The British flag flies outside of City Hall in Belfast, the capital of Northern… (Peter Muhly / Agence France-Presse…)
LONDON – After days of protest over its absence, the British flag flew over the Northern Irish capital of Belfast once again Wednesday, but for less than 24 hours and only then because of the newest, most glamorous addition to Britain’s royal family.
The Union Jack was raised early in the morning over Belfast’s City Hall, not far from the neighborhood where supporters of British control of Northern Ireland had gathered late Tuesday to protest the City Council’s decision to stop flying the flag every day. Demonstrators hurled rocks and other objects at police on the sixth straight night of violent rallies.
But the raising of the flag Wednesday was not a concession to the protesters. Rather, it was to mark the 31st birthday of Prince William’s wife, the duchess of Cambridge, one of more than a dozen selected occasions on which the city will fly the Union Jack. Most of the other designated flag days are also associated with the royal family.
It was the first time that the British colors were hoisted over the imposing City Hall building in downtown Belfast since councilors voted Dec. 3 to limit the flag’s appearance.
The controversial decision, fiercely opposed by loyalists to the British crown, sparked death threats against at least one city official. Protests sprang up quickly, most of them peaceful, but the past week has seen an escalation in violence that has left scores of police officers injured and more than 100 people arrested.
Authorities have blamed loyalist paramilitary groups, which agreed to lay down arms as part of a landmark 1998 peace accord, for helping to foment the unrest. Officials in Belfast and London have appealed for calm, with one central government minister accusing protesters of holding Northern Ireland “to ransom” over the issue.
But the confrontations point up the tensions and raw emotions in the province even after the official end of “the Troubles” that claimed more than 3,000 lives over decades of open conflict. Political leaders from both sides of the divide – nationalists who want to unite with Ireland and loyalists in favor of continued British rule – work together in a power-sharing government, but rigid segregation and residual hostility still prevail in many places on the ground.
The recent demonstrations and clashes with police over the flag have centered on eastern Belfast, in traditionally Protestant areas where pro-British feeling runs high.
The City Council, which is dominated by republicans, had considered taking down the Union Jack permanently but settled on a compromise last month to raise it on official flag days determined by the British government.
Somewhat confusingly, however, Belfast’s list of occasions differs from that of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing assembly. Thus, on Wednesday, the Union Jack flapped over City Hall in honor of the duchess of Cambridge, the former Kate Middleton, but not outside the assembly headquarters five miles away.
Both of those government buildings will hoist the flag Jan. 20 to mark the birthday of the countess of Wessex, Prince Edward’s wife, and also on St. Patrick’s Day, the only time that the Union Jack flies in Northern Ireland but not in the rest of Britain.
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