Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

Shadows of the few cannot cast rest of us in darkness

PR disaster: the drive to create an image of a vibrant modern Belfast has been shattered by the actions of a disgruntled minority

Sour time, sour place. So this is how our big year ended: in a tourist coach smashed up by masked men; shops, bars and restaurants standing empty; mob rule on the streets; democracy denied.

Forget flags, it's Titanic that should become our national symbol, because we seem to be addicted to disaster. Why do our attempts to transcend our past and move forward together always seem to end in disorder and self-sabotage?

Our Time, Our Place was a well-meaning initiative that was doomed to failure. It was a PR man's plastic fantasy, based on the flawed notion that civic pride and collective identity can be imposed, manufactured, conjured up out of thin air. They can't.

A few stripy banners, a trio of globe-trotting golfers and a grandiloquent memorial to a stricken ship will certainly not be enough.

It takes shared values, shared aspirations and — most of all — shared space to start building this longed-for sense of commonality.

There have been signs of hope in the past year, it's true. But the antagonism, rage and disorder of the last couple of weeks makes the prospect of a united future — not a shared-out future — seem further off than ever.

I could weep for our capital city, rendered silent and fearful once more by the actions of a self-righteous, blinkered few.

There is something really poignant about the brightly-lit ‘B Festive’ Christmas signs hanging above empty streets and shuttered shops.

The full page adverts by gotobelfast.com, taken out in the local Press, make pitiful reading. They breathlessly announce that “there's a million reasons to believe in Christmas this year — only in Belfast! It's all here, where you want to be.”

People from around the world, watching our latest bout of self-immolation, could be forgiven for thinking that we are all completely mad.

But, as we all know — even the protesters themselves — it is a small minority that is orchestrating this chaos: somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 people. Nothing like the great uprising of the Protestant people that was promised.

A still-smaller proportion of that figure — many of them children — is involved in more serious disorder: making threats, attacking police, trying to hijack cars.

In spite of widespread public outrage at the road blockages — some of which have involved as few as 10 people — so far the PSNI has favoured a tentative approach.

One frustrated police officer summarised it perfectly: “A law-breaking minority is being facilitated at the expense of the law-abiding majority.”

In Northern Ireland, it seems that there is always a discontented minority — of one shade, or another — lurking in the wings, eager to screw life up for the rest of us.

Equally, there is always a rump of benighted politicians who stoke fear and anger for electoral gain, or engage in provocative meddling, then look the other way, whistling, when violence is unleashed and true leadership is called for.

Yes, there is a certain sick familiarity to the current chaos. What makes it so frustrating, though, is the sheer pointlessness of it all.

Loyalists protest that they are angry and they want people to hear their anger.

Yet do they think that by blocking roads, terrorising motorists and putting shopkeepers out of business they have convinced one single person of the legitimacy of their rage?

What we are seeing is not a campaign for unionist rights, but the implosion of a small hardline community. Loyalists are despised by many — and they know it. When this hatred is internalised and mixed with a sense of thwarted entitlement and race-envy, the results — as we have seen — are predictable.

This is not empowerment, it is self-destruction.

If their aim is the reinstatement of the Union flag above the City Hall, the protesters have made that less, not more, likely by their antics.

And that is the very definition of self-sabotage: when you say you want something and then act to make sure it doesn't happen.

But we have heard enough about loyalist anger for one year. They have rights, yes, but so do the rest of us. That includes the right to live in peace, unmolested by the grievances of others.

When I was at the peace gathering in Belfast last Sunday morning, one woman was carrying a placard that said ‘Live lightly'. If we could only learn how to do that, all the rest would follow.

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