Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 30 October 2014

Let them eat flags while we and Naomi get on with life

The targeting of MP Naomi Long and actions of rioters is part of the sick sectarianism inherent in our body politic

It is the absence of logic in this loyalist uprising that frightens me most. Burning an Irish tricolour in the street while demanding respect for the Union flag. Making death-threats against Alliance politicians, mounting vicious attacks on their homes and offices.

And yet the flag would not be flying at all at City Hall were it not for the Alliance compromise motion. Unleashing chaos in Belfast when other unionist-controlled councils, such as Lisburn and Ballymoney, use a designated days policy. And so the loopy list goes on.

Once the restraints of reason are lost and the decisions of democracy are denied, there is the sickening feeling that anything can happen.

These days have some of the dark trepidation of Drumcree, a sense that we are rushing headlong towards a familiar abyss.

That madness only subsided following death and tragedy. The attempted murder of a police officer outside Naomi Long's constituency office heightens fears that we are on the same inexorable trajectory.

Mature, far-thinking and imaginative leadership from within unionism — not reactive, petty whataboutery and weasel attempts to shift blame — is desperately required.

Telling the bad boys to behave themselves is not sufficient. The attempt to bring the flags row to Stormont is, frankly, bonkers.

This retrograde step shows a contemptible disregard for the stability of the institutions. It also displays a heedless willingness to play Russian roulette with all our futures, including the vast majority of us who couldn't give a monkey’s about flags of any sort and simply want to get on with our lives.

Getting involved in a petulant and undignified Twitter spat, as First Minister Peter Robinson did the other night, does little to inspire confidence that the necessary leadership will be forthcoming.

Besides, there is every sign that the loyalist mobs are not listening to the mainstream unionist parties; not listening to anything except the roaring in their own heads. And that is frightening, too.

This is what happens when tribalism takes control. The re-emergence of naked sectarianism in recent days is just as dangerous as the violence and thuggery on our streets.

It is the sickness inherent in our body politic, always re-asserting itself at times of collective stress.

I saw it in action myself this week. In response to my analyses of the flags row, in this paper and other publications, I was castigated — on separate occasions — for being both a ‘closet loyalist’ and an ‘underhand republican’.

I am neither. But, for some people in this country, the urge to forcibly assign identity is overwhelming, to a pathological degree.

Criticism of one side is automatically read as sympathy for the other side and vice versa. Attempts to probe the underlying motives of one community are interpreted as blind and unquestioning support.

The dumb assumption, as ever, is that you are either with us, or against us. Against the crazy flag-burning at City Hall? Clearly pro-republican. Don't like the idea of a kids' playpark named after an IRA terrorist? Got to be pro-loyalist. There can be no in-between.

You can protest all you like that trying to understand is not the same as condoning, that you detest extremism in all its forms, but these die-hard ideologues aren't listening. They never do.

You won't change these people. Sectarianism is similar to an addiction. It is a disease that colours the way you think, motivates your behaviour and is immune to logical argument.

What's more, it is all-consuming in its voracity. John Hume famously said that you can't eat a flag, but in this country flags have the capacity to eat everything else. The economy, education, health — the stuff that really matters — gets flung to one side, while our leaders indulge their sick obsession with symbols.

For instance, the new census results — which will be mined by both sides for sectarian advantage — show that nearly one-third of children here leave school without any qualifications. But who cares about the kids when there's a flag at stake?

The great thing, though, the thing that gives me hope through this sorry Ulster Advent, is that so many people have stood up in support of the non-sectarian Alliance party and against the clamour of the tribes.

Naomi Long, in particular, has been an inspiration. Her voice — calm, courageous, insightful and formidable — is the voice of the future.

It represents sanity amid the chaos, leadership in a world of madness.

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