There are a host of lessons to be learned from the public disorder that plagues our streets in the aftermath of the Belfast City Council decision to fly the Union flag only on designated days. Prominent among these must surely be the lesson for political unionism that if you’re going to whip people into a frenzy over an issue, encourage them make their feelings known, focus their anger on particular groups or individuals, then you had better be able to control them or be prepared for the backlash when you can’t.
The DUP, aided and abetted by the smaller UUP grouping in Belfast, spent the weeks leading up to the flags vote issuing press releases and posting in excess of 30,000 leaflets condemning the Alliance party for their stance on designated days. They encouraged people to let the Alliance party know how they feel. Elected representatives encouraged their community:
“If you want to blame someone for the City Hall vote, blame Alliance, SDLP and Sinn Fein”
It is therefore unsurprising that when the vote didn’t go their way, as everyone knew it wouldn’t, those people who had their emotions roused, who had been told in no uncertain terms who was at fault, who had been convinced that their identity was being eroded, snapped. It’s important to stress that we’re talking about a minority here in the context of much larger numbers of protestors. But numbers will be cold comfort to the BCC security staff and police officers who were injured on Monday night. Or to the Alliance party who had their office in Carrickfergus gutted and burned. Or to Catherine and Michael Bowers who had their house paint-bombed as their 17 month old daughter lay sleeping in the next room.
What is needed now is leadership from political unionism. Leaders need to make clear to their communities that violence is unacceptable. That the thuggery and intimidation we’ve seen on our streets is not the way to achieve political change. And that suppressing the voice of others is not the way to make your own heard. And in fairness, we are beginning to see some of that leadership. I don’t always give credit to Peter Weir but he has been among the first to condemn this spate of violence. And in the last few hours Peter Robinson has called for all street protests about the flag to be suspended.
Some of the big voices of unionism remain conspicuously silent however. Especially the oft-heard voice of Nelson McCausland. Nelson has no difficulty condemning violence or criminality- as long as it comes from the nationalist community. In the 48 hours after riots in Ardoyne this summer, Nelson had written 5 blog posts about it. In the 2 weeks following, that number rose to 14 posts about the situation. These ranged from condemning individuals, commenting on LIVE court cases and criticising the media. However, in the wake of breaches of parades commission determinations (and thus the law) by bands in north Belfast this summer, Nelson found it very difficult to condemn anyone. He refused to comment on ongoing police investigations and court cases because it would be “inappropriate” (yet it was perfectly appropriate only 1 month earlier). In the aftermath of subsequent riots, Nelson didn’t write 1 solitary blog condemning the violence or even commenting on it. He did however find time to write about the SDLP motion of no confidence in him for his failure to condemn the violence. We’re now approaching 72 hours since the unacceptable scenes outside City Hall. Nelson again hasn’t blogged about the violence. He has, however, written a post about the Community relations council and their decision to support the designated days policy. Clearly the press releases of a QUANGO are much more important to Nelson than an attack on “the main municipal building in the capital city of Northern Ireland”, to use his own phraseology.
It is this double standard which does unionism an injustice. The willingness of some of its political representatives to point the finger of blame at nationalists for unacceptable violence but remain quiet when their own community perpetrates the same actions undermines the good community relations work of their colleagues. This passive acceptance of violence by a small number of unionists lends legitimacy to it as a vector for social change. Until we reach a stage where our politicians are able to respond to flagrant disregards for the rule of law in an equal fashion, regardless of community background, we will continue to fall into the pitfalls of the past.
As Nelson often quotes Bible passages in his own posts, it’s appropriate that this ends in a similar vein:
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?
Matthew 7: 1-3