When a day goes better than expected in Northern Ireland we tend to breathe a collective sigh of relief and then prepare ourselves for the next bad day.
There’s always a lingering sense that we got lucky for a few hours but that the luck won’t last and that, therefore, the next crisis, stand-off, riot or bad day must be just around the corner.
And we have conditioned ourselves to think like that, because it tends to be the pattern of political and community life here.
What we actually need to do, though, is work out why this particular day went better than expected and then work out what we need to do for every other day.
Saturday was a good day for Northern Ireland and a very good day for Belfast.
It was a good day because commonsense prevailed and knee-jerk thinking was replaced with a willingness to listen. It didn’t just happen accidentally, either: it was a combination of things, involving the paraders, protesters, public and the police.
Yes, we still had lines of police vehicles and barriers; we still had protest banners; we still had people on both sides who didn’t like what was happening on the ground; and we still had moments of individual stupidity.
But how many people really believed that at around 8pm journalists would be tweeting – with great delight, as it happens – that they were off home; while the PSNI was informing newsrooms that barriers were gone and all roads were open again?
And that is how it should be. The Twelfth should not be about tension or the prospect of trouble. It should not be a constant all-the-year-round battle between opposing sides. Nor should it be a day when ordinary people feel afraid to come into Belfast, or when shopkeepers and café owners (who should be in a position to capitalise on the huge numbers of people milling around) are, in many cases, just unwilling to keep their doors open.
Here’s the bottom line in all of this: a ‘public holiday’ must be something that can be enjoyed and experienced by everybody.
It was a good day for George Hamilton, the new chief constable. His on-the-
ground presence (not to mention his very relaxed approach to tweeting) played a very significant part in cooling the atmosphere. His approach seemed to be a combination of high visibility while remaining in the background. In other words, he avoided the shields, drawn batons and riot gear stance in favour of the much more subdued my-officers-are-here-and-prepared-for action-if-required strategy. It worked.
It was also a good day for Peter Robinson, Mike Nesbitt, Jim Allister, Billy Hutchinson, Mervyn Gibson and the UPRG. For had it been a bad day it would have created huge tensions among those who have committed themselves to the ‘united unionist’ response and led to accusations that they weren’t, in fact, capable of keeping control of their own people. And, believe me, there were people who were longing for a very bad day; longing for the opportunity to start putting the boot into the entire Orange celebration rather than just the ‘contentious’ parades.
The next few months will be crucial. The unionist/orange/loyalist leaderships have earned some brownie points and created a breathing space for negotiations to take place. They have also ensured that there’s a period of silence in which it will be easier for their voices and arguments to be heard. They mustn’t waste it. They mustn’t blow it away with pointless, upping the ante statements. They mustn’t allow themselves to be sidetracked by the provocation of others. They must do everything in their power to avoid the impression that Saturday was just a one-day wonder.
They could begin with a collective, unambiguous apology for the burning of flags and election posters on bonfires. Issue it today! That sort of thing is offensive and stupid and it’s not what the bonfires are about, anyway. Politics is about successful marketing: to your own side as much as to your opponents. And it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s not just nationalists and republicans who were offended by the burning of those flags and posters.
The next thing they need to do is get canny and stop all this nonsense about ‘graduated responses’ if they don’t get their own way. I’ve seen all of this happen time after time since Sunningdale in 1974 and it’s an approach that rarely delivers for unionism.
Ganging up only has a purpose if it is capable of delivering something positive and if it’s backed up with a very specific, coherent strategy. Threats about a lack of cooperation at ‘every level of government’ are meaningless, because they will hurt unionism as much as anyone else.
Unless, of course, this is about an exit from the Executive and the forcing of an early Assembly election: and that’s precisely the sort of strategy that will cause even more problems than we have at the moment. So let’s not go there, please.
Also, I’d love to hear a lot less about ‘look what Sinn Fein get with their threats and behavior’. Hmm! Sinn Fein got an internal settlement, the retention of partition, having to share power with unionists in Northern Ireland, dinner invitations to Windsor Castle and polling evidence that more people than ever are opposed to a united Ireland.
So here’s some advice to unionist strategists: don’t use Sinn Fein as your benchmark for drawing up policies and agendas.
Don’t fall into the trap of believing that they are actually where they want to be at the moment. Have confidence in yourselves and belief in the values and principles that underpin the United Kingdom.
Saturday was, as I say, a good day for Northern Ireland. It was a good day for those of us who believe in the Union. If the unionist parties are going to work together then let it be with the express purpose of ensuring that Saturday will become the rule rather than the exception.