Can Peter see the elephant outside City Hall tonight?

In a predictable development tonight, loyalist protests outside Belfast City Hall have descended into violence, with loyalists clashing with PSNI officers and Belfast City Council security staff as car windows were smashed by the marauding protesters, who had earlier failed a basic irony test when they burned an Irish Tricolour whilst protesting about the lack of respect for another National flag.

I had the misfortune of running into the assembling crowd on Royal Avenue whilst returning from an early evening Christmas shopping trip. As I passed the crowd of approximately 250 loyalists marching down Royal Avenue outside of McDonalds, I noticed one 30-something woman, sporting Linfield attire, glaring at me as I passed by. As soon as she past, she turned to her two kids -I’m assuming the two under 10s in her company were her children- and remarked loudly about ‘him’ and his ‘fu$%ing Celtic bag.’ (I’d just purchased a Celtic shirt for Santa to gift my son and the shop assistant had kindly offered to replace the ripped paper Primark bag that had contained the sum total of the shopping outing with a large one from the store- hence the reason I proved to be an easy victim for the foul-mouthed protester.) She then turned her head and shouted ‘fenian’ before scuttling across the top of Castle Street on her merry way to City Hall with the two girls by her side…

That depressing experience apart, there was a real political message to be taken from tonight’s developments for political unionism.

The decision by all shades of political unionism in Belfast to coalesce around the Save the Union Flag campaign in recent weeks is of interest for what it tells us about the limitations of unionism’s vision for the future.

Of course, this is not the first time this year that all strands of Red, White and Blue have pooled resources and sung from one hymn sheet (and that occasion told us perhaps even more on this very subject….)

It’s classic knuckle dragging stuff, befitting the political coterie that brought us the united unionist letter in support of the Famine band and, later in the year, the pan protestant Ulster Covenant celebrations, complete with brazen bandsmen openly lauded as they blasted out sectarian tunes beside a catholic church whilst one of their number urinated on St. Matthew’s Church (which news reports now have under attack again tonight from loyalists returning from City Hall. What depressing symmetry.)

The most telling aspect of the DUP/UUP leaflet which preceded tonight’s violent climax to the campaign is how it sought to position a vision of a shared future as one which reflects the identity of exclusively the unionist tradition in the deeply divided city of Belfast.

This is a theme which I have highlighted in the past to illustrate the fallacy of the argument espoused by others which articulates the view that unionism should not seek a future premised on equality with its nationalist neighbours as the foundation of a stable political future, but rather continue with the delusional assumption that catholics will embrace a future as part of the Union into perpetuity without having their cultural and political identities embedded within such a vision in a manner no unionist politician has yet to consider.

Last week, Peter Robinson used his Party Leader speech at the DUP Conference to boldly declare that a majority of catholics supported the Union, before claiming his party was serious about seeking the electoral support of such a constituency.

It is a claim he has made before and, as on that occasion, has proven rather easy to dismiss.

Last Monday, The Stephen Nolan Show interviewed Jeffrey Donaldson on the very topic of his party’s courting of catholic voters. Like his party leader, Jeffrey clearly believes catholics can- and are- being won over to the Union, though to suggest evidence remains thin on the ground would be the understatement of the year.

But let us examine the evidence before us to assess whether or not Jeffrey is actually serious at all about this initiative.

It was announced two months ago that two DUP MPs, Jeffrey Donaldson and Ian Paisley Jnr, have established a company, QUBRIC Ltd, seeking to support peace building in other conflicts across the globe. It is a ‘social company’ in the words of Jeffrey Donaldson.

And this is where it gets interesting.

According to Mr Donaldson, the profits from the business would go to “supporting projects in working-class protestant areas.”

So ingrained is the sectarian mindset within the DUP that the delicious irony of preaching peace and conflict resolution whilst seeking to ensure the benefits are excluded from the ‘other lot’ is completely lost on the DUP’s most senior representatives.

Let’s travel a little further afield, to Coleraine Borough Council, where two DUP councillors recently opposed money for a children’s playground in Kilrea on the grounds that there was an Irish Tricolour flying in the vicinity of the play park. Imagine were that criteria to apply in other areas……

Yet again, Robinson’s words have come back to bite him in the aftermath of a speech which- at least rhetorically- aimed to open new ground for unionism.

As Steve McCroskey (of Airplane fame) might have said: Looks like Peter picked the wrong week to talk up a confident, non-sectarian unionism….