Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 23 October 2014

We must not fly off handle over flag at city Cenotaph

Deja vu: the rioting has stirred up fears familiar to those felt at the height of the Troubles

There's nothing like a full-blown riot — masked youths, burning cars and flying missiles — to really make you feel the fear. It stirs up the old, familiar lurch of dread in the pit of your stomach, the kind you used to experience when you heard a bomb go off.

The sound of that low, death-dealing boom was the sound of civilisation crumbling, the advance of evil, normality denied.

In spite of the intervening years of (imperfect) peace, it doesn't take a great deal to return us to a similar state of mass anxiety.

I truly believe that, as a society, we are suffering from a collective form of post-traumatic stress disorder. It would be surprising if we weren't, after the years of bloody mayhem.

One of the hallmarks of that distressing condition is a state of hyper-vigilance, a feeling of being constantly on guard.

Then, when something happens to trigger your fear, you find yourself instantly back in the horror of the original situation, disproportionately afraid.

It doesn't have to be a dramatic occurrence to set you off. Belfast-based clinical psychologist Michael Paterson, who lost both his arms in an IRA rocket attack in 1981, told me about one former policewoman, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after attending to the dead and dying at bomb scenes.

She panicked when she caught the Christmassy scent of marzipan — because it reminded her so strongly of the strange, almond-like scent of explosives.

Trauma lives in the body, hard-wired into the brain, and I see no reason why it should not also exist in the body politic.

That's why we are so ultra-sensitive to occurrences like the loyalist riots. Yes, the violence that we have seen on the streets in recent days is abhorrent.

And, yes, we should never underestimate the potential for our political institutions to become destabilised by sectarian tensions.

But let's not clasp our heads and act as though the sky is falling in. It's not.

The disorder is highly localised. You could be two streets away and hardly know anything was going on.

The damage is done more in perception than in fact and that suits the ringleaders of these protests just fine. Getting the rest of us running scared makes the powerless and disaffected feel powerful and influential.

Yesterday's no-marks suddenly find themselves the objects of interested speculation; their absurd posturing and witless grandstanding given disproportionate attention.

What possible incentive do they have to stop?

The more disorder and panic the troublemakers can create, the more desperate politicians — who are already flailing around, wildly out of their depth — become to find a solution, any solution.

Welcome to the twilight state of Northern Ireland, where pragmatics beats principle every time. In fact, our entire political settlement is predicated upon it.

That's why we will see a concerted, and possibly successful, attempt to get the flag flying 365 days-a-year at the Belfast Garden of Remembrance.

After all, Maire Hendron, leader of the Alliance Party on the city council, which holds the balance of power there, has already described the DUP proposal as “a reasonable proposition”. It's only a matter of time.

I sympathise with Ms Hendron's unenviable position, stuck in the middle of that caterwauling zoo, but on this issue she is seriously wrong. To allow unionists to lay nakedly political, opportunistic claim to the Cenotaph — which commemorates the war dead of both communities, unionist and nationalist — would be a capitulation to crass hucksterism, as well as a profound affront to all of the names on that memorial.

They died, side-by-side, for our freedom. Are they to be treated now as nothing more than a pawn in a cynical game of political oneupmanship?

Is everything in this godforsaken country to be subject to an ugly carve-up? Can nothing stay clean and pure? No one owns the Cenotaph. Slapping a Union flag on it would not only disrespect and distort the sacrifice of the fallen; it would diminish each and every one of us.

And we cannot let our fears, real as they feel, drive us to that impoverished, ignoble position.

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