AN east Belfast Presbyterian minister says flag protestors are angry that 50 detectives are trying to prosecute soldiers for Bloody Sunday while there are no similar PSNI investigations into IRA atrocities such as Kingsmills.
Outlining his views to the News Letter on the causes of – and solutions to – the violence, the Rev Mervyn Gibson of Westbourne Presbyterian Church says it started over the flag row at Belfast City Council. The east Belfast man has been involved in helping defuse tensions in the area many times since he started to work as a minister there in 2000, and has witnessed “dozens upon dozens” of riots.
“The anger [about the flag] was felt right across the whole country,” he said. “I don’t think nationalist and Alliance councillors realised the hurt that would be caused by such political point-scoring.”
An Orange Order representative on the new Unionist Forum, he adds: “The broader reasons [for anger] were issues such as the endless list of inquiries that republicans demand into the past. For example, there is Bloody Sunday, where the soldiers involved are now facing possible murder charges, with a team of 50 detectives investigating. Yet, how many police officers are investigating the IRA members behind Kingsmills and other republican atrocities? Part of the problem is that some of the people responsible for such IRA atrocities are now sitting in the heart of government.
“Secretary of State Theresa Villiers was unable to condemn a playground being named after a terrorist [Raymond McCreesh],” he said. “So unionists ask ‘who is speaking for them?’ The Irish government is speaking for nationalists.”
But what about the Chief Constable Matt Baggott’s assessment that senior members of the UVF in east Belfast had been orchestrating some of the violence, albeit without the sanction of that organisation?
“Traditionally if paramilitaries are involved there are people you can go and talk with to resolve matters, but with these riots there are no paramilitaries directing the violence,” he said.
“I am not naive enough to think there are not some paramilitaries involved in there somewhere, but it is not with the sanction of the organisation. There were serious riots in 2011 and you were able to talk to the UVF, the PSNI and republicans and matters were resolved quite quickly. But here there is nobody you can go and talk to. Much of it is recreational rioting. Some of it has been a reaction to what has been seen as heavy handed police tactics.”
There are no easy solutions, says the Rev Gibson.
“I think the community should come together and insist for the violence to stop, while also working closely with police. A major problem is that the media and police say ‘stop this’ and they mean ‘stop the protests’ as opposed to ‘stop the violence’. That is a different issue. People have a right to peaceful protest, but as I said a week ago, I believe the protests should be suspended until politics is given a chance to work. Before, nobody was listening but now we have an opportunity with the Unionist Forum. It may not be perfect but we should give it a chance. It is open to everyone.”
He adds: “What is the alternative? The biggest call I am hearing is for unionist unity, unionists working together. When a section of unionism does not wish to work with the rest that is only fracturing unionist unity.”
The issues that must be addressed to resolve tensions, he believes, are:
:: the “de-Britification” of Northern Ireland
:: the “endless” list of inquiries into alleged state collusion “yet no inquiries into IRA atrocities by people who are now in government”
:: the Parades Commission being “so one-sided”
:: educational underachievement
“Some action is needed immediately and then in elections people can vote people out if they want,” he adds.
“I think we need to make sure we don’t try to use a sticking plaster to cover up the problems. It is not just about getting protestors off the streets. It must be about addressing all the issues so that we don’t come back to the same crisis in six or 12 months.”