belfast in December 2012. Picture by Justin Kernoghan

Loyalists intend to resume disruption next week after the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh, by holding unnotified band parades and ‘pop-up protest’ road blocks.

Almost a decade after the flag protests, loyalists have once again forgotten that blocking the road is intensely aggravating to the general population and serves only to unite the public against those responsible.

The flag protests also turned the public against the police, as officers facilitated road blocks by stopping traffic for safety reasons. This enabled a handful of protesters to close down main routes for hours. Outcry at this eventually forced the PSNI to forcibly clear the roads - just the sort of confrontation loyalists want to engineer. It is a no-win situation for the police and there can be little confidence the PSNI’s current management has figured out a cunning way to avoid it.


Reports last weekend revealed Stormont had signed off £10 million for paramilitary ‘transition’ at the end of a week of loyalist rioting. Front pages implied a direct connection but in reality the money had been on its way for months, as the second three-year instalment of the executive’s Communities in Transition programme.

Anyone who wanted to speculate on a coincidence might have recalled reports last November that loyalists were offering to go straight for £5 million. That would have required a matching bung to republicans, making a nice round total of £10 million.


Arlene Foster has told an assembly committee she is fully committed to Irish language legislation as promised in New Decade, New Approach but there has to be a “realistic conversation” about whether this is deliverable before the next election, as also pledged.

This has not immediately rung alarm bells for a crisis because Michelle O’Neill, appearing at the same committee, conceded the executive can only be “as speedy as we can”. Legislation rarely takes less than two years to pass, there is only one year left to the election and Covid is still consuming most government attention.

Perhaps the best reason to realise the DUP is not deliberately dragging its feet is that it is no better for Foster to fight an election with an Irish language act ahead of her than behind. It may even be worse.


An appeal court has forced the executive to admit it will fund the Troubles pension, ending the deadlock with Westminster over who will cover the estimated £1.2 billion cost over the next 20 years. However, the debate will remain a frozen conflict as the Sinn Féin, DUP and Alliance ministers administering the scheme say they will continue to press London to contribute towards it.

This position could have been taken over a year ago, allowing payments to be issued that much sooner. Making victims wait as a negotiating tactic did not bounce the Treasury into offering one extra penny, so the cruel delay was pointless. It was also petty, as more money was always going to arrive from London over the course of 20 years.


It is extraordinary enough that the Nama witness coaching scandal has led to a criminal trial. Two former Sinn Féin members and loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson stand accused of conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office, for allegedly colluding on testimony at a 2015 assembly committee hearing. This is a stretch of a catch-all law reserved for activities that would not otherwise be an offence.

It is even more extraordinary that the Public Prosecution Service has decided the trial must be jury-free - unprecedented for a non-terrorism case in the Crown Court. The defendants have secured an adjournment while they challenge this decision. If their challenge fails, press and public will be largely free to comment during proceedings as there will be no jurors to prejudice. With such a high-profile case, this seems certain to invoke the law of unintended consequences.


Sinn Féin is being investigated by the Republic’s Data Protection Commission over a voter database it has built from the electoral register and personal details gleaned from Facebook.

The commission is likely to find the party must tell anyone who asks what information it holds on them. Everyone on the database may also need to be asked for consent to keep their records. Sinn Féin must be tempted to quote former PSNI chief constable Sir Hugh Orde, whose response to a 2005 information leak was: “everyone knows where everyone lives, frankly”.


There is more joy in heaven at one sinner that repents than at 99 righteous persons, which brings us to Sinn Féin MLA Pat Sheehan, deputy chair of Stormont’s education committee. In 2014, he told the assembly that integrated education was “a Trojan horse aimed at eroding anything associated with Irishness” and wrongly claimed integrated schools banned GAA.

This week, Sheehan said he was “bitterly disappointed” that a Catholic primary in Fermanagh has been judged too small to change to integrated status. He appealed to DUP education minister Peter Weir to review the decision.

Sheehan would be as keen on a state school changing status - he is a genuine convert to the integrated cause, telling the committee last month: “it’s long past the time when people are being educated on a segregated basis.”