'North not British' row: Out of the frying pan with loose talk
Loose talk, like that at the Ulster fry breakfast at the Tory conference yesterday, can have dire consequences on the ground … as Cantrell Close proves, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
The writer Jorge Luis Borges memorably compared the Falklands War to "two bald men fighting over a comb". How he would describe the sight of Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill clashing over whether Northern Ireland is British is anybody's guess, but he'd hardly have been any more complimentary.
They couldn't even agree on what to call the place over whose ownership they were fighting.
"The north isn't British," insisted Sinn Fein's Stormont leader during a fringe breakfast event at the Tory conference in Manchester.
"Northern Ireland IS British," retorted her DUP counterpart.
You say "Norn Iron", I say "the Occupied Six Counties" ... oh, let's call the whole thing off. If it was an engagement, we'd probably have done just that long ago.
However, we're stuck with one another, so are doomed to periodically endure these pointless squabbles over words.
Both women missed the point. The place known as Northern Ireland is just 5,460 square miles of soil and grass and trees and hills and roads.
The only thing that makes it either British or Irish or whatever is how the people who live on that patch of earth identify themselves.
So, in saying "the north isn't British" O'Neill is actually saying that she doesn't recognise the right of a majority of the people who live here to identify as the nationality with which they feel most comfortable.
It's hard to imagine a more futile pastime than telling other people what nationality they "really" are.
O'Neill may have felt on enemy ground in Manchester, her hackles raised, but she could - and should - have handled the situation more diplomatically.
Politicians are used to dodging tricky questions. Foster, likewise, could have chosen not to rise to the bait, even if she was technically right to point out that, whether Sinn Fein likes it or not, Northern Ireland is still part of the UK.
What's frustrating is that the exchange until then appears to have focused on the progress made at talks on restoring devolved government, rather than the remaining obstacles.
Now it's another Mexican stand-off, and the situation off Belfast's Ravenhill Road, where police visited Catholic residents to warn them of a threat from loyalist paramilitaries, illustrates the real-life effects of indulging hazardous disputes over identity.
The UVF denies involvement, for what it's worth, but two decades after the Belfast Agreement families with young children have been forced out of a "shared community" housing development in scenes reminiscent of the sectarian clear-outs at the start of the Troubles and are now presenting to the Housing Executive as homeless, while the leaders of the two main parties are in Manchester arguing the toss over a word.
Speaking on Irish radio on Tuesday morning, Dr John Kyle, deputy leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, criticised what he called the "lack of political will to deal with paramilitarism" and the "arguing and fighting and bickering" between the main parties which, he said, had contributed to the situation.
It may be a bit rich to hear spokespersons for parties linked to prohibited groups demand that more be done to tackle paramilitaries, but the Ulster fry breakfast proved him correct.
Tensions are bound to rise during a political stalemate or when politicians openly make what could be interpreted as sectarian remarks.
It's worth recalling, though, that the threats came just a few months after UVF and other loyalist flags went up in Cantrell Close and nearby Global Crescent, hitting the headlines.
That was June. Now it's October and families are already being driven out as a direct consequence of allowing emblems to be waved provocatively in the faces of those who don't share that identity.
This is why the area's MP Emma Little-Pengelly was wrong at the time to take the path of least resistance and insist that a majority in the multi-million-pound housing development "didn't want a public fuss around this matter".
She, herself, is opposed to paramilitary flags, but failing to tackle the problem immediately meant that a deterioration of relations was inevitable. Once flags go up, there goes the neighbourhood.
It ties into what's called the "broken window" theory. This holds that even one shattered pane of glass in an area gives an impression of urban decay, which, in turn, encourages the wrong sort of people to congregate there.
Soon criminals and wasters replace the law-abiding population. Fix the window and the whole area improves.
When New York faced a scourge of violent crime and anti-social behaviour the city's mayor Rudy Guiliani adopted that philosophy by aggressively cracking down on widespread graffiti.
Some people didn't want him to do it. They saw graffiti as an authentic street culture, an expression of individuality by the dispossessed. But Guiliani knew, instead, that it was being used to demarcate territory between gangs and his anti-graffiti task force became a vital tool in transforming New York into a friendlier place for residents and visitors.
Those flags are just a different kind of graffiti. Their only purpose is to say who's welcome and who's not and any attempt to reduce similar displays of triumphalism is inevitably greeted as a hostile challenge by groups who profit from division.
Like graffiti in New York, flags need to be seen instead as a quality of life issue, because once they take hold of an area their effect on neighbourliness is invariably detrimental, as Cantrell Close shows.
These are nice houses in quiet, pleasant residential streets. It's not a ghetto. This was entirely avoidable if the rot had been stopped at the start.
It was good that all parties came together in an unprecedented show of solidarity this week to condemn what's going on in south Belfast, but they also need to reflect on how it came to this.
Having cynically stoked the "fleg" row at Belfast City Hall for votes a while back, the DUP went on to issue a joint statement earlier this summer with the loyalist PUP attacking those seeking to curb the spread of illegal bonfires. That hardly sent out a positive message of cross-community respect.
In its intransigence over a standalone Irish Language Act, Sinn Fein is also shamelessly attempting to weaponise culture in the same way.
It's easy to shake one's head when disagreements over territory turn into actual threats of physical harm. It would be more admirable to admit responsibility for creating the climate in which gangsters feel untouchable enough to stake out their turf like prowling tomcats in the first place.