We have sadly seen more of the latter over the past number of weeks, with the unionist parties’ campaign helping to raise tensions on the already sensitive issue of flags through the distribution of 40,000 dubious leaflets full of misrepresentation, misinformation and inflammatory language, demonising Alliance and using the politics of fear for perceived partisan gain.
The issue of whether one group’s identity is under threat has continuously been raised since the vote was taken at Belfast City Council on December 3. However, I have yet to see any unionist recognise that for the first time Sinn Fein have voted for the Union flag to fly in Belfast. In doing so, Sinn Fein have acknowledged the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the UK and the legitimacy of the Union Flag flying here in a tangible way. They may say it was only tactical, but surely it has the power to change the conversation about flags, symbols and identity, regardless of their motivation.
This was a missed opportunity for unionism that was lost in the weeks of protests, disruption and violence. That violence is a direct attack on democracy and the rule of law, yet there were some people, including senior politicians on both sides, who even at the height of the trouble attempted to justify and rationalise what is entirely unlawful.
Such equivocation sends mixed messages to those who are challenging the rule of law about the degree to which they are justified in doing so. Whilst many protests have been peaceful, many have not and fewer still have actually been lawful, a distinction which should matter to those of us who are responsible for making law and should be equally concerned about upholding it.
While I have seen statements by the leaders of the DUP and UUP calling for these protests to stop, their party members, including elected representatives, have continued to attend protests in what is a contradictory move. While the matter of them attending with or without the support of their party leaders is an internal one for each party, surely clarity on the parties’ views on whether these protests should continue would be best achieved by their actions being consistent with their words.
My own constituency office has been the focus of a daily protest, even on Christmas Day, in a deliberate attempt to disrupt the delivery of the services I was mandated by the people of East Belfast to provide. That is anti-democratic and often intimidating for members of staff and for those who are coming to the office to seek help and advice with serious issues. It is also extremely disruptive to local businesses, risking the employment of those who live in the area. A police car guarding my office against threats was petrol bombed while an officer was still in the vehicle – a clear case of attempted murder.
Even in that context, we have also seen some politicians, whether intentionally or otherwise, undermine the police as they try to hold a line between the rule of law and chaos, with constant criticism of their role. No police service is perfect. In difficult situations an individual officer can make a mistake – that’s why we have a Police Ombudsman. However, surely our police service deserves our support as they do a difficult job in these very testing circumstances.
I find it shocking at a time when police officers and vehicles are being pelted with masonry, petrol bombs and other missiles, confronted by people armed with hatchets and hammers, and subjected to attacks which have seen around 100 officers injured, that the focus of comment from some has been criticism of the police as provocative or heavy-handed. I think most impartial observers would agree that the vast majority of officers have behaved with what could only be described as remarkable restraint. All political parties and the wider community need to give their support to the police in upholding the rule of law and protecting the wider community.
Public anger and frustration has been increasing with the continuing disruption to which people are subjected as a result of these protests and the violence. Traders have lost business, the public have had to change their social and work plans, and potential investors may have been put off from bringing jobs here which would help improve our economic situation. Businesses are calling for clear and united leadership to bring this to an end, but so far we have not seen a united response to the trouble or the underlying tensions in our community.
I recognise there are genuine social, economic and educational issues that affect not just loyalist communities but all communities across Northern Ireland. One of the reasons I got involved in politics was to address those issues. There are also fears, both real and perceived, around identity that need to be addressed if stability and peace are to be secured. They do not justify violence and the solution to them will not be found in a riot.
In dealing with those issues, it is the job of political leadership to be honest, to allay those fears where they are not justified and to address them constructively and with integrity where they are. Real leadership is certainly not about manipulating those fears and perceptions for electoral gain.
Many of the social problems facing communities are either a product of or are compounded by sectarian divisions. Effective and sustainable solutions can only come as part of a shared approach which acknowledges that disengagement, disaffection and disadvantage are not only loyalist issues but affect many nationalists as well. Whilst others have said that this is not the time to produce the Executive’s revised Cohesion, Sharing and Integration strategy, I disagree. The deep divisions in our community, the fundamental instability of a segregated society, and the increasing fragility of the peace process as core issues are left to fester, has now been laid bare for all to see. It is a sobering sight. If now is not the time to address this then when will be a better time? If this is not a priority now, when will it be?
This is not about a document filled with platitudes, a fig leaf to cover embarrassment. It has to be about the vision of what we want Northern Ireland to be and a map of how we practically move from the divided, wounded present towards the a more integrated, reconciled future.
It will need to face up to, not duck, the tough issues such as dealing with the past, parades, and flags, and set challenging targets on shared education and housing, for example. It will require all political leaders to work together to deliver shared solutions to what are shared problems rather than retreating backwards to old tribal positions. It will be about the politics of aspiration – of what we want to be as a community and how to make the necessary transformation – not the politics of fear.
Failure to get a grip of this unresolved part of the process leaves a fault line running through society, which will retain the potential to shake all that we build to its core. Not even those who still trade in the politics of fear can really want that for the future.