THE protest movement born out of Belfast City Council’s decision to restrict the Union Flag on City Hall caused surprise, and for some people fright – but it could end up achieving little.
As protest flared across the Province, Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt struggled to respond to a movement they barely understood. Their creation of a pan-unionist forum came and went with little impact on the streets.
In such a chaotic, emotionally-charged atmosphere, some – such as the former UUP minister Lord Kilclooney – began talking about the potential for a new pro-Union political party to articulate protestors’ concerns.
But the lifespan of street protests is finite and the protestors’ best chance was to formulate a simple, tangible demand, such as a law to make all the new ‘super councils’ fly the Union Flag on designated days, ending nationalist councils’ refusal to fly the flag at all.
But, although the protest movement has succeeded in raising awareness of its myriad grievances, it now appears to be waning without winning any long-term concessions.
With the Unionist Forum having successfully peeled off the loyalist paramilitary leadership, the street protests have gradually dwindled. Though some protests had paramilitary orchestration – and rampant violence – others did not. And several sources have reported that in east Belfast protestors have refused to accept orders from paramilitary leaders when they eventually attempted to stop the demonstrations.
Now the Ulster People’s Forum – which claims to represent the concerns of most protestors – has descended into what appears to be a very public power struggle.
Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt should have been troubled by the results of this week’s BBC Spotlight poll, which not only showed that 45 per cent of unionists still support the protests, but even many of their own supporters believe that they have bungled the crisis.
Further analysis of the poll would suggest that not only are both men damaged personally by the flags dispute, but their parties are probably also under pressure from voters.
In the 2011 Assembly election the UUP took 13.2 per cent of the vote – its worst-ever performance – while the DUP took 30 per cent.
When non-voters are excluded in the Spotlight poll, as would happen in an election, the UUP share of the vote is precisely where it was in 2011 – 13.2 per cent.
The DUP, by contrast, has fallen almost five per cent to 25.1 per cent. At first glance that appears fine for the UUP.
However, polls in Northern Ireland have historically underestimated DUP and Sinn Fein support, thought to be based on the public perception of those parties as ‘extreme’, with slightly inflated results for the UUP, SDLP and Alliance.
Although Stormont’s two main parties have become increasingly mainstream in recent years, there is likely still some under-representation of the parties in polls. This poll has the combined unionist and nationalist vote almost exactly where it was in 2011 and its two most striking elements when it comes to party support are the SDLP vote — up from 14.2 per cent to 18.6 — and the DUP fall.
Assuming that there is still some over-estimate of the three ‘centre’ parties, the SDLP seems to be slightly better off than in 2011. However, if the same factor influenced unionists, the UUP vote will have fallen to a new low.
Alliance has risen from 7.7 per cent support in 2011 to 10.4 per cent, suggesting that even if that figure is overstated, the party has at least not lost support over the flag controversy.
The first electoral test since the protests will come in the Mid-Ulster by-election, expected to be held next month. Willie Frazer is a candidate and his share of the vote will be closely analysed.
Five years ago another fairly insignificant by-election in Dromore ended up being the catalyst for the toppling of the then First Minister, Ian Paisley.
If the protest movement wants to secure a tangible gain from two months of demonstrations, tramping the roads of Mid-Ulster campaigning for Mr Frazer is more likely to achieve it than public spats.
Sam McBride is the News Letter’s Political Correspondent