The collapsing scenery of NI’s politics

It’s time to stop patronizing loyalists and tell the truth.

You don’t haul down a flag in victory any more than you decommission weapons after winning a war. Trying to convince the angriest elements of the loyalist community otherwise only undermines the credibility of leaders and commentators alike.

Yet politics is not an absolutist business which is why the current chaos is absolutely daft.

Look: Some you win and… for those you’re gonna lose, there’s a way to do it gracefully while even advancing core strategic goals. Failure to understand this is a failure of leadership.

Yes, the Union Flag coming down is indicative of changing Nationalist-Unionist power dynamics that are now less favorable to unionists than at any time since the foundation of the Northern Ireland state. But losing absolute power should not be equated with powerlessness and it is the failure to recognize the difference that explains the collapsing scenery currently characterizing Unionist politics.

The appearence of tactical advances by Nationalists should not be equated – by unionists or nationalists – with a strategy for achieving an end to Northern Ireland’s place within the UK. Such a Nationalist strategy doesn’t yet exist. We know this because any serious strategy for building a united Ireland can be measured against the stability of Northern Ireland: an unstable Northern Ireland will never be welcomed into a 32 county state.

So why did Nationalists trigger a vote on an issue likely to destabilize Northern Ireland?

Consider the flag vote in the context of counter-insurgency 101: Avoid conditions where the mainstream aligns with the extremist fringe. Nationalists responded aggressively, fearfully but with formidable tactical adroitness in response to Peter Robinson’s tentative steps towards non-sectarian advocacy for the union. The flag fiasco is essentially a textbook case of counter-counter insurgency. Like an exhausted boxer who clings to his opponent for fear of an open contest breaking out, Nationalists closed down the challenge posed by embryonic non-sectarian union advocacy by inviting Unionists to revert to type.

And boy have Unionists responded. “We’ll see your panic and raise you hysteria!”

Today’s protests, like the more vicious 1996 Drumcree ‘line in the sand’ episode, may fizzle out but long-term Unionist self-sabotage shows little sign of abating because its underlying dynamic remains unresolved: Unionism lacks a post-Agreement strategy for dealing with change and challenge.

The essence of the Belfast Agreement was not a constitutional settlement so much as a settling of the terms and means by which Nationalist challenges to the constitution would be pursued.

The disgraceful, self-defeating scenes we’re living through demonstrate the point. Was the desire to remove the Union flag from city hall evidence of Nationalists’ desire to erode Northern Ireland’s position within the U.K? Yes, of course. Are attempts of this nature antithetical to the Belfast Agreement? To the contrary, challenges to Northern Ireland’s internal and external relationships conducted within the available constitutional and legal architecture is the Agreement in action.

Removing flags may seem petty. It may seem unnecessarily traumatic. It may seem to have buck all to do with building the type of stable, prosperous Northern Ireland that’s a prerequisite for even considering what a united Ireland could look like; a tedious distraction from the real business of finding all-island solutions to the challenges of day-to-day life. However desperate and provocative, such challenges are legitimate. Blocking roads and grinding Northern Ireland to a halt is not.

How unionism responds to such challenges in the years ahead may determine the fate of the union. To paraphrase Terrance O’Neil and most patronizing speech ever given by a political leader in the north, Northern Ireland is again facing a crossroads. As Gerry Lynch quite brilliantly articulated on these pages last week, the cost of prioritizing abstract British symbols above building a Northern Ireland based on modern British values could be the patience of voters the long-term presence of the Union flag depends on.

Pursuing a politics based on British values rather than British symbols would have provided unionist leaders with a proactive magnanimous opportunity to preempt the Nationalist flag challenge by proposing the common British practice of designated days. Instead, as SDLP leader Alasdair Donnell has noted in the Belfast Telegraph, we were served up “…a DUP/UUP sectarian electoral stunt carried out to unseat Naomi Long in east Belfast [that has]… been allowed to be hijacked by loyalist paramilitaries.”

Nationalists aware that Peter Robinson’s “Catholic outreach” was designed primarily with the intention of completing the detoxification of the DUP within the Protestant middle classes are likely to be satisfied at the tumult engulfing his leadership. They should take note of Gerry Lynch’s underlying sentiment. If the tyranny of petty offence-taking is all that’s on offer, people will start seeking alternative choices.