Thursday, 13 December 2012
A Disgusting Attack On Democracy
When I wrote my last entry, I didn't think that a week later that I would be writing a follow up piece, on an event that was still ongoing. Is that naive? Perhaps, but maybe I thought that Northern Ireland had moved past the days of violence and thuggery to achieve goals.
The last 8 days has seen more protests over the decision of Belfast City Council to change the number of days the Union flag is displayed to 17, in accordance with the Equality Commission and the objective of delivering a Shared Future. This was not an 'attack' on anyone's identity or culture or background, this was a genuine attempt to make Belfast City Hall a neutral and shared space for both Unionists, Nationalists and neither. We have also witnessed more attacks on the offices of political parties, the attempted murder of a PSNI officer and a slew of death threats target at MLAs and Councillors from Alliance, the DUP, Sinn Fein and SDLP.
This is not the reclaiming of identity or 'peaceful protests'. In fact those who are orchestrating the violence we have seen against community representatives and Police officers are not Loyalists, nor do they represent the communities they claim to represent. Moderate Unionists and ordinary working class Protestants do not want this, they reject violence and the cowards and thugs that issue death threats from behind a keyboard or on the end of a payphone do not speak for anyone but themselves.
Illegal road blocks and the disruption of traffic on the busiest shopping period of the entire year, when Belfast is suffering 25% vacancy rates is not something I agree with, however people are angry. The failure of Unionist leaders to reach out to their working class electorate has become apparent in recent days as Mike Nesbitt and Peter Robinson try desperately, even tonight, to bring an end to the protests and restore the rule of law.
The difficulty here is selling to people the idea of shared society, without having them believe that their identity is being taken away and dissected in favour of a more sinister agenda. I am not saying that such an agenda exists, however those who perceive there to be a sustained attack on their identity and their community will react accordingly, and it is the failure of 'moderate' Unionism (And I use that phrase lightly) to allay these fears and bring these communities with them after the St Andrews Agreement.
These protests are no longer strictly about a flag, they have become an expression of anger and frustration of working class Loyalists who feel that they have been left behind by the people they chose to elect them. It is up to all political parties, irrespective of political persuasion, to ensure that their concerns are heard and that they feel that they are listened to. If we don't take this seriously, we can't expect the bitterness and the divisions to go away. They will fester and they will manifest themselves as they have done since last Monday.
We have seen in recent days the PUP make a lot of political hay by expressing their intention to engage with the protesters on a grass roots level and that they can provide leadership. The dilemma of the UUP is that while it claims to represent the working class, it has found itself unable to adequately engage with it and its leadership in recent days has been somewhat lacking. Nesbitt has become more hard line that the DUP on the issue of flags, going so far as to remove the whip from Basil McCrea over his disagreement with him on that very point. Will this push more moderate Unionists towards the Alliance party or even the NI Conservatives? By trying to appeal to hard line Loyalists Mike Nesbitt runs the risk of alienating the more liberal and progressive factions of the UUP and also be seen as doing too little too late by those Loyalists he is trying to attract.
The next few days will be crucial if there is to be an end to these protests before someone is seriously injured or killed, it's only a matter of time. What then? I dread to think.