Hell breaks loose as Stormont falls asleep at wheel
Whether by their actions or inaction, politicians have created a vacuum which the extremes on both sides are happy to fill, says Alan Murray
Have we haplessly drifted into a New Year of danger and impending turmoil? Are the restless forces on both sides of the community divide poised to create crisis on an ever-increasing scale in the coming months?
The likely prognosis, sadly, can't exclude the probable cranking-up of terror and protest in equal measure from both sides.
Irrespective of whether loyalists had taken to the streets in December, those within the ranks of the disparate dissident republican groups were always intent on displaying their zeal for more terrorism - regardless of the utter futility of their efforts.
The new triumvirate coalition of republican terror groups couldn't afford to see the year out without some spectacular strike, which they achieved at the beginning of November with the dramatic murder of prison officer David Black.
On Sunday, they almost repeated that barbaric act with the murder of a PSNI officer and the possible slaughter of members of his family in east Belfast. Only the officer's vigilance averted a catastrophe.
Presumably, in their statement of admission, the perpetrators would have included some barbed political rant at the currently-absent politicians 'on the hill', declaring rejection of "power-sharing" and "British rule".
Martin McGuinness has repeatedly addressed the points flagged up by the dissidents, but seemingly to no avail.
He isn't greatly assisted, though, by many of his party colleagues, who can't perceive that displaying replica weapons dressed in IRA garb and naming children's play areas after those viewed as terrorists by the 'other' tradition is unlikely to help chart a settled pathway to the future.
There are those in the unionist community - not a significant number, perhaps - who genuinely reason that these actions and decisions, like voting to lower the Union flag at Belfast City Hall, are all part of a Provo strategy to bring loyalists onto the streets, foment mayhem and declare, again, that Northern Ireland is ungovernable. Fantasy-land politics, of course. Isn't it?
Nevertheless, there is a clear and present danger that the good ship 'peace process' is due a battering in stormy waters over the coming months.
When the First Minister and others return from sunny climes in the next few days, those on the unionist side of the fence will need to swiftly address the flags issue, or rather the potentially crippling street protests they have sparked.
Most in the UDA leadership in Co Antrim want nothing to do with the protests, because they perceive them as, at least in part, a UVF strategy to provide cover to allow that organisation to put people on the streets and whip up a storm of protest before major arrest operations are undertaken by the PSNI against its leadership.
Had the politicians at the City Hall had their ear to the ground a month ago, they might have reasoned that 'lowering the flag' wasn't the most pressing thing they needed to be doing.
Anyone with an ear to the ground would have known that the UVF was hoping for a 'popular' street issue to exploit - and they have been given one.
But, then, many of our politicians on both sides are out of touch with reality. Political current affairs programmes on our local television and radio channels politely thrashed out scenarios, with the usual commentators seemingly unaware that a storm was about to engulf us.
The SDLP and Alliance, in particular, just didn't grasp the potential for exploitation that the flags issue would provide, which in itself is deeply worrying.
Sinn Fein certainly did, demonstrated by the despatch of their cameraman to film the symbolic removal of the Union flag from the pinnacle flagpole in Ulster.
Insisting that "democracy must take its course" is commendable, but hardly comforting - given the potential street turmoil that lies ahead of us, particularly in the bigger loyalist urban population areas around Belfast.
We remain imprisoned by our past and hemmed in by the deep cultural divide that endures across working-class areas of the province and beyond.
A year after the Northern Ireland Office promised a review of rejected proposals to deal with the past, we are no further on.
Indeed, in spite of all the money spent on the costly mechanisms at Stormont and the exorbitant OFMDFM spin machine, political progress may have been set back significantly by events on the streets. Again.
The justice minister, David Ford, through the year ritually calling "for an end to terrorism", as he did again yesterday, will have no impact on the paramilitaries on both sides intent on pursuing their destructive agendas.
Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly has his agenda, as does Billy Hutchinson of the PUP - now with his discernibly different stance on the flag-flying issue.
Unfortunately for the rest of us, between them they have the capacity to press the buttons that cannot just frustrate, but can damage, or even derail, the peace process with a little bit of deadly nudging from the dissidents.
The Stormont administration, which effectively means the DUP and Sinn Fein, needs to gets its act together, quickly, before another wheel comes off.