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Protests fed by exaggerated fears of an Ulster in peril

Looked at in one way the flags protest was a complete disaster, especially for those involved.

Its public faces -Jamie Bryson and Willie Frazer - saw their election hopes dashed, and Mr Bryson couldn't even raise the money for a deposit in order to stand.

Hundreds of people got a criminal record, it cost £21m to police and - most importantly - the Union flag still only flies 18 days a years in Belfast, just as the council voted. Nothing that was aimed for was achieved.

Yet as Paul Nolan, the lead author of the Queen's University report, said: "That wasn't our conclusion. As I see it, what happened was like a new weather system coming over Northern Ireland. Up until that point the peace process looked reasonably calm."

Like most weather systems the turbulence in loyalist areas of Belfast had been building up for a long time.

Central to the problem was the sense of alienation, of not being part of society. Dr Nolan calls it a "narrative of loss".

These are people who have been warned by unionist politicians that Sinn Fein has the upper hand in the peace process, that the IRA is winning the peace after losing the war.

A new industry of single identity studies feeds on this sense of loss by painting a lost Ulster which has been taken away and which is, like many traditions, at worst manufactured and at best exaggerated.

The need is for more mixing, more study of what binds the two communities into one and an appreciation of what separates them.

At election time it is very tempting for politicians to rely on the old nationalist and unionist rallying cries and scare stories which normally encourage voters to turn out. This is politics based on exploiting long-standing social division rather than building a united a prosperous community where difference is respected.

We need something better from the ongoing talks.​

Belfast Telegraph

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