Bringing loyalists in from the cold
Did Northern Ireland’s politicians sleepwalk their way to this point in the peace process? Sometimes you have to wonder. For instance, the MP for East Belfast, Naomi Long, reacted to unionist anger at the removal of the union flag from Belfast City Hall by questioning how anyone could get excited over “a piece of cloth”.
One would expect the deputy leader of the Alliance Party, of all people, to have some idea of the enormous potency of symbols. You don’t have to be from Northern Ireland, or live in a post-conflict society at all, to appreciate this. Remember the significance afforded to a certain piece of music being played at Croke Park in 2007?
I don’t want to be too hard on Alliance. Its councillors on Belfast City Council, who hold the balance of power between nationalists and unionists, were placed in a very difficult position and came up with what they – and I for that matter, given the circumstances – considered to be the only possible compromise.
Nationalists wanted the flag removed altogether or, in a ludicrous pretence that joint authority exists, for it to be flown in tandem with the Tricolour. And unionists wanted the council to continue flying the flag 365 days a year.
What alternative did a cross-community party have, except try to find some middle ground by proposing that it should be flown only on designated days? It was hardly a novel suggestion. Similar policies are being operated by other Northern Ireland councils, including some under unionist control. In the wake of the decision, a leaflet portraying Alliance as the villain of the piece was distributed across east Belfast by, it is alleged, members of the DUP.
Consequently, the homes and offices of Alliance members were attacked, and death threats issued. One can only assume that the prospect of undermining Long, who took the East Belfast Westminster seat from Peter Robinson in the 2010 general election, blinded those behind the leaflet campaign to its most probable immediate consequences. Instead of demonising people in a (barely) post-conflict situation, what elected unionists should have been doing was seeking to lower tensions, not least by remaining calm themselves. They should have sought to present the flag decision in an overall Northern Ireland political and constitutional context, and warned their communities against reacting in precisely the way that was expected of them.
While they were at it, it would have done no harm to remind people that one of the stark realities of democratic politics is that decisions are often taken with which you fundamentally disagree. And, most critically, that violence – either threatened or actual – is not acceptable, whatever the perceived provocation.
It should be stressed that the vast majority of unionists do not need any of this pointed out to them. Despite unionist anger and disappointment, the flag protests have been confined to only a few parts of the North. Indeed, it has been notable that many loyalist areas have remained calm, thanks no doubt to local community leaders.
As for nationalism, the most generous interpretation is that nothing more than party rivalry had the SDLP and Sinn Féin playing to the lowest common denominator within their communities by taking a decision they both knew would enrage unionism. Surely it was coincidental that the union flag flying over Belfast City Hall suddenly became intolerable only weeks after the latest census figures confirmed, yet again, that only one-third of Northern Ireland’s Catholics want a united Ireland. How many Catholics have changed their minds about the benefits of the union since the street protests and rioting began?
Whatever the motivations of Sinn Féin and the SDLP, their playing-to-the-gallery antics hardly fitted with the unwavering devotion to peace-processing that their party leaderships so often claim. Initially, this was recognised by a substantial number of people in the Republic, if letters to newspapers, radio phone-ins and media commentary were anything to go by. “Why couldn’t they [Sinn Féin and the SDLP] just have left things be?” was a common refrain.
However, as soon as the main talking points became continuing violence and, in particular, Willie Frazer’s threat to lead a protest to Dublin, this measure of understanding appeared to all but evaporate.
Essentially, many unionists, particularly in working class areas, believe the peace process is heavily tilted in favour of nationalists. Regardless of whether or not this is true, politicians of every stripe, if they are committed to building peace, must work together to tackle this perception where it exists.
We cannot afford to have any of Northern Ireland’s communities feeling abandoned and isolated. Sleepwalking is never an option in a peace process.