A Note on ‘Hearts And Minds’

Contrary to the claim made by former Peace Process negotiator Liz O’Donnell in Denis O’Brien’s Irish Independent, the removal of the Union Jack does not run contrary to the essential deal in the agreement that the North remains part of the UK.

There is nothing in the United Kingdom that enjoins the continuous flying of flags from public buildings in the way as had been done outside Belfast City Hall. Most municipal buildings in the UK do not fly the flag in such a way. The intention behind the flying of the flag is to illustrate unionist hegemony in Belfast and in Northern Ireland. You do not have to belong to a particular ‘tribe’ –the word used by O’Donnell- to find this a grossly inappropriate use of public buildings, anywhere.

Liz O’Donnell’s characterisation of Northern Ireland society in terms of ‘tribes’ and ‘hearts and minds’, whilst commonplace, is indicative of a neo-colonial, racialising perspective that derives from military domination: what ‘tribe’ does she belong to?

It is one thing to criticise the removal of the flag as ill-timed or irresponsible on the grounds that it might inflame people who are deprived and confused. It is quite another to criticise its removal on the grounds that it might lead to powerful and influential political actors embarking on a calculated attempt to bring people onto the streets.

These political actors did so in order to a) distract from the fact that the policies they stand for and implement are harmful for working class people who live in so-called ‘loyalist areas’; b) distract from the fact that unionism as a political ideology grounded in sheer force of numbers –which is all it has ever been- is long past its expiry date. c) obscure the fact that the people they do represent are financiers, property developers and military and security investors, in short, those who stand to benefit from the continued imposition of neo-liberal social and economic policies on Northern Ireland –and by extension, in the Republic of Ireland too- and in the final analysis it has very little to do with religion or nationality.

There are real material conflicts operating here, not just superficial narcissistic differences. And they are apparent in the tensions between loyalist protestors and unionist grandees, among other places. But the language of the ‘tribe’ and ‘hearts and minds’ serves to gloss over those conflicts and present people as honest brokers when in reality they have a parti pris like anyone else.

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