A tale of two city halls sparked the Monday madness
The City Hall riot was inexcusable. But the violence was born of a real sense of frustration in working-class loyalist areas, says Michael Copeland
As an ex-serviceman, I have the utmost respect for the flag of my nation and, for this reason, it is regrettable that today, for the first time since the construction of Belfast City Hall, our Union flag is locked away in a darkened room.
As I stood at Belfast City Hall on Monday night, I couldn't help but think of the two Belfasts being captured in one image.
At the front of the City Hall, we had the continental Christmas market, a cosmopolitan and multi-cultural scene, which is great for Belfast and for its visitors.
At the rear, we had a seriously disgruntled section of our society assembled to show frustration at the erosion of their identity.
Two Belfasts; both of them very real.
While I do not seek to defend, or justify, any violence, we must have a clear understanding of where the frustration is coming from.
In my constituency of East Belfast, I continue to witness at first hand the impact of economic recession on an already deprived section of our society.
Wages are low, costs are rising, employment is at a premium and not a day goes past when good, honest people are not losing their jobs.
This may sound bad enough, but when we consider the high suicide rates in east Belfast, combined with the pending impact of welfare reform, some people can be forgiven for seeking solace in our national identity, which is represented by the Union flag. However, by no means is this an excuse to go on a rampage at our City Hall.
Monday's unsavoury scenes were, without doubt, counter-productive.
At a time when unionism and loyalism should be seeking to convince people of their arguments, this violence only served to further polarise our beliefs and detract from the central issue.
Had the removal of the flag been the only concession recently, it may have been easier to swallow. But the fact is that unionism has conceded ground on many fronts and each issue is perceived as a 'battle' fought and a battle too often lost.
There is, whether it is politically correct to say so or not, a palpable sense of frustration and anger in many unionist and loyalist areas.
They see a constant erosion of their British identity, along with the ignorance of their culture, all the while being dressed up as 'equality' by Sinn Fein.
'Equality' to Sinn Fein, in practice, appears to mean the removal of all things British from the state of Northern Ireland.
I do believe that Sinn Fein's version of 'equality', ultimately, seems to amount to victory, a total eradication of all things British, while marching towards a united Ireland in a zero-sum game.
This is evidenced when Gerry Kelly described Monday's events as a "very good day's work".
What does this idea of 'equality' mean for unionists?
Based solely on the evidence, it means the removal of our national flag from public office, it means the restricting of unionist parades, it means that Conor Murphy (given a recent court case) won't employ you based on your Protestant religion and it means the acceptance of a children's playground in Newry being named after a convicted IRA terrorist.
Next on the agenda is a public consultation regarding the contents inside Belfast City Hall, where those contents are deemed as an attack on 'equality'.
It is a sad state of affairs, given our perilous economic situation, that nationalist and republican councillors would bring the flag motion to the table in the first place.
I believe that the debate surrounding this issue and the subsequent removal of the flag has been more detrimental to community relations than the status quo of flying the flag 365 days-a-year could ever have been.
The Alliance Party has fallen for Sinn Fein's engineered strategy.
Let us be clear: Sinn Fein brought the motion, retreated, allowed Alliance to take all the blame and then watched as unionism lashed out in an all-too-predictable manner.
Elements of unionism are mistakenly looking towards violence as a viable option.
They increasingly look toward the success of Sinn Fein and think, "If violence worked for them, why can't it work for us?"
With this sentiment in mind, there is a real belief that "the bad guys have won", given Sinn Fein's hold on Belfast City Council and its influence at the Stormont Executive.
I empathise with those unionists who feel that they have been backed into a corner.
At the same time, I encourage those same unionists to engage with the political process.
The correct way forward now is for working-class unionism to politicise itself, either by joining the ranks of a political party, or by registering and casting a vote at the next election.
Nothing changes if nothing changes.