Tuesday 18 December 2012

They Call Themselves Loyalists

On the night of Wednesday 5th December, the Bangor home of councillor Michael Bower and his wife Christine was attacked, paint was thrown and the front window smashed. Their seventeen-month-old girl was in the house at the time. What was Cllr Bower's crime? He was a member of the party, the Alliance, that had proposed the compromise deal regarding the flying of the Union Flag over City Hall in Belfast.

This was not the only attack on the Alliance Party that night, nor in the following days. Alliance Party Offices have been destroyed and death threats have been made against Alliance politicians.

The decision taken by the City Council was being assaulted with violence by a small band of thugs driven by a disdain for the democratic process.

Inflammatory leaflets and comments made by some Unionist politicians did not help. In the days and weeks that have followed, many criticised a lack of Unionist leadership.

But the actions of this small, pathetic band of trouble-makers is counter-productive in so many ways. The cause that they claim to support, union with the United Kingdom, is being undermined almost to breaking point. The rest of the UK abhors these actions; the Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers said that they were discrediting the flag they claim to support. Frankly, these so-called Loyalists are an embarrassment and a burden for the UK.

The rest of the world is watching, aghast and uncomprehending. As the vast majority of Northern Ireland struggles to heave itself out of years of trouble, a small band of hooligans are threatening to drag the province back into the cesspit of days gone by.

And while the trouble continues, tourist numbers are down. The shops and bars of Belfast's city centre are suffering at what should be a busy time of year.

Sunday's peace rally showed the disgust and contempt that the vast majority of Northern Ireland's people share for the idiocy and hooliganism of the last two weeks.

But on Monday there were further violent protests in Belfast, Lisburn, Portadown, Armagh and Carrickfergus, with roads blocked, cars hijacked and set alight, police lines attacked with bottles, bricks and stones. Shockingly, the arrests made last night included many children. Of the 16 people arrested, the average age was 18, with 9 of them between the ages of 11 and 17.

Following a protest in Carrickfergus, about five protesters entered the town hall, disrupted a meeting and threatened councillors. Police dispersed the crowd and people were able to leave the building. Alliance Party Councillor Noel Williams described it as "a full frontal attack on democracy".

As always, the continuing parlous state of the British economy undoubtedly plays its part. Unequal societies are the most unhappy societies. Many people still feel the peace process has passed them by, bringing no real benefit for themselves as individuals or for their families and this includes their own financial well-being. An ailing economy is often a factor in social unrest and the government's failure to get to grips with the country's economic plight brings with it a certain amount of blame for this latest bout of trouble.

As the year turns, Northern Ireland finds itself at a tipping point. If trouble escalates, for example with retaliation from extreme Nationalists and Republicans, the province could find itself staring into an abyss. If however, Loyalist and Unionist leaders find a way to soothe their more extreme supporters, if the economy shows signs of gradual improvement and if there is plenty of rain to keep them off the streets, there may be hope.

I wish you, more than ever, a peaceful New Year.