Why supporters of democracy must stand together with a party under intolerable siege
Do you want to see what real fear looks like? Watch the BBC footage of an interview yesterday with Alliance councillors Michael and Christine Bowers as they cradle their 17-month-old daughter and tell of an attack on their Bangor home by loyalist Union flag protesters the night before.
As they talk to the reporter a shard of glass from their smashed front door hits the floor with a crash.
The look of abject fear on their faces as, for a split second, they anticipate a fresh attack, is desperate. It is a look that should be frozen into the minds of not just the imbeciles who carried out the assault but of every politician in Northern Ireland. The flames of hatred have been fanned on an issue that should never have come this far.
The decision by Belfast City Council to cease flying the Union flag permanently over City Hall was always going to be controversial. Symbols, not real policies and practical measures, are what sadly stirs the blood in this country.
The city council is democratically elected, which has been conveniently forgotten by some, and a vote was taken to fly the flag on designated days. This was a result of the Alliance Party trying to broker a compromise between the intractable positions of unionists and nationalists/republicans. The rest is now another dark chapter in what is supposed to be, at least as far as the outside world cares anymore, our peace time society.
People could have died in the violence that followed and a party of quite manifestly mainstream political aims has become a coward's target.
In many ways what has been even more desperate is the succession of senior unionist politicians who condemn the violence on one hand but still try to apportion blame with the other.
To hear Sammy Wilson insisting the Alliance Party had opened the Pandora's Box on the issue was to hear the sound of history repeating itself.
Sammy had nothing to say on the Pandora's Box front about the thousands of inflammatory DUP/UUP leaflets circulated ahead of the vote printed in Alliance yellow and claiming the party wanted the flag “ripped down”.
Telephone numbers for the party were printed urging people to protest.
Similarly, just when a day for cool heads was needed, perhaps for the issue of symbols to be set aside, Edwin Poots popped up to talk about flying the Union flag on more days up at Stormont.
Sadly we are not making this up.
This newspaper has an entirely consistent position that too often politicians take the easy options, playing to their own galleries and the dwindling rump of traditional voters who get them elected. Too many have
but a vague acquaintance with the concept of shared future. We have been the only media outlet this week to condemn the continued naming of a playground in Newry after an IRA hunger striker. Our condemnation is cross-community wherever it is deserved.
We have also heard this week excuses made that the disenchantment and lack of hope within loyalist communities fuels this violence as does the perception that other communities are prospering while they are not.
There may well be some truth in parts of this yet unionists who argue this cannot have it both ways. If they rightly refuse to accept a republican narrative that discrimination forced many to pick up the gun and the bomb for the IRA's murderous campaign in the ’70s, they cannot use the same argument for the loyalist side now.
Just as the vast majority of Catholic/nationalists wanted nothing to do with terrorism back then so the vast majority of Protestants/unionists abhor the stoning and petrol bombing of innocent people now.
In the middle of all this are people like the Bowers, dazed, bewildered and frightened for their young daughter.
Don't forget young Laura McNamee, the Alliance councillor forced out of her East Belfast home by Facebook idiots because of her party's democratically taken decision on the flag. For all our sakes we hope that Laura stays in politics. She is the future.
This newspaper takes no political sides, choosing to seek out the good in all parties. But the targeting of Alliance, a party which has much to contribute to a forward-looking political debate, represents a desperate recent low in community relations.
For everyone who cares about democracy; who wants an end to sectarian posing and mind games; an end to mindless thuggery; an end to immature reactions to complicated issues; an end to whataboutery; wants no more from politicians who condemn violence with empty words. For those people, the vast majority of the population of Northern Ireland, from whatever political or religious background, we are all Alliance supporters today.
UUP MLA Basil McCrea has told BBC's Stephen Nolan Radio Show that the Alliance Party were right in voting to bring Belfast City Hall into line with Stormont and other Government buildings and fly the Union flag on 17 designated days.