Confused and dangerous
High levels of unemployment, social deprivation and a sense of political betrayal may go some way towards explaining – but certainly do not excuse – street rioting by angry loyalists. In the past week, mobs of youths draped in union flags have burned cars and attacked members of the PSNI with rocks, bottles and other weapons. This represents a continuation of the violence that erupted before Christmas when Belfast City Council voted to restrict flag flying at city hall and has caused significant economic damage to Northern Ireland.
Loyalist paramilitary organisations have denied direct involvement. But consistent rioting could not occur within their districts without at least tacit approval. PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott has insisted that leading members of the UVF have been involved in orchestrating the violence, while First Minister Peter Robinson regards the events as politically inspired and an attempt to undermine the DUP within the loyalist community. He described the street violence as a disgrace and criminally wrong. Protesters were damaging the union and were playing into the hands of dissident groups who, he said, were trying to further their terror aims.
The confused and conflicting demands being made by spokesmen for the protesters suggest divided interests. Some want investment and community development. A group called the Ulster People’s Forum has called for a return to direct rule from Westminster and for union flags to be flown from all council buildings in Northern Ireland. The one thing they have in common is that they are outside mainstream politics.
Established political parties must bear some responsibility for these developments. Last December, Sinn Féin and SDLP councillors proposed to ban the union flag from city hall and were – predictably – accused of bad faith and treachery by the DUP and UUP. In that heightened atmosphere, the Alliance Party proposed a compromise whereby the union flag would fly for the same number of days as at Stormont. Street protests followed; Christmas trade was seriously affected and death threats made to Alliance and SDLP politicians.
The immediate task is to end the street violence. Talks involving politicians, community leaders and clergymen are making slow progress while the PSNI continues to uphold the law. More is required of politicians. Community divisions and sectarianism must be confronted if the Assembly and the Executive are to work as intended. Since the Belfast Agreement was signed, the number of “interface walls” between communities has more than doubled. Traditional divisions, ranging from education to social housing, must be addressed and the DUP and Sinn Féin will have to show leadership in that regard.