The raising of the Union Jack for a day over the City Hall (not “City Hall”, BBC) creates a welcome moment of reflection for the political parties. Looking around them, they can surely see that the protests do not have the oxygen to ignite a real crisis, as Eamonn has reported. The persistence of disorder and protest is of course damaging but recoverable. The already narrow ground of serious disaffection has been exposed as getting narrower.
Everyone understands that escalation that can lead to disaster just as the Cold War could have led to the destruction of the Earth, but the rioting does not constitute significant steps to escalate up that ladder. This becomes a risk only if an atrocity by one side or the other ignites it. Power sharing may be agonisingly slow to deliver but its survival is not in question. The unionist parties should stop indulging neurotic fears that their working class vote will collapse. The working class is bigger than this, never mind the silent majority. But also whisper it that the DUP has grown accustomed to doing without the core loyalist vote which has routinely failed to present a significant challenge. The DUP long ago ceased to be the champion of the disaffected and has become the main element of the divided political centre. They should seize their chance and champion working class interests in a different way. I can see no particular concessions to rioters other than the warning that a criminal record makes it harder to get scarce jobs.
We’re constantly told that it’s about more than the flag issue but the flag issue needs to be addressed and the “more” will follow. For too long unionists and nationalists both have equated the unionist identity with British national symbolism. This has to change to recognise the reality which is that for the first time unionists and nationalists reached accommodations with each other and with the British and Irish states in the GFA, revised at St Andrews. Parties which made that deal have repeatedly been elected into office. Now this may be boring for restless politicians and comentators but it is a well established fact that cannot be waved aside.
By flying on designated days the Union Jack in Northern Ireland is brought into line with much practice in England as the UK national flag and not a sectarian symbol. Unionists should now own the distinction and proclaim it as a useful argument out of the impasse. A certain distancing from the flag by emphasising the change of association might help them tactically. This should not inhibit slightly more magnaimous terms or ingenious solutions.
The Union Jack is the symbol of a State which embraces devolution and the right to opt out of it. The tricolour will be kept for the parlour of a republican mayor. With hindsight nationalists would have been better advised to have arranged for the Alliance party to have proposed designated days as the substantive motion rather than the amendment. That would have won them a cross community victory.
Greater unionist self confidence is needed, founded, ironically on the kind of honesty we hear from some of the clearer thinking political spokesmen of loyalism. The simple lesson is that both sides have not completely learned is that their nirvanas are not attainable and it is now a test of their good faith not to reach for them in ways that are bound to provoke the other side. They know this, most of the time, but they should not forget it. It would help too of they would explain their positions in terms designed to win at least acceptance by the other side. But above all should come realisation that nationalist gains have peaked and so have unionists losses.
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