Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Why we should all be in tears for the city we love

Thorny issue: the debate over the Union flag at City Hall resulted in violence on our streets

At the end of a bad week, it is clear that the Christmas message of peace and goodwill has not been heeded in Belfast or further afield.

A public relations disaster has resulted predictably from the numbskull decision to force a vote on the flying of the Union Jack at the City Hall. Tribalism triumphed yet again.

In a letter to this newspaper Pastor Paul Burns from the traditional loyalist stronghold of Sandy Row said he watched ‘with horror' at what transpired on Monday evening.

He noted, quite rightly, that none of the politicians who condemned the violence “said that they were sorry for lighting the fuse that brought the violence about, by the words they had uttered in the run up to the violence on Monday night”.

He said: “As a minister of the Gospel I felt like crying for the city I love so much, and for its people.”

His comments were so sad at a time when we really should be celebrating the light and joy of Christmas.

Two Church of Ireland Bishops, the Rt Rev Alan Abernethy and the Rt Rev Harold Miller, also caught the public mood when they expressed their sadness.

They said “the awfulness of the situation was heightened by the beauty of the Christmas lights and the market on the other side of the City Hall”.

Such scenes cause untold damage to our tourist image, but the people campaigning for or against the Union flag do not care about such things, and I fear that the continuing argument may drag our noble and neutral city cenotaph into the political mire.

The extremists still want a total victory, and the people who want peace utterly deplore the idiocy and cynicism of those who campaigned for a complete ban on the flag, while others wanted it to remain flying every day.

The only group to emerge with an enhanced reputation is the principled Alliance party who helped to broker a compromise and whose members have been reaping the whirlwind of hatred and violence.

Meanwhile, we are left trying to pick up the pieces at the end of a week when one of the world's most influential women, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, returned to the province where she and her husband worked so hard for peace, many years ago.

Fortunately we have made progress since then, but as Bishops Abernethy and Miller pointed out, there is still fear, bitterness and uncertainty beneath the surface of our society.

So this week was not just about dunderheads, blinkered politicians and protestors, but also about the rest of us.

Many of the middle-class wrongly dismiss the disgraceful scenes as indicative of the follies of local politicians and street thugs, but it also affects all of us because our society is still so greatly in need of healing.

I am glad that the churches, and others, continue to point out the errors of our ways, and that Bishops Abernethy and Miller have reminded us that the vast majority of people want this province to be “the kind of place where all people and traditions are respected”.

Words like these cannot be uttered often enough, until the penny finally drops with the people of both sides, as it surely must do if we are ever to have real peace at Christmas and all the year round.

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