“If working class loyalists … don’t decide to politicise and to tackle the political system then they’ll be left behind”

At the autumn PUP conference and since, Billy Hutchinson has been pleading for loyalist communities to politicise. To quote part of his speech:

If working class loyalists, protestants and unionists don’t decide to politicise and to tackle the political system, then they’ll be left behind. That is the problem with our community. We need to get it right. We need to articulate our arguments politically.

We are perceived to be sectarian bigots and we are not. We need to get the language right, and we need to challenge those people who are running us down. The media have not been kind to us. But it’s not just the media. It’s other people who are violence-setting and who blame it on loyalists. They’re a bunch of sectarian thugs and that’s what happens.

Hutchinson might be right, but not everyone is listening or believing his message.

Bringing – or summoning – bolt-cutters to the City Hall on Monday evening showed organisation and intent to break past the back gate.

On Tuesday afternoon, protesters – only some of whom left the fold and put their hoods up – blocked traffic on the Newtownards Road and significantly increased the Union Flag count around Alliance’s office. With word of the protest spreading online, Alliance staff locked up and went home early, avoiding confrontation.

A peaceful protest would have been a well-ordered one on the footpath that didn’t deny the local community access to their elected representative and the services a party can offer. Loyalists often – with justification and evidence – point to the lack of facilities in their neighbourhood.

The office closed again early on Wednesday afternoon.

Shutting down the business of a political party – in this case Alliance, but it would apply equally to any party – misunderstands Billy Hutchinson’s statement for the community to politicise. Join in the political system, not turn against it.

Denying democracy through intimidation does not make a political point.

Short notice closure of an arterial route and hampering access to a political party’s office is disruptive. And a crowd, some of who are wearing hoods and some of whom are hanging flags from your premises will not be perceived as peaceful. It’s divisive, and bullying, and undemocratic.

Tonight, protesters took to the streets in Carrickfergus to voice their concern about the flag decision in Belfast. Unfortunately for some present legitimate protest turned again to violence, directed against the PSNI, and from a breach of the peace it seems to have turned criminal with a fire started in the Alliance office.

Is it going to far to say that setting fire to a political party’s office is fascist? Certainly doesn’t feel like what soldiers of all corners of Ireland fought for 75 years ago.

Update – The home of Alliance councillors has also been attacked tonight.

Exactly who let the genie out of the bottle is surely no longer relevant. Nationalists brought the flag issue onto the table at the City Hall. Unionists made it a community issue, blamed Alliance, and then proposed the cenotaph compromise after the event rather than as part of a mature negotiation before tension escalated. But loyalist tension has overspilled to violence and it’ll be hard to stop. Politicians pointing the finger at each other will only form a circle. Perhaps all have fallen short …

On Tuesday morning I got a chance to ask Peter Robinson a few short questions as he left NICVA’s Creating a Good Economy Through Job Creation conference. Time was short so there wasn’t opportunity to drill in and challenge the First Minister’s answers, particularly when the first one ignored the violence and only addressed the politics inside the City Hall. But when he asked whether Monday night’s events would affect trade missions, he said:

It doesn’t encourage people to come into Belfast to do trade. It’s bad for everyone. It’s bad also for those of us who democratically are standing up for the flying of the flag. People causing violence, causing injury to police and others. That does not help our cause.

Unfortunately, the violent protesters (as opposed to those seeking to make a peaceful, law-abiding protest) are unlikely to see Peter Robinson as their leader. And Billy Hutchinson may not be their leader either. Newspaper editorials won’t cut it. Neither will wordy blog posts.

All party leaders standing together to say that violence can’t be allowed to stand in the way of democratic politics might be a start.

Which in the meantime leaves the PSNI as the backstop to prevent civil unrest until an outbreak of snow or common sense.

Longer term, politicians to think before they act … even if they believe someone else is at fault or someone else started it. Knockabout politics isn’t going solve the root problems that lead to tensions.

All parties need to show leadership to address the issues of community confidence, identity and esteem. Other than comments on welfare reform, I heard little at the party conferences and leaders’ speeches this autumn that sought to articulate or address working class issues in any community. Addressing inequality and inequity across council wards, communities and constituencies needs to be a 365 days a year priority and not a lip service policy when tensions are heightened.

The final speaker at the NICVA conference was the RSA’s Matthew Taylor. While at times he was dangerously close to being an outsider proposing a solution for someone else’s problem, his perspective was worth considering.

He suggested that NI needs to know what a better collective future would look like and then aim for it. We need to build a solidarity aimed at that better future and stronger than the current ‘solidarities’.