Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Dreary steeples of Winston Churchill still casting a shadow

Winston Churchill

It's back to the future for the first and deputy first minister of Northern Ireland today. Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness return from New York to their real world.

Their superficial smiles for the cameras in the United States must now give way to hard political bargaining home on the range at Stormont. Solutions must be found before Christmas beckons.

There is plenty of evidence to hand of big misjudgments and mistakes made across the political divide in the past year. Neither unionist nor republican positions can be excused criticism.

Firstly, there was Sinn Fein's insistence on removing the Union flag from the City Hall in Belfast without much – if any – thought for the consequences on community relations and business life of the city.

Next came the wrecking response from loyalist mobs, tearing apart their own neighbourhoods. The outside world saw a seemingly rudderless unionist ship, floundering dangerously in a sea of sectarianism.

July promised a glorious, sun-kissed Twelfth for the Orange Order. Instead, it was turned into more dark days of disorder, for which the unionist and Orange leadership must bear major responsibility.

Belfast's Sinn Fein Lord Mayor was hounded from the opening of a community park. Nationalists thought nothing last year of naming another park after a convicted IRA man. Orange bands broke the rules for respectful behaviour outside places of worship. Memories of IRA terror were revived and coat-trailed through the streets of Castlederg.

And so it continues – tit-for-tat, one side annoying the other, deepening community divisions and doing absolutely nothing for Northern Ireland's future stability.

It is hardly rocket science, but if unionists, nationalists and republicans in general want to achieve lasting peace and stability, then they will have to play by new rules of respect for one another's feelings much more than they have done to date.

This week sees the start of a hugely important debate for everyone in Northern Ireland. It is in the hands of the people and the parties of this country to determine what kind of future they want.

Does the Orange Order really want every Twelfth of July to be over-shadowed by tension and trouble? Does Sinn Fein really want to jeopardise community relations with more provocative displays and speeches, as witnessed at Castlederg?

If the Orange Order and the republican movement cannot provide satisfactory answers to these questions, then Northern Ireland faces a very unstable future and the eventual possibility of a complete breakdown in the current fragile political settlement. Is that what any of them want?

Viewed against the seismic scale of the Syria conflict, the arguments over flags, parades and the past in Northern Ireland seem of little significance.

As we watch the shocking, nightly television images of human beings, including children, gassed to death in the 21st century and realise the risks of a widening war in the Middle East, whether or not a flag is flying on Belfast City Hall for the Duchess of Cornwall's birthday pales in importance.

We all should be collectively ashamed of ourselves that the Americans have to send a senior diplomat and a team of negotiators in the midst of the Middle East crisis to determine how people should parade, fly a flag, or remember the past in this tiny corner of the world.

Northern Ireland is a paradise compared to Syria, but it is also a blip on the global landscape consumed by its own political pettiness and an unending appetite for arguing and failing to reach agreement.

The oft-quoted words of Winston Churchill (below) after the First World War spring to mind: "As the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that have been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world."

The arguments referred to by Churchill over parish boundaries in Fermanagh and Tyrone a century ago could just as readily be the disputes over parade routes today, or the display of flags and emblems.

Like the first World War, another potentially cataclysmic situation looms large in the Middle East, but still our local quarrels are unresolved.

Perhaps, as a first, persuasive step, Winston Churchill's words should be printed on the front of the agenda for talks this week as an incentive to the local participants to climb out of the trenches in which some still remain.

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