All of us are only ever a stone's throw from crisis
Published 18/01/2013 | 08:00
Unionists should cut Alex Maskey, the Sinn Fein MLA, a bit of slack over his stone-throwing comments in the wake of attacks on homes in Short Strand by loyalist petrol-bombers.
Mr Maskey defended Short Strand residents, telling UTV: "What we've been hearing tonight is people from the Short Strand throwing stones back and, if they are, they're defending their homes.
"And, if I lived in the Short Strand, I'd be throwing the stones along with those people, because it's disgraceful what those people are having to put up with."
They were not exactly saintly comments. Paul Givan of the DUP was so outraged that he referred the matter to the Assembly standards committee. Yet what Mr Maskey advocated was quite probably within the law.
The Crown Prosecution Service in Britain issued guidelines entitled Householders and Use of Force Against Intruders, which do not require those fearful of attack to turn the other cheek, or even rely on the police. In this case, of course, the police have apologised for being unable to defend householders adequately.
"So long as you only do what you honestly and instinctively believe is necessary in the heat of the moment, that would be the strongest evidence of you acting lawfully and in self defence. This is still the case if you use something to hand as a weapon," the guidelines state.
That seems to cover stone-throwing. The guidelines add that: "The law does not require you to wait to be attacked before using defensive force yourself."
Edwin Poots, the DUP minister, feared attack last June when, according to a DUP statement, "unknown persons were observed on Mr Poots's property".
They weren't throwing petrol-bombs, but Mr Poots, a farmer, still felt justified in getting out his legally-held shotgun and firing it in the air to frighten them off.
He was praised by the DUP and, particularly since he has been under threat, was probably entitled to get the gun out.
Mr Maskey has also been under threat. In 1987, loyalists shot and seriously injured him during an attack on his home.
It was attacked again in 1992, when his friend Alan Lundy was shot dead while carrying out repairs on the front of the house.
Mr Maskey's wife, Liz, and her two teenage children fled in terror, while Mr Maskey was upstairs, powerless to intervene.
It is understandable that he takes a robust line on the right to defend one's home.
Yet Michael Copeland, of the UUP, seemed to be the only unionist politician capable of imagining himself in Mr Maskey's position. "I listened to the contribution from Mr Maskey last night and, if I was being honest, I would say that I understood it, because I have felt it myself," Mr Copeland said on Tuesday.
"I have felt it as stones rained into Pitt Park. I have felt it when bricks and petrol-bombs bounced off the roofs in Duke Street and Thistle Court. I have felt it in Cluan Place."
Rather than jumping to judgment and rushing to condemn, we all need to try and understand other people's positions and fears at moments of crisis.