Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

There’s only one winner in the tale of two cities

Lord Mayor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir
Lord Mayor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir

Think of the message it would have sent out if North Belfast DUP and other unionist elected representatives had flanked Mairtin O Muilleoir, the Lord Mayor of Belfast, as he reopened Woodvale Park on Tuesday.

We all know the message that was actually transmitted when Mr O Muilleoir was beaten up by an angry mob. “Our thanks to Belfast's 1st Citizen @newbelfast for taking time to host a US group after being attacked on civic duty. We wish him well,” tweeted the US Consulate in Belfast and it was re-tweeted 45 times the last time I looked.

Joe Biden, the US vice-president, who is predicted to be playing an increased role in Northern Ireland, will have been told about this through the State Department.

Richard Haass, who is chairing all-party talks on contentious issues in the autumn, will have heard it and competitors at the World Police and Fire Games can hardly have missed it.

Most, like the Consulate, which speaks for the State Department, will wish Mr O Muilleoir well.

In US terms, he will be seen as someone who takes risks for peace, as the American government has urged.

Locally, his chances must be boosted if he chooses to stand for Westminster, or Europe. He won't be the loser at home, or abroad.

The people of Woodvale lost — even if only a minority of thugs took part in the attack. They will be compared unfavourably with the people of nationalist west Belfast, who welcomed Gavin Robinson, the former DUP mayor, to the opening of Dunville Park alongside Mr O Muilleoir.

We know that is what actually happened, but indulge me for a moment in the ludicrous fantasy that elected representatives had instead shown solidarity across the communal divide and displayed what the writer Eoghan Harris refers to as “good authority”.

Mr Harris says that, if you see your children fighting in the street with the neighbours' children, it is good authority to call your own kids in and bad authority to weigh in behind them.

Politics are more complicated. Yet, clearly, unionist representatives would have shown good authority — not to mention statesmanship — if they had prepared the ground for the lord mayor in advance and physically protected him, if it came to that.

They and Woodvale would have won any propaganda war. A good result would have influenced the debate about how we share public spaces and whether, for instance, the Orange Order should be allowed to march past Ardoyne shops. Good authority is generally admired. It lends force to your arguments for reciprocal gestures and it is disarming in its effect. Instead, in the real world, the whole incident will contribute to a drift towards the Balkanisation of the city. The section of Ardoyne residents who want the Orange Order kept away from their area will feel validated.

They may note that William Humphrey, the DUP MLA and councillor, who spoke for all his colleagues in the Court ward, is an Orangeman.

This is a bad moment and it comes in advance of three days of disputed parades, starting tomorrow. To get through it we need politicians who can defuse communal tensions, instead of justifying them.

‘We need politicians who can defuse communal |tensions, not |justify them’

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