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Today’s ‘embarrassed majority’ fail to understand sectarianism

There are no excuses in this society for not knowing where the current violence can lead and the steps by which it can take us there.

We live with division. The main lesson of our past is that politicans should try to avoid promoting issues which favour their own community over the other. Indeed, the Assembly is constructed around a voting system that prevents the interests of one community being furthered without the consent of a substantial number in the other.

That principle does not apply in Belfast City Council so it is more vulnerable to a vote being carried that favours the majority community, nationalists, over the minority, unionists.

That's what annoys unionists and that's hardly surprising. When issues of tribal sensitivity arise, like flags and emblems, they will always lose now because the numbers are stacked against them.

That's how it was for nationalists in the old Stormont and power sharing was devised to spare them that position of perpetual jeopardy. Now we are in a situation similar to that in 1968. Then it was nationalists who were claiming civil rights and unionists refusing them. Protest on the streets in the face of political intransigence and heavy handed policing led to progressive escalation so that a year later there were gun battles in Belfast and the Army was called in to (don't laugh) restore order.

Now the policing is different. If anything it is too lenient. Certainly there is huge anger out there that the police will usually facilitate a roadblock rather than break it.

But the police have learnt a lesson from the past. They know that this will all get a lot worse if someone is killed. That's the last thing we need right now. So far only small numbers are protesting and large sections of Protestant society are staying out of the quarrel. This includes the Orange Order and the UDA. A contested killing is the sort of thing that would bring them in. Parades disputes later this year may do that anyway.

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One of the greatest stimulants to nationalist anger was the attack on a march at Burntollet. After that, people were saying much the same as loyalist protesters were saying after their own followers were stoned from Short Strand.

This is not a quiet spell in our history like 1968 when there were virtually no guns or explosives at hand. Dissident republicans are armed and are killing people when they can: granted, not very often. But we don't know what calculations they are making about whether they have an opportunity here to cast themselves as defenders of Short Strand.

There is another element which is familiar to those who remember 1968. There was much talk then of a Silent Majority which wanted peace. Today we have the Embarrassed Majority which, like the Silent one regards the protest as pointless and stupid.

Contained in that contempt is a failure to understand sectarianism as a political mix in which people feel they make real losses and gains. Back in 1968, the Silent Majority thought that Stormont was doing a fine job and should be allowed to get on with it. Today it thinks that if only loyalists were educated and sensible and could spell, we could all go home and forget about intercommunal tensions.

What is lost sight of here is the power of divisive issues to grow and implicate nearly everybody, as they did in 1969, 1981 and 1996. Many people now find it impossible to believe that we could return to total deadlock. That may be true while we have power sharing.

We haven't yet seen how this will affect relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein. That's where the crucial fault line lies.

Maybe this will all blow over. But that depends on history not repeating itself, and that's what it tends to do here.

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