Last December, the Belfast City Council decided to limit the number of days the Union Jack would be flown over Belfast City Hall.
This decision sparked a firestorm of controversy, protests, and civil unrest. This discontent led to protests from loyalist and unionist groups throughout Belfast that lasted well into the New Year. The consequence of such lengthy demonstrations was a poor Christmas season for Belfast.
This year, the citizens of the city waited with bated breath for the holiday season to begin. As time drew closer to the anniversary of the flag decision, rumblings of unrest emerged once again. Of course, in democratic societies, citizens have a right to have a government that adequately represents them. Moreover, citizens are allowed to peacefully protest. Problems arise, however, when some are unable to express their dissatisfaction in a constructive way. In the case of Belfast, that means violence. The protests struggled to stay peaceful and some moved from protesting to rioting. Additionally, a few outliers resorted to bombs.
In a place like Northern Ireland, scarred by the memories of darker days, it’s important for the Christmas season, a time to think of “Peace on Earth” and “Goodwill to Men”, to be exactly that—a season of hope. Sadly, Belfast was robbed of that opportunity last year. It seemed as though this year, much to the dismay of city leaders, would be much of the same. At the end of November, a car bomb partially exploded at Victoria Square, a shopping mall in town. Fortunately, no one was harmed. Additionally, a march was planned on the anniversary of the flags decision.
Belfast wouldn’t be cowed this year. People desperately want to move past Northern Ireland’s dark and tragic past. Two more bomb incidents occurred in Belfast this season, but Christmas merrymakers were determined to get on with their lives. The Continental Market, one of the best (and my favorite) Christmas attractions in town, was forced to close temporarily last year. This year, the market enjoyed record attendance despite the tense atmosphere.
Taking cues from the rest of Belfast, I attended the market numerous times. The first time I visited was with my classmates shortly after it opened, the atmosphere was light. We all frolicked from the Medical Biology Centre at Queen’s up to the market in silly Christmas jumpers and fuzzy hats. The market is almost the torch-bearer for the Christmas Spirit in Belfast, and I loved every moment there.
After the bombing in the Cathedral Quarter, the atmosphere changed, in my opinion. It was slightly tense and worried, yet it was also defiant. As Christmas drew closer, more people than ever flocked to the market. Some may take the market’s record attendance as a sign of Belfast’s desensitization to bombings and violence, but I took it as a symbol of progress. Belfast is moving forward. And riots and bombings are no longer tolerated as a normal way of life.
I sincerely hope that marginalized parties can have their voices heard in the future. It is critical to the healing process. For this year, however, I am happy that Belfast decided to have a happier Christmas season.