Flag-obsessed loyalists picked the wrong fight
If the flag protests seem manufactured, unionist victims' questions about the Republic's role in the Troubles are anything but, says Henry McDonald
Irony-deficient loyalists overlooked a key event on this island in the very week that Belfast councillors voted to restrict the number of days the Union flag is flown on the City Hall.
While the loyalist ultras hyperventilated back in December over ending the flying of the Union flag 365 days-per-year, south of the border politicians and public alike were more preoccupied with weighty economic matters: namely, the quest to survive.
The Irish budget of 2013 underlined again how much economic sovereignty the Republic has ceded to foreign powers; that is the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the EU.
While hundreds rioted over a piece of cloth in Belfast, in Dublin the people were remarkably acquiescent and stoical about another harsh round of indirect tax-hikes and public spending cuts - all the bequest of a so-called 'troika' scrutinising the national balance books to ensure everything was to the global financial community's liking.
In the eyes of most ordinary Dublin citizens, the flag dispute here, which has seen dozens of police officers injured and more than 100 people arrested, is something totally alien.
So, when Willie Frazer and his entourage arrive outside Leinster House on Saturday, they will mostly be met with bewilderment and bemusement - barring the hostility of republican counter-demonstrators. Aside from the flag row, Frazer and his followers say they are travelling to Dublin in order to highlight what they regard as a lack of support and understanding from the Irish government over the plight of unionist victims of the Troubles.
They allege that Taoiseach Enda Kenny has reneged on a promise to meet victims' groups, particularly in south Armagh and other border regions where the IRA's campaign was at its bloodiest and, from their perspective, most viscerally sectarian.
While the flag furore appears to be manufactured hysteria - especially given that the policy switch at the City Hall makes no difference to UK sovereignty over Northern Ireland - paradoxically Frazer and those who will travel south with him have, perhaps, a more justifiable grievance.
They can argue, with some historical evidence, that the southern state has still not properly addressed its role in the Troubles.
For example, they could point to the easy passage of IRA activists to and fro across the border and how many of the most-active republicans in the armed campaign used the south as a safe haven from which to launch attacks into the north.
They might go back further in time and highlight the role of key figures in the state (none more so than Charles J Haughey) in enabling the Provisionals' creation, encouraging and arming the fledgling republican force at the time of the IRA split over abstentionism in 1969-1970.
They could also point to incidents where there were allegations and suspicions of the security forces in the Republic, at the very least, turning a blind eye to certain IRA activity. Frazer and his allies will certainly cite the Harry Breen/Bob Buchanan murders as a case-in-point.
Unionist victims' groups will charge that the southern Irish political class is more concerned about controversial killings, such as the Pat Finucane murder, which the Irish government is still not satisfied has been thoroughly and independently examined, than the dozens of killings carried out in the name of the republic by the IRA and INLA.
Unionist suspicions - tapped into of late by hardline loyalists - that their community's victims are lower down the scale of Dublin's priorities have some foundation in reality.
To be fair to the present Fine Gael-Labour coalition, it has extended the timeframe of the Smithwick tribunal into alleged Garda collusion with the IRA in the 1989 murders of RUC officers Breen and Buchanan.
Both parties in government have a long-track record of being vehemently opposed to the IRA's armed campaign from 1969 to 1997.
Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore have referred to high-profile murders and scandals from the Troubles involving the IRA, such as the plight of the Disappeared and, in particular, Jean McConville, during heated exchanges with Sinn Fein in the Dail.
The idea that the present administration might be in any away ambiguous to the crimes of the past from the republican side is a ludicrous calumny.
The trouble for Kenny, as was the case for many previous taoisigh, particularly during the Troubles, is the veil of secrecy that had to be drawn over counter-terrorist operations carried out by the Gardai, with backing from the Irish defence forces.
Successive Dublin governments often played down the role the Garda Special Branch played in thwarting planned IRA operations both in Northern Ireland and in Britain.
They did so partly for political reasons, ie, not to be seen to be too in hock to Britain, at least publicly. They also did so in order to protect key informants the Gardai and G2 (Irish military intelligence) had in place inside republican paramilitary groups all the way up to the IRA's army council.
One way, therefore, to counter unionist concerns that Dublin cares next-to-nothing about their losses during the Troubles would be for Kenny, Gilmore et al to bring a few ex-Garda commissioners, or leading figures in the force's crime and security branch, out of retirement.
Maybe these veterans could be employed to explain to sceptical unionist ears about the depth of penetration of republican groups and the number of terrorist operations compromised in the secret war south of the border.
After all, it's the very same security war being waged down there on the republican dissidents that is helping to prevent far more carnage and destruction in the north than anyone in Northern Ireland might care to imagine.