Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Editor's Viewpoint: Unionist Forum is cold comfort for victims of flag protests

Alliance party office which was set on fire in Carrickfergus after a protest rally over the Union flag

The unionist leaders' blueprint for tackling the flags issue has left many people feeling underwhelmed. That is not to say that it should be dismissed out of hand. Any attempt to engage those who have been causing mayhem in recent days is to be encouraged and time will tell if they will listen to reason from within their own communities.

The signs, it must be said, are not encouraging as there is a nihilistic determination among the rioters and some protesters to cause as much disruption and fear as possible and indeed to challenge the very essence of democracy with their intimidation of Alliance councillors.

The proposed Unionist Forum will also address issues such as parades, deprivation and underachievement in loyalist areas, increase voter registration and turnout in unionist areas which are in themselves no bad things, but it is a one-sided initiative. By emphasising division it disregards census returns which shows that an increasing number of people here, particularly Catholics, see themselves as Northern Irish, which on a positive reading suggests a wish to share a common identity. The old tribalism is being fudged in many people's minds, but is still uppermost in those of the politicians apparently.

But it was what was omitted from the two leaders' statement that was most disappointing. We waited in vain for them to speak fully to the thousands and thousands of people within their own communities who have not taken to the streets or caused disruption. We listened but did not hear enough words of commiseration to victims of the violence including our own reporter assaulted and robbed of his telephone or the young nurse whose car thugs tried to hijack. We also did not hear enough words of comfort for those in the hospitality industry or retailers who have seen hopes of a prosperous Christmas turned to dust.

Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt are obviously listening to those engaged in violence on the streets who, it is said, are simply venting their anger because they feel deprived, disenfranchised, under cultural attack and powerless to get their voices heard by any other means. But it would also have been nice if the two leaders had done more to tell the law-abiding - the vast bulk of the community - that they also felt their pain.

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