Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

True leaders speak up to defend democracy

The scene on the Upper Newtownards Road beside Alliance Party east Belfast MP Naomi Long's office where a PSNI patrol car (left) was petrol bomb reportedly with officers sitting inside
The scene on the Upper Newtownards Road beside Alliance Party east Belfast MP Naomi Long's office where a PSNI patrol car (left) was petrol bomb reportedly with officers sitting inside

Unionism has blundered into an avoidable crisis and its leaders need to sort things out - and quickly.

Unionists have legitimate gripes. It is true that the SDLP and Sinn Fein stoked unionist fears by naming a play-park after a dead IRA man and that Sammy Brush of the DUP was treated shamefully in Dungannon. It is also true that the flags issues at Belfast City Council was pushed to a vote by nationalists.

There is no point blaming nationalist provocation; everyone is responsible for their own actions and reactions. These are the sort of problems which big, powerful parties - and the DUP is the biggest and most powerful - should manage politically without bringing the province to meltdown. That is what they are elected to do.

Instead of acting as parties of government, unionists initially played the role of oppositional rabble-rousers, issuing 40,000 leaflets to wind up loyalist working-class communities about the flags issues.

Issued in Alliance colours, the inflammatory leaflets made alarming claims that the Union flag was about to be "ripped down" with Alliance connivance.

There was scant attempt to set the context; to suggest that, with a nationalist majority on the council, a compromise might be required, or that legal difficulties existed.

When things got out of hand, both parties were taken by surprise and are now struggling to get the genie back in the bottle.

The news that two DUP politicians and their families have been threatened with death in a card sent to a police station is alarming.

If the threats to Jeffrey Donaldson, Edwin Poots, or Naomi Long, are ever fulfilled, that would be even more than a dreadful human tragedy. It would deprive us of able politicians and risk taking us over the abyss into tit-for-tat attacks.

This is no moment for saying that anger is natural, or for overlooking extreme behaviour; it is a time to stand together for democracy.

Anyone who plans violence against politicians of any hue must be left in no doubt that the whole Executive will support all necessary measures by the security forces to crush them.

Unionists have wavered, calling for an end to flags protests, but then participating in them.

The attitude seems to be one of "There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader." Some ducking and diving may be inevitable as they struggle to get the genie they released back in the bottle.

Michael Copeland and Sammy Douglas, who attended a protest at Alliance offices, seem to have used their influence to have it shortened to 15 minutes and carried out peacefully. Maybe that is understandable, but it won't be understandable if they allow the mob to dictate their policies.

It won't be understandable, either, if Willie Hay, the Stormont Speaker, attends loyalist protests, as he has suggested.

The Speaker, more than anyone else, should be providing a lead and not compromise that dignity for party, or sectional, considerations.

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