Belfast takes a step back
THERE WAS a dreary familiarity to the disgraceful violence in Belfast on Monday night. Optimists had thought we had put those days behind us, that the bedding in of the peace process, of a powersharing Executive, of the ideas of mutual respect and parity of esteem, meant that such violent displays of tribalism had been largely confined to the marching season. Even then, in diminishing eruptions.
Fifteen police officers, two security workers and a press photographer were injured when the mob of up to 1,000 loyalists attacked City Hall and parts of east Belfast over the perceived slight to the union flag by the city council. Later the mob attacked St Matthew’s Catholic Church in the nationalist Short Strand .
The ostensible cause of the attack was a resolution, agreed by 29 votes to 21, which would bring Belfast City Hall into line with Stormont and other government buildings in allowing the flag to be flown on 17 designated days a year, instead of the current 365. The motion was a compromise brokered by the Alliance Party on the original SDLP and Sinn Féin proposal to bring the flag down permanently from a building where it has flown continuously since it opened in 1906.
Having some years ago lost their majority on a city council that had once been emblematic of unionist rule, unionists of various hues are clinging to the vestiges of past glory days and see huge symbolism in the move. One young demonstrator insisted that “I see the removal of the flag as a first step towards the breakdown of the union”. Such hyperbole has been encouraged by unionist leaders who whipped up support for the demonstration despite the likelihood that it would go beyond the peaceful protest they say they wanted. Crocodile tears afterwards from Northern Ireland’s First Minister Peter Robinson are hardly credible.
But if the unionists should certainly have been able to predict trouble, and probably avert it, there is also an onus on nationalist politicians to minimise provocation. That they too knew they were pouring petrol on combustible material when they proposed removing the flag should have been pause for thought. Was there no better way to reach the same end? A process of dialogue, like those engaged in over controversial parades all over the North?
It hardly matters that right is on the side of those who say that Belfast is no longer a unionist city and it is now time to recognise that fact. The dynamics of politics in the North are such that we all know well that a provocation, however justified, still feeds the most sectarian instincts on the other side. Those most inclined to reach an accommodation with the other community find themselves outflanked, as even loyalist paramilitaries have been by new groups over the flag. Such polarisation serves neither the unionist parties, nor indeed the cause of constitutional nationalism.