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That moment when Prods in the room tend to go quiet ...

It's clear now that the flag issue is not going to fizzle out and that, barring an astonishing about-face, the rest of this year at least will be characterised by 'trouble'.

Communal annoyance in the workplace about the disruption the protests cause segues easily into unbridled comment about the 'stupidity' of the issue, the thick unintelligence of the protesters themselves, their supposed bigotry, their 'hardline' views and so on ad nauseam.

It's the safe cause. There is a class distaste for 'working class loyalists' among middle class 'respectable' Protestants. Let's face it, you can hardly expect many Catholics to spring to the defence of loyalists. Republicans will have much to gain from characterisations of the Protestant working class as repressed and underprivileged, but not more put upon than Catholics.

There is ample ground for a bit of fake solidarity in our deeply divided society, in its workplaces, by brief disgruntlement about the protests. Like that shared retro Troubles moment, when everyone regretfully has to, er, rush out of work at 3pm to avoid the protests - taking a long weekend and the moral high ground with them.

But often there also comes the point when that workplace disgruntlement turns into openly dismissive comment about the nature of the protesters themselves. And that's when the Protestants in the company tend to go quiet.

Because, just in case anyone has missed this point, most Protestants in Northern Ireland agree with the principle of the protests. Not the expression of protests. Not the violence associated with them. But with the principle of them.

Because identity matters. Because disrespect to the Union flag is as distasteful to unionists as it would be to nationalists if it were the Irish flag being disrespected publicly. Because we are not all social scientists able to articulate our allegiances and affections and senses of belonging and self without recourse to objects like cap badges, Easter lilies, things like the Titanic, street signs, absurdly pompous buildings like City Hall and Stormont, 'bits of cloth' like the Union flag.

So the reason why this is going to be a long year is because unlike the dissidents - are we allowed to call them 'republicans'? - the flag protests, however unpopular their street-side manifestations, have the support of a broad mood among unionists. That is why the political choreography surrounding the handling of the protesters has been so laborious, so slow, so high-risk.

The consent of the majority is at stake in these protests in a way that the consent of the minority is not at stake in dissident paramilitary attacks, however shocking they are.

We are told by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness alike that there is limited popular support for the dissidents - in fact, we are shouted down if anything other than that is suggested, we are regarded as anti-peace process if anything other than that is mooted. It is a principle of Sinn Fein machismo that the dissidents are not harder men than they are. No way!

But the fact is that the flag protests are accompanied by the soundtrack of that low-level, deep grumbling the unionist population here has been issuing since the Good Friday Agreement.

Of course, it is easy for everyone to dislike and ridicule the Loyalist in the Outdated Rangers Top. He or she is our equivalent of the chav, the Essex factor, the Deep South redneck, the trailer trash. The closest equivalent elsewhere in NI or Ireland, indeed, the only common cultural icon to match him or her, for cross-community funpokery, is the mum in her pyjamas at the school gates.

The only thing missing from the caricature of the loyalist, in fact, is the Bible Belt bit - but not even the most sectarian of opposition could characterise the flag-protesters as like those nasty US evangelical types we are meant to despise as well. Jesus doesn't seem to feature on the picket lines.

But rest assured, the commonly-felt disquiet at masked youths on the rampage, the joint community desire to get the protests stopped, the general wish to see normality restored, should not obscure the fact that unionist people are already disillusioned and being edged towards disengagement. Not towards violence, but towards withdrawing consent from the status quo.

That's what bothers unionist politicians. That's what should bother nationalist politicians. Sadly, that's what will certainly and absolutely hearten dissident paramilitaries.