Getting people to step back is key to resolution
Belfast’s incendiary situation is not within the control of unionist leaders
There’s a dangerous incoherence about what is happening on the streets of Belfast and in other areas of Northern Ireland and neither unionist leaders nor anyone else has got a grip of the situation.
The loyalist protesters took a break over Christmas, which permitted a peaceful holiday, but when the New Year kicked in were back demonstrating again. It’s been particularly bad over recent days with the PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott moved yesterday to warn that not only are the disturbances causing social disorder but are potentially playing into the hands of dissident republicans.
It was almost a given that Willie Frazer, formerly of Families Acting for Innocent Relatives and Love Ulster, would throw himself into the volatile mix by threatening to bring three busloads of loyal- ists to Dublin to urge that the Tricolour be lowered from Leinster House.
Flags and emblems – they just haven’t gone away, you know.
One middle-class unionist caller to BBC Radio Ulster’s Stephen Nolan Show yesterday attempted with some success to catch why the flags issue has so infuriated loyalists and has also upset many mainstream middle-class unionists.
“This is not an evenhanded peace process,” he said. It wasn’t just causing anger in loyalist areas but was penetrating the leafier unionist suburbs, he added.
“This is felt throughout the golf clubs,” he said. “I challenge anybody to tell me what is working in the peace process for the British. There’s not an inquiry worth a damn for them, nothing for Bloody Friday, nothing for people who’ve being shot – 2,000 people by the IRA . . . if you have an evenhanded peace process this goes away; if you have it one-sided, no matter what side, you are in trouble.”
William, the caller, might also have referred to how members of the Ulster Volunteer Force are orchestrating some of the protests and trouble, but nonetheless he was reflecting an exploitable negative emotion and mood that has afflicted many loyalists and some unionists.
On the other hand, many nationalists make the point that Northern Ireland is changing and this is demonstrated by the census figures which, whatever about political allegiance, illustrate that the orange and green tribes are close in number.
They want unionist leaders to tell their voters a few home truths such as the fact that Belfast is no longer a unionist city and that is why the British union flag is now flying on only 15 or so days a year instead of 365 as heretofore.
Nationalist politicians argue that while Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom the changing demography must be reflected in changing symbolism.
There are degrees of logic on both sides but the problem is that on the streets it is too late for logic. Getting people to step back is key. First Minister Peter Robinson and Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt met yesterday to discuss the Unionist Forum that they announced before Christmas.
It was established to address issues such as flags, parading, British cultural identity in Northern Ireland and deprivation and educational underachievement in loyalist areas. The situation remains incendiary and unpredictable but if the forum could provide an alternative channel to allow that loyalist sense of disaffection and grievance – some of it real, some not – to be peacefully and coherently directed it would serve a useful purpose.