Ministers' inaction is a roadblock to peace
Published 02/02/2013 | 08:00
The trajectory of the flag protests is now clear; the momentum is gradually going out of them. First, there was agreement that they should be non-violent.
Then, at a conference last Saturday, there was agreement from the main organising body that they should no longer block roads.
It was convened by the Ulster People's Forum (UPF), one of the main bodies which speaks for the protesters.
The tactics which were agreed include white-line protests and pickets of council meetings.
Hopefully, they will also be gradually reduced, as the UPF moves on to a more political course and formulates its demands more clearly.
This is a moment when the politicians need to step in to ensure things do not flare up again.
Both Sinn Fein, which pushed the issue of flag-flying in Belfast to a decision, and the DUP, which spread alarm about it, used the issue for political advantage.
Even if they didn't intend or anticipate the chaotic outcome which ensued, both parties must shoulder a share of responsibility for the mayhem we have endured since December.
Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness need to now get their ducks in a row and show collective leadership to get us out of this crisis and reduce the damage to our international image.
Yesterday, they appeared together in Brussels to pitch for another round of European Peace money.
Up to that, Mr Robinson has avoided joint appearances, pointing out that he and Mr McGuinness had not reached full agreement on a common approach. They should hurry up and do so.
They certainly need to be able to speak with a clear, united voice on divisive issues before travelling to Washington for St Patrick's Day next month.
Capital is a coward. Investors - and tourists - will conclude that, in spite of interludes of calm, this remains an unstable region and will want to steer clear.
A clear, united front from the two leaders of the Executive is needed if we are to roll back that perception.
Events such as the World Police and Fire Games, Londonderry's UK City of Culture year and the G8 summit will attract international attention.
We need to ensure that it shows us in a good light and doesn't confirm negative stereotypes. Things could start to kick off again after Paddy's Day and, with such a bumpy start to the year, the situation will require careful management. The Mid-Ulster by-election is expected in March. If it is turned into a sectarian headcount, it will raise the temperature.
Then the marching season, which ended so badly last year, will loom large. After that, parties will start gearing up for next year's local government elections.
Eleven new councils are due to replace the current 26, raising the possibility of disputes over flag-flying policy in each new body. European elections are also held in 2014.
This really is the best moment to look ahead and sort things out, so that political differences don't spill on to the streets again.
We need an agreed approach on issues such as flags and cultural symbols, where decisions are taken on an objective basis - not totted up as tribal victories, or defeats.