Belfast Telegraph

Out-thought and outvoted, unionists need to regroup

By Alf McCreary

It is particularly important at these difficult times in the city that religious and civic leaders meet publicly and engage with each other on the basis of mutual respect."

These words from Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir were spoken just two weeks ago when he met the Church of Ireland's Bishop Alan Abernethy, and he also praised the role of St Anne's Cathedral because "its doors are open to all the citizens of Belfast".

This week he received his answer from a small number of Protestants in the Shankill Road area of Belfast when he was set upon during a visit to open a new park, at Woodvale, and had to be rescued by the PSNI, some of whose members were also injured.

It was a disgraceful example of ignorance and blind stupidity from those who should have behaved better, and a direct insult to the First Citizen of Belfast who was carrying out his duties and representing all the people of the city, including Presbyterians and other Protestants like me.

It was also a slur on the city of Belfast itself which this very week has been attracting headlines of inestimable value from the praises of a wide variety of international competitors in the World Police and Fire Games.

Those politicians and community leaders who have tried to defend the appalling behaviour in the Shankill do not have a leg to stand on.

Mairtin O Muilleoir was not representing Sinn Fein – he was representing Belfast as a whole. In recent years there has been a welcome tradition whereby the Lord Mayor of Belfast is able to rise above party politics, and it is not so long ago that the Presbyterian General Assembly welcomed not one but two Lord Mayors from the Irish republican community to its Opening Night Service when a new Moderator was installed.

If the Presbyterians can show such an example of basic good manners during one of the most important evenings in its annual calendar, they have every right to expect that others who claim to be 'Protestants' would do exactly the same.

This example was obviously lost on some people from the Shankill and also their leaders, and there is no excuse whatever for such behaviour. This point has been made already by senior DUP and UUP figures, but I doubt if it will percolate into the heads of those who are blind and deaf to the requirements of civilised citizenship.

The unionists certainly have grievances but those who try to condone such behaviour will make no impression on reasonable people who are tired of the thuggery that passes for politics in some quarters. The sad truth is that grassroots unionism has been outvoted and out-thought by its political opponents, and there is no point in its members trying to impress the outside world with mob violence, which is counter-productive to the unionist cause.

The only way to win the political battle is to regroup and to try to win the hearts and minds, and then the votes, of people who might be persuaded that the unionists have a cause and a philosophy worth supporting.

The Lord Mayor has done us a service by demonstrating that the first duty of the First Citizen is to represent all the people.

As a practising Protestant and as a citizen of Belfast I support what he is trying to do, and I am sure that the vast majority of decent Protestants and Roman Catholics feel the same way. Our Lord Mayor deserves better.

As he noted himself "Belfast got knocked down this week. But we're back up, and we will prevail." Good for him.

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