I have visited this place regularly since 1978. Last week I was invited to come over again by a friend, older than me. The background was one or protests and of violent riots. Sixty-four or more police officers have been injured, many arrests have been made, while buses and cars burned and traffic was disrupted, both before and after Christmas.
All this happens in spite of the huge progress made since the Belfast Agreement of 1998. Northern Ireland is now probably better off that the Republic, with lower unemployment and better state services. It remains, however, a deeply divided society, as my friend and I both know, from experiences within our two families.
We met and listened to many different sources: ordinary but active women from Unionist/Loyalist communities, former councillors, community workers, ex-paramilitaries from both sides. They were unanimous that the present situation is very dangerous. It undermines the political progress that has led to full devolution. It threatens economic prosperity and inward investment, by damaging the improved reputation of the whole province. It harms the concensus that had been achieved about policing.
It is, however, worth noticing that the flashpoints have been confined to East Belfast (in particular two “interfaces” there) together with Newtonabbey and Carrickfergus. Two factors seem to lie behind the passions aroused by “flags and emblems”.
Demography is the first: Protestants and Unionists no longer have a majority of the adults within Belfast City. Within Northern Ireland as a whole, the political and religious balance is nearing equality.
These changes call for difficult adjustments by the former majority, who had inherited a right to dominant authority. They see the progress made by the former Nationalist/Republican minority and think, where is this going to end? By contrast the former minority are self-confident, expecting to make further gains and rejoicing in the progress they have already made in the professions, the civil and police services etc.
The second factor is related to fragmentation on the Unionist and Protestant side, which hinders positive responses to changed circumstances. There are two political parties, four different groups of ex-paramilitaries, at least three separate Loyal Orders, plus a wide variety of religious denominations. All this makes it difficult for effective and coherent leadership to emerge.
This fragmentation probably helps to explain the disconnection that appears to have grown up in recent years between the Unionist/Protestant political elite and their local populations, especially in the less affluent and more deprived neighbourhoods. The latter have a sense that they are not benefitting as they ought, while politicians do alright. Uncertain identity, frustration, alienation and great anger are therefore boiling over into violent protest and the involvement of a new generation of rioters.
What then can be done to improve things? I suggest the following:
All parties should try to understand the sense of injustice and anger being experienced by many Unionists/Protestants;
We should try to promote a new culture of common citizenship and cooperation. In particular, Protestants should start to value education as highly as Catholics have done for years. Government should develop integrated schooling and housing, wherever there is a demand for them;
Genuine independently managed community development should be focused on sectarian interfaces and on the most deprived wards on both sides. Governments should accept that this is likely to increase demands for social justice and criticisms of its policies.
The support of the whole voluntary sector together, with the churches, should be mobilized on the above areas of urgent need.
It should be recognised that the Belfast and later agreements did not identify the causes of conflict and left many issues to be resolved.