Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Apathy rules and violence flourishes when politics fails

Double trouble: violence after a flag protest in east Belfast

No one should underestimate the threat from dissident republicans, or loyalist flag protesters, to the fragile stability of Northern Ireland in 2013.

Disaffection in a divided community looms large in this New Year and still has the capacity to undo much of what has been achieved to date.

The politicians at Stormont have their work cut out to cope with these threats, which are part of a wider challenge: how to govern a small country where virtually one-in-two people could not care less about politics and don’t bother to vote.

The last Assembly vote was 8% lower than the previous one and 15% down on the first one in 1998. These figures do not suggest that Northern Ireland is impressed by the performance of the Stormont Executive. On the contrary, disillusion appears to have grown over time.

Who are these 550,000 people? Why do they think as they do? What has turned them off the political process?

Unfortunately, the powers-that-be at Stormont continue to promise much, but deliver little. A headline in this newspaper last week aptly summed up the five-party coalition: ‘Only thing Executive seems to be sharing is ability to delay’.

The prime responsibility rests with those in charge — principally Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness and their respective parties. The other three parties cannot be absolved totally. By acquiescing blandly, they deliver a seal of approval to the lethargy around them.

Years, never mind months, pass at Stormont without agreement on key issues. Posturing is the order of the day too often. The dillying and dallying is unending. The amicable smiling faces of the First and deputy First Ministers on ceremonial occasions, such as the visit of the Queen, or Hillary Clinton, or trips to China and the United States, may impress the outside world, but are no substitute for decisive local leadership on difficult and divisive issues.

When they return to their respective offices this week, Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness need to reinvigorate a flagging (if they will forgive the pun) political process and do more to persuade a seriously disillusioned public that devolution is working effectively and efficiently.

If dissidents and loyalist mobs operated in a vacuum, they might be easier to handle. But within the context of such general apathy with Stormont, they become an even more dangerous force against stability.

People want to believe Stormont is better than direct rule, but arguments in favour of local control are not helped by images of a near-empty Assembly chamber, where MLAs don’t turn up to present questions and, above all, where legislative progress is painfully slow. The talking-shop stigma remains. Fortunately, the next Assembly election may not take place before 2016, by which time there should be far fewer MLAs, district councils and a single education authority.

However, the forthcoming by-election in Mid-Ulster is an unsettling prospect for power-sharing, given that cockpit constituency’s long history of voting along sectarian lines.

On the extreme fringes of Northern Ireland’s army of apathy are two particularly worrying blocks — dissident activists and sympathisers and loyalist protesters, whether violent or peaceful.

The dissidents fester away among the general Catholic population, heeding no one but themselves, completely divorced from political reality, trying and sometimes succeeding in killing.

Police and undercover security operations can only do so much to thwart this ongoing threat. The onus rests on republican and nationalist supporters of the peace process and Catholic community groups in general to redouble their efforts to persuade the dissidents to end their wasteful, senseless activities.

The two main unionist parties face a greater problem of disenchantment among a generation of underclass Protestants for whom 2013 holds little promise. Long gone are the days when the forbearers of today’s protesters benefited from Northern Ireland’s now-defunct industrial boom in the engineering and textile factories and shipyards.

What is there today for these people in their despairingly run-down neighbourhoods of east and north Belfast?

Just as the onus is on republicans and nationalists to engage with dissidents and not to wash their hands of the threat, so it is imperative that mainstream unionists recognise they have lost touch in tough loyalist neighbourhoods. If the principal purpose of the new unionist forum is to re-engage with these difficult areas, it should be welcomed by all.

The New Year must bring more concerted leadership from Stormont — with more interest and support from London and Dublin — otherwise the dangers of disenchantment will be even more manifest in the months to come.

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