Mike Nesbitt stated the obvious, but, as in the case of the little boy who said the emperor had no clothes, that can be a brave and even visionary thing to do.
Peter Robinson, the DUP leader, should avoid any temptation to score a political point against him. Telling the truth and facing reality is the first step to finding a solution.
Mr Nesbitt advised the street protesters to lower their expectations. He warned them that no amount of protest will get the Union flag flying on Belfast City Hall 365 days a year. He added that, even though he didn’t agree with it, the vote was a democratic one which won’t be reversed, no matter how badly a minority feel about it.
Up to now the unionist parties handled the situation so badly that they will struggle to get things on an even keel. It will take leadership to steer things away from street protests and into practical negotiations with Alliance and the nationalists. Mr Robinson and Mr Nesbitt must rise to the challenge.
They would have done better to have prepared the ground in advance.
The flags issue at City Hall has dragged on for years. Unionists did well to delay change for so long despite a nationalist majority. Prudent leadership would have pointed out that a compromise was inevitable. They might have explained that there were designated days issued by Buckingham Palace and that these would be the backstop position from which they would try to advance.
Instead, 40,000 hysterical leaflets were issued demonising the Alliance Party in what Mr Nesbitt defended as a “public awareness exercise”. The unionist parties wound people up and got a reaction they did not bargain for. “We now see that a lot of people don’t really understand the arithmetic in the City Hall” one DUP activist explained.
The result was attacks on Alliance offices, a former BNP activist addressing a leaderless mob at City Hall and a spate of death threats. Through it all, Alliance showed courage. The party is no pushover, it can be reasoned with, but it does not buckle to intimidation.
Traders suffered in the run-up to Christmas, lives were disrupted, police officers were attacked and one nearly killed. The week of madness did real damage to our reputation but got the protesters nowhere. It threatens to split Mr Nesbitt’s party as part of the collateral damage.
This is reminiscent of the Drumcree protests. Then, the Orange Order refused to give an inch or talk until it was too late. The result, after years of agony, was defeat. In contrast, the Apprentice Boys, after decades of conflict around their parades, found wise leaders who cut a deal allowing them to march in Derry, a mainly nationalist city.
That is the only way. Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein said he wants to find a way forward “on how best to represent and protect the identity and symbols of both nationalists and unionists” through “cross-party and cross-community discussions”.
The protesters may not like Mr McGuinness, but he has the power to deliver nationalist consent where protests can’t. That makes him the man to talk to and unionists should put him to the test. There is something in the unionist mindset which distrusts process and change. As David Ervine, the former PUP leader, put it: “The unionist community are an extremely literal people. How do you get a literal people to sign up to things that have no basic parameters?”
That desire for boundaries is echoed in the frustration of the protesters. Some see the peace agreement as a line in the sand and any change as an erosion of their Britishness.
It is the task of leadership to project confidence and vision amidst change — not to present council votes as last-ditch stands. Not many people in Britain, whose town halls often abide by the same rules agreed in Belfast, have publicly identified with the protesters.
Rather than bringing us closer to Britain, the scenes of the last week have put more strain on the relationship than a flag vote ever could. As Patrick Mercer, the Tory MP who served here in the Army told me: “Looked on from here, this behaviour is a disservice to the unionist cause.”