Northern Ireland may yet have a peaceful Christmas
Analysis:There have been mixed views about the announcement from Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson and Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt that they are convening a Unionist Forum as a hoped-for alternative to more than two weeks of street violence and protests.
David Ford, leader of the Alliance Party, whose members have suffered particular opprobrium from unionists and loyalists over the flags issue, was sceptical.
“Parties should be working on a cross-community basis not a cross-unionist basis,” he complained.
But SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell probably captured the general public feeling best: “If a wider conversation within unionism will bring an end to the illegal and violent street protests, the murder attempts and attacks on police officers, the attacks on property, the multiple death threats issued to elected representatives across the political spectrum and the massive disruption to traders and citizens, the SDLP will not stand in its way.”
It’s been quite hairy in Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland since Alliance members on Belfast City Council voted with Sinn Féin and the SDLP to restrict the number of days the British union flag flies over City Hall to 15 from 365.
Democracy had spoken but dangerous emotions were also agitated.
There was an unspoken fear that if the demonstrations and disorder continued the loyalist paramilitaries might get involved in an old familiar and lethal sectarian manner, and indeed that it all could play into the hands of dissident republicans.
So McDonnell is right; anything that will get us out of this mess and offer a possible way forward is to be welcomed. It might be too late for the hoteliers, stores and shops in Belfast that lost millions of pounds in trade because of the trouble but the expectation now is that it will give Northern Ireland a breathing space – a chance to allow people to cool down, to think of Christmas, the spirit of peace and goodwill and all that, rather than all the dangerous humbuggery just experienced.
But the Unionist Forum would need to be more than just a talking shop or, worse, an instrument to aggravate the nationalist side – and Alliance supporters – because the union flag will not fly at City Hall all year round.
On Wednesday unionists at Lisburn Council, who have a clear majority, decided there must be a review of how many days the union flag flies in Lisburn.
At the moment it is just on designated days, as is now the case in Belfast, but it could end up back on the public flag poles every day of the year.
If, as stated in its initial mission statement, the forum properly addresses issues such as flags, parading, British cultural identity in Northern Ireland and – what has been notably lacking – a strategy to deal with deprivation and educational underachievement in loyalist areas, then it would serve democracy and the community well.
It must deliver and not be like the previously DUP-mooted and still phantom bodies, the Unionist Academy and the British Cultural and Equality Unit.
Moreover, whatever the forum does must not be in contradiction of solemn pledges from Peter Robinson that he and Martin McGuinness will press ahead in 2013 with a crosscommunity strategy to tackle sectarianism and division.
We’re not out of the woods yet. There are still calls on social network sites for more protests and demonstrations this weekend.
Nonetheless, the Unionist Forum idea may be the idea to get most protesting loyalists and their unionist supporters off the streets. Belfast and Northern Ireland might yet enjoy a tolerable and even peaceful Christmas.
* Gerry Moriarty is Northern Editor