Flags issue was ‘lightning rod’ - Mark Houston

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THE director of the Methodist East Belfast Mission says that blaming ongoing flags unrest on UVF members is “lazy” and that the paramilitary group has been working hard to stop violence.

Mark Houston says that the end of daily flying of the Union Flag at Belfast City Hall was a “lightning rod” around which a wide range of grievances have gathered.

However, he says that some people would be intent on rioting in any society and they must face the full rigours of the law. A church pastor before he started to lead the Methodist mission five years ago, his job now is directing social regeneration, social engagement and post conflict peacebuilding.

“The flags issue has been a lightning rod for wider issues of discontent, frustration and anger,” he said.

“There is a loss of hope, a siege mentality among the Protestant, Unionist, loyalist community. This community bought into the Good Friday Agreement but it hasn’t really resulted in delivery on the ground.

“They have not benefited from a peace dividend – not just in money but in terms of employment and educational attainment. One in four young Protestant men are functionally illiterate.”

The vice chairman of the East Belfast District Policing Partnership says the flags issue was “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.

“There are people in this community hell-bent on mayhem who would be doing so in any society at any time. But the current situation has given them oxygen to operate in. These people are mixed in with genuine protestors,” he said.

They would not riot over welfare reform, he says. “However there is a deep sense of political disconnection from local politicians who have not been on the ground over a long period of time, especially last week.”

What does he say to Chief Constable Matt Baggott, who says senior members of the UVF in east Belfast – as individuals – have been orchestrating some of the violence?

“I have seen no evidence or indication of UVF orchestration,” he says. “But last Saturday I saw senior UVF figures on the ground alongside PUP politicians right at the front line trying to hold protestors back.”

Of claims that a leading east Belfast UVF figure is orchestrating the violence, possibly because of pending criminal or terrorist trials, he is sceptical.

“I don’t feel comfortable with that assessment. Where anyone is rioting, no matter where they are, they should be arrested and feel the full rigours of the law.

“But I feel it is lazy of the media, politicians and journalists to throw that idea around that this is about supergrass trials.”

He adds: “The Good Friday Agreement was seen as a line drawn under the past. But then people see inquiries into Bloody Sunday and Pat Finucane. If the state murders its own citizens that has to happen. But it is seen that the loyalist leadership can be brought to book while the Deputy First Minister was an IRA commander and nobody is going after him. It is seen that HET is only going one way and it only adds to the siege mentality.”

His community feels the Parades Commission has been “very harsh” on them.

“People want to express their culture on a main arterial route but they are told they cannot play their music as they pass the chapel. Yet the unionist houses are right on the other side of the road.

“So they are not allowed to play their music as they pass in front of their own homes.”

Over the last 10 days church, loyalist and community leaders have come together, working very hard to see how the violence can be stopped, he says.

“We, including the East Belfast Mission, are asking for the oxygen of the violence to be removed, so I am suggesting the protests should be suspended to allow a different method for grievances to be heard. As soon as a bottle is thrown they lose the argument.

“We need to get people to reconnect with politicians. Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson have quite a mature relationship but the delays in them publishing the shared Community Sharing and Integration strategy is catastrophic. There is no policing solution to this situation.”

Mr Houston also sees a need for “clarity of communication” from HET. “Where is the strategy so that people understand it? In the absence of this people form their own opinions. The Department of Justice needs to be clearer.”

:: Follow journalist Philip Bradfield on Twitter




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