Comment: NI pays price for not giving moderates voice

Protestors clash with police outside the City Hall in Belfast. Picture: PA
Protestors clash with police outside the City Hall in Belfast. Picture: PA
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Northern Ireland is paying the price, writes Peter Geoghegan, for failing to give moderates any effective voice

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Northern Ireland this week calls to mind the famous words of WB Yeats:

Union Flag waving protesters on the streets; firebombs thrown at police cars; elected representatives from the avowedly “cross-community” Alliance party forced from their homes.

But it is another iconic couplet from No Second Coming that has eerily echoed through my mind since I arrived in Belfast on Monday: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”

In cafés and once too familiar bars across the city, I have met old friends united in their despondency. “I bet you’re glad you left,” a well-known face in Belfast’s thriving arts world said as we sat sifting through the ashes of the city’s most prolonged outburst of unrest in almost a decade. Another complained that the high street store he manages lost half a day’s takings on Saturday, when a 2,000-strong loyalist protest brought the city centre to a virtual standstill.

If the secular middle classes exude an air of lethargic resignation, the opposite is the case in impoverished housing estates across Northern Ireland, especially those where kerbstones are painted red, white and blue. Many of the protests sparked by the decision to remove the Union Flag from Belfast City Hall have been small affairs, orchestrated in staunchly loyalist neighbourhoods far from town centres, but the cumulative effect has been striking. For the first time, arguably since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, and definitely since Sinn Fein and the DUP agreed to power-sharing in 2007, real questions are being asked about the future direction of Northern Ireland.

The Union Flag that, until last week, flew continuously from Belfast’s imposing, baroque revival City Hall will now fly only on 15 designated days during the year – the result of a compromise agreement between the Alliance Party, who hold the balance of power on the council, and Irish nationalists Sinn Fein and the SDLP. The flag’s removal reflects the demographic reality of Northern Ireland’s capital city. In Belfast, Catholics now form a solid majority. The days of Unionist majority rule are over, never to return.

Former SDLP leader John Hume once quipped that people cannot eat flags. But they can stir the blood of men, particularly those already whipped up by injudicious politicians. Last month, before the Belfast City Council vote, the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionists distributed 40,000 leaflets accusing Alliance of forming a pact with nationalists to take down the flag. Printed in Alliance’s trademark canary yellow, and filled with bombast, the leaflets implored unionists to, “Tell Alliance you want it (the Union Flag) to stay.”

In 2010, Northern Ireland first minister Peter Robinson lost his East Belfast Westminster seat to Naomi Long of Alliance. Long has since had to leave her home, under a loyalist death threat.

Last week, while councillors were voting to take down the flag, a crowd of loyalist protestors broke through the rear gates of Belfast City Hall and tried to force open the building’s doors. On Saturday, an even larger crowd, organised on social media, assembled outside City Hall. Men with Union Flag scarves across their faces lit an Irish Tricolour. One of the speakers was former BNP staffer, Jim Dowson. Originally from Scotland, Dowson has set himself up in Belfast.

“The question now is how do you get back to that moderate unionism and moderate nationalism, that spirit of generosity that would say, ‘that is acceptable to do, that is not?’ ” John McCallister, Ulster Unionist Party Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), said, when I met him in the devolved assembly at Stormont earlier this week. McCallister, a passionate voice for moderation, has publicly advocated the UUP pulling out of the cross-community power-sharing assembly and forming an official opposition.

The problem for McCallister and others like him is that the middle ground in Northern Irish politics is fast disappearing. In the first Assembly elections following the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the SDLP topped the poll, followed closely by the Ulster Unionists. Sinn Fein took 17 per cent of the vote. In last year’s elections, the Democratic Unionist easily cemented their position as Northern Ireland’s dominant political force. Sinn Fein finished second. As is often the case in power-sharing consosciational systems, extremist politics pays. Over the last decade and a half, the market for moderate politics in Northern Ireland has shrunk: the cross-community Alliance party commanded under 8 per cent of the vote in 2011, up just over 1 per cent on 1998.

This surfeit of moderation is evident not just on the hardwood benches at Stormont. The recent decision to name a playground in Newry after IRA hunger striker Raymond McCreesh has sparked controversy. This summer’s parading season was among the tensest in recent years. “We have had a dreadful five or six months in Northern Ireland,” said Mr McCallister.

In one sense, the recent tumult has been building for years. The Good Friday Agreement was only ever designed as a short-term fix until a more lasting answer could be found to Northern Ireland’s vexed constitutional question. The DUP-Sinn Fein carve-up of Stormont has created a huge democratic deficit, while simultaneously allowing both parties to posture to their bases on issues such as flags, emblems and the Irish language. Almost a decade and a half after the Agreement, Northern Ireland still has no agreed anti-sectarian strategy.

Meanwhile, the economic challenges mount. Most of the protesters hail from working-class Protestant communities scarred by de-industralisation and some of the lowest levels of educational attainment anywhere in the UK. They have yet to see the much vaunted “peace dividend”. With unemployment above 8 per cent and rising – contra the rest of the UK – hope for a materially better future is fading. That sectarian divisions are hardening at the same time is hardly a coincidence.

This week’s Northern Ireland census does suggest some reasons to be cheerful. Over a fifth of respondents said that they felt Northern Irish, rather than British or Irish. The emergence of a definably Northern Irish identity might offer a route out of the Manichean Orange and Green dichotomy. But, once again, the sectarian headcount dominated headlines, with Catholics now within spitting distance of Protestants, at 45 per cent and 48 per cent of the total population respectively.

The silence of David Cameron and the Conservative Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers, has been deafening. Cameron is of a generation of Tories that have little time for the “dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone”. That the Prime Minister has not travelled to Northern Ireland after over a week of social unrest speak volumes. First minister Peter Robinson has played his hand badly and fans the flames of sectarianism just weeks after telling the DUP conference that the party can attract Catholic voters.

The question now is what will happen next. More loyalist protests are planned for this week, including a demonstration in George Square, Glasgow, and Fife, if a leaked loyalist timetable is to be believed. With so much “passionate fury” in the air, the prospects for Northern Ireland’s shrinking middle ground look worryingly bleak.