It's little wonder parties' support is still flagging
Published 10/01/2013 | 08:00
Have the unionist parties - the UUP in particular - misread the mood of the wider unionist community?
Like rabbits caught in the headlights of the flags protest bandwagon, Messers Robinson and Nesbitt seem unable to focus on any group of potential voters apart from the Union Jack-draped faction on the streets.
And even there they don't seem to have a whole lot to offer.
The reality is that despite the level of violence, the street protesters (inflamed first by that infamous DUP/UUP leaflet and latterly by Faceless of Facebook) represent only a fraction of the unionist electorate.
And true, there may be many within that voting bloc who feel angry at the removal of the flag and who may feel disenchanted with the process in general.
But this does not actually mean they support the violence or are anything other than disgusted and dismayed by attacks on the police, the intimidation of public representatives, the menacing of young families and the mindless self-flagellating destruction of the protesters' own areas.
Most unionists I've spoken too (and they include people of quite hardline disposition) are shocked and repelled not just by what has been happening in the name of the unionist community but by the seeming inability of unionist leaders to provide a voice for their concerns. So why have they been so muted, Messers Robinson and Nesbitt?
Especially given that the message coming loudly and clearly from the protesters is that they believe neither party represents them and that come the next election there's as much chance of their voting for either party as Willie Frazer has of hoisting his Union flag over the Dail come Saturday?
Part of the party leaders' problem has to be that leaflet that helped provoke the current crisis. Having marched them up to the top of the hill, the two unionist chiefs now face the always tricky issue of how to discreetly march them down again.
Between them the best they've come up with is yet another "unionist forum" - the political equivalent of a nicotine patch in January. It may give the impression that some degree of effort is being made but it can't actually solve the problem.
For Mike Nesbitt in particular, the flags debate should have been a golden opportunity to project the UUP as something other than a cheap, value-pack version of the DUP. It was a time to highlight that flying the flag on designated days was actually British tradition, that constitutionally, nothing had changed and that the move could be argued as more respectful to the flag.
Certainly more respectful than the sight of it wrapped round the face of a rioter as he battered the side of a police Land Rover.
The UUP leader could also have pointed up the double standards of protest leaders who had previously accepted the designated days option and could have pointed out it was hardly a major victory for Sinn Fein. (It's flying today for Kate's birthday.)
Above all he could have positioned the UUP as a party of law and order, a party that backs brave police officers trying to hold the line on the streets while currently under such serious threat from dissident republicans. A party that rejects paramilitaries and would prefer to see money being used to help disadvantaged areas rather than being wasted, as it currently is, on policing riots.
The protesters, tellingly, say that neither of the two unionist leaders represent them.
So who do Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt actually speak for, then?
They've failed to give a voice to the mainstream.
They've allowed it to be drowned out by the clamour and chaos on the streets.