Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Unionist Forum welcome in these desperate times

Messrs Robinson and Nesbitt's plan is overdue and should be given a fair wind, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked in London on the BBC Today Programme what was the underlying problem behind the riots over flags.

I was feeling angry at developments and heard myself saying bluntly that it was fundamentally because loyalists were too thick to understand that they had won the war and Ulster would be staying as part of the UK.

I apologise to non-thick loyalists, but that's the truth. While republican leaders assure their followers that their wicked and counter-productive military campaigns were a success, unionist leaders have, by and large, moaned about what they've lost and little about what they've gained.

Yet, as the census recently reinforced, it doesn't matter how much republicans shout about a united Ireland and call for a border poll, the constitutional debate is over for generations.

The Republic of Ireland is bankrupt and has plenty of its own problems, without taking on those of its northern neighbours.

And, more and more, as the latest census shows, folk identify themselves as Northern Irish and only 28% call themselves Irish.

The republican leadership, which is fighting a permanent culture war, is smart enough to realise that they lost. (Sometimes I think republicans know their enemies better than their enemies know themselves).

So, knowing the flags issue to be a reliable fire-lighter, republicans pressed the buttons they knew would wind up knee-jerk loyalists and destabilise the province they hate and that loyalism loves.

And they duly got a result even better than they could have hoped for. Protesting and rioting in the name of loyalty, self-styled Ulster patriots have delighted their enemies and alienated more of their few remaining friends.

Those unionists who delivered the anti-Alliance leaflets that helped set the fire were unwitting catspaws of Sinn Fein. Loyalist thugs who swallowed the anti-Alliance propaganda failed to grasp that self-interested unionist politicians were targeting Alliance seats.

By turning the City Hall flag into a huge emotional issue, they unleashed a tide of irrational violence that they signally failed to contain.

A few days before Christmas and what have we got? Belfast traders are in despair, customers are frightened off, ordinary, decent people are terrified that the horrors of the past might be coming to revisit and the outside world is angry, uncomprehending, or bored.

Even I, who have tried to hard to understand and explain to outsiders the legitimate concerns, insecurities and grievances of unionists, am almost terminally fed-up.

Which is why I welcome the Unionist Forum that Mike Nesbitt and Peter Robinson announced on Tuesday. It's long overdue and they'd better apply themselves to it urgently, seriously and with an objective concern for the good of the inhabitants of Northern Ireland.

I like that, at last, they're addressing more issues than flags, parading and British cultural identity, such as voter registration, turn-out and, even more important, deprivation and educational underachievement.

I grasp why David Ford and other non-unionists worry that such an alliance encourages tribalism, but on this occasion, it is necessary.

Unionists reflect the Protestant tradition in being much more disparate and argumentative than their more hierarchical tribal opponents and they need to achieve some consensus between themselves before they can address a wider world.

It's important that participants will be required to commit themselves to non-sectarianism and a shared future as well as "exclusively peaceful and democratic means" of achieving their objectives.

Now let's see Messrs Nesbitt and Robinson show some real leadership at last.

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