Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Loyalist anger at equality agenda is new peace crisis

Enough is enough: Angry loyalist protesters take to the streets and many are not happy with First Minister Peter Robinson

Another weekend of total madness leaves the people of Northern Ireland in helpless despair.

Maybe now the rioters will listen to those within their own communities, such as the UDA's spokesman in east Belfast, whose simple message is: 'Wise up. Enough is enough.'

What is the point in wrecking their own neighbourhoods? What can anyone hope to gain from damaging Belfast's difficult economy as undoubtedly these riots have and threatening the very livelihoods of many decent hard-working citizens of the city?

This community having taken so many giant steps forward in the past decade, has taken a massive leap back in the past month and no one, unionist and nationalist, may escape the consequences one way or another.

If there is one lesson which has been learnt, it is that majority rule does not work at council level any more than it could at Stormont when it comes to votes on sensitive issues. When the current 26 district councils are reduced to 11, they should be made to work on the same rules of cross-community consensus as was agreed for the Assembly.

The British and Irish governments should insist on a re-drafting of existing local government legislation because it is nonsense for councils, whether nationalist or unionist-controlled, to do as they wish without regard for the feelings of others on potentially divisive issues such as the display of flags and emblems.

The leadership of unionism is facing a mighty challenge from a new generation of younger voices and faces emerging with a very different agenda for the future. Where their messages of defiance and disillusion could lead, no one can tell with any certainty.

Perhaps, the First Minister Peter Robinson and the Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt will combine effectively to put the lid on the street revolution. Perhaps, the new unionist forum will calm things down eventually.

As of now, the cork has popped out of the unionist bottle and it will extremely difficult for Messrs Robinson and Nesbitt to put it back. Fundamentally they have a problem in 2013 dealing with the protesters because their respective parties live on a different social planet.

The DUP has moved from its hard-line loyalist roots into the centre ground of well-groomed, Marks and Spencer respectability. The more it strives to consume the Ulster Unionists, the more it appears to abandon those who have now taken to the streets.

The young people on the streets are the first generation of unionists to experience the full effects of power-sharing on their cultural, economic and political future. They are the inheritors of a deal which in return for relative peace from IRA terror and a guarantee of constitutional security within the UK, spelt an end to the patronage and privilege which previous generations of Protestants enjoyed.

The noise of protest has drowned out the gains and elevated the third key element of the Good Friday agreement - the equality agenda which is registering bitterly within the most disadvantaged corners of the unionist community.

The lowering of the flag on the City Hall is merely a symbol but not the substance of the fundamental change which equality spells for those who have taken to the streets.

Young Protestants with poor academic qualifications are losing out in deprived neighbourhoods. Their culture is under pressure. Few job opportunities appear on the horizon.

The days when their parents and grandparents left school at 16 and were guaranteed trade apprenticeships will not return for today's generation. Most of the employment which is now attracted to Northern Ireland requires skills and qualifications which those carrying Union flags in protest do not possess.

In the equality agenda, they are the losers and all the more so in the depths of a world recession which has bitten hard into Northern Ireland's economy.

No matter how unpopular the austerity measures from the UK government, the Stormont Executive is handed the poisoned chalice of administering public spending cuts, fuelling further the disillusion which many unionists have about devolution.

Taking down or putting up the Union flag pales in significance against these bigger social and political challenges.

The equality agenda and the impact of the recession now pose serious difficulties for Northern Ireland and for the peace process which the London and Dublin governments ignore at their peril.

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