Hard-won peace must not be lost
It is ironic that a loyalist leader with little political clout should provide the clearest political analysis of the fall out from the flags dispute and also point towards the most constructive way forward for those disillusioned with traditional unionist politics.
UDA leader Jackie McDonald is right when he says that the demonstrations and violence will not result in a change of heart by Belfast City Council on when the Union flag can be flown. If disaffected loyalists really want to influence political decisions then they must resort to the ballot box. By not voting they are handing the initiative to political opponents with obvious results.
But there is a more obvious and immediate danger as pointed out by both McDonald and Assistant Chief Constable George Hamilton. The flag protests are drawing police resources away from where they are most urgently needed - countering the serious threat from dissident republicans. They demonstrated their capability by placing a bomb under a police officer's car in east Belfast at the weekend, which fortunately was spotted before it exploded. The dissidents may be relatively small but their intent is deadly. The police and intelligence services need to be at the top of their game to ensure the threat is countered. They do not need distractions.
These are gloomy topics on which to enter a new year and, of course, we must be careful not to exaggerate the level of threat from dissidents or the scale of the flag protests. Yet the public needs to be assured that the hard won gains of the peace process - incomplete as it may be - are not being dismantled either by dissidents or the disaffected.
They want to see strong policing on the streets, they want to see more successes in the intelligence war against the dissidents, and they want to see strong political leadership which shows some of the realism of McDonald instead of simply playing to the party faithful. The power-sharing government at Stormont must demonstrate greater shared vision to ensure that the peace is bedded down and strong enough to withstand any shocks.