Even to their own supporters the main parties are hardly coming out of the flag disorder looking impressive. When the chips are down the smiling cross community stuff isn’t quite cutting the mustard where it matters most. Nice people pocket the gains – they might even group around a new Northern Ireland, Peter still has a point even if he puts it provocatively. But he and Martin still have to settle with their respective enemies within. The easier bit of power sharing is how to divvy up the money from the UK exchequer fairly. (Greater integration would make it go a whole lot further but that’s another story). Ideally power sharing must do more to anticipate political gut trouble and give the lie to critics who claim that true power sharing between opposites is finally impossible. Rather than put up with a legalistic and bureaucatic equality agenda imposed on them by the GFA, they need to forge a more flexible political reality out of it. Taking over parades regulation would become the acid test. Are the DUP and Sinn Fein up to the existential challenge? We see all too clearly how strong is the challenge from the extremes. What is needed now is a political focus for the much bigger centre ground which up to now opts out of politics as a hopless cause.
We can clearly see the problem of the militant tail wagging the political dog. Mainstream unionism is on the defensive in increasingly marginal areas. While the DUP has all but vanquished the UUs, it represents a unionism less monolithic than nationalism seems to have become. Primitive loyalism is well aware of a certain lack of confidence within their own side – nervous people always pay more attention to their opponents than to their own – and seek to exploit it in order to survive. City Hall politics shows nationalism on the offensive thanks to the demographic squeeze. The SDLP is now fractionally stronger than the UUs but currently presents less of a challenge to Sinn Fein than loyalism without a single Assembly seat creates for the DUP. City Hall voting confirms that there is no similar split within nationalism, at least for now. The SDLP seems reduced to a mini- me party over everything but the history.
For the Westminster election of 2015, loyalism may be fragmented and confused but it can still summon up a political punch. The Assembly elections will be more complex but in the winnner- take- all Westminster contests, Nigel could lose North Belfast if the loyalists turn on him big time and split his tight vote. Wasn’t it epically careless of Peter to lose East Belfast and wasn’t it loyalism that made the difference in putting Naomi in? How can the DUP get Naomi out and win it back next time without appeasing them? Or can middle class support for Naomi outweigh loyalist hostility after the City Hall vote?
Loyalism retains the capacity to destabilise boosted by the calendar of traditions and the challenge of an equality agenda in which they are allowed to present themselves virtually unchallenged as new victims. The Queen, the handshake the G8 summit are all big stuff over their heads. The symbolism they want is their parades and their flag. Might it be possible to give them a little more of them than nationalists might ideally want to concede, conditional on good behaviour, even when mindful of 50 plus years of the unionist supremacy? That was a different world and long ago.
What are the lessons? A new era of barely suppressed sectarian struggle? There may alternatives.
First, can’t the parties all become cannier about anticipating trouble? On the flags issue it was clear that consultations and equality impact assessments were going to produce a new point of decision over the flag. 365 days a year is objectively excessive if you regard such things as important, as all the parties do. Nationalists may have been up for a fight but they could hardly have expected total victory. Couldn’t they all have constructed an early warning system to head off the train wreck? Privately to discuss more designated days, or the too late proposal of the DUP, moved as the protestors were literally banging at the gates, to fly the flag permanently from the cenotaph? It’s all too easy for cynics to say that Sinn Fein wanted a confrontation to expose cracks in the supposed unionist monolith. If that was their firm position, private failure to reach a compromise would have exposed it beyond doubt.
The other alternative is not up to the parties but the people. It is to take the Alliance party more seriously. Uncomfortable and frightening though it has been for them, they have literally come through the fire. In the City Hall votes, the easy thing for Alliance would have been to have supported the unionists yet again.
Alliance’s potential has already been shown in Stormont with the election of David Ford as minister of justice. In the Westminster election of 2010 the special Swish Family Robinson circumstances and Naomi ‘s strong local roots brought their reward and put Alliance in.
There is a pressing need to create a small centre ground to act as a magnet for compromise . Alliance began as the party of the marginal areas but with the right candidate and circumstances, experience shows it can break through further. If the main parties still fear their historic cores, let them begin to fear Alliance.
If you really are serious about tackling sectarianism, the time has come to put the squeeze on the two big parties and vote Alliance. What else is there? The DUP might even secretly welcome the development at least outside East Belfast, as a counterweight to unruly loyalism.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London