IT was the decision of Belfast City Council to take down the Union Flag that brought protestors on to the streets in December. That decision was a bad one and many people felt angry at Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance for colluding to disrupt the settled status quo.
Within unionism the overwhelming majority of people want the flags issue addressed politically but for some of those who remain on street protests, six weeks later, nothing short of the destruction of the present political process is their goal.
Their spokesmen advocate a return to Direct Rule, demonise the police, and are prepared to destroy their own communities in order to push their own political agenda on the back of the protests. If they had their way, who would want to live in a Northern Ireland where that is what passed for politics? This is not a form of Britishness that would be recognised by the citizens of the rest of the United Kingdom.
The Direct Rule they crave would once again leave unionists powerless in our own country with decisions taken, as before, in London after agreement with Dublin. The prospects of peace and stability would be bleak and Northern Ireland would once again become a no-go area for international investment.
I believe that the majority of people in Northern Ireland, from all backgrounds and traditions, will ensure that this will not happen. In the United Kingdom it must be at the ballot box and not through violence on the streets that change comes.
The overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland believe that the violence and protests should end. That lawful majority includes those who are every bit as much opposed to the decision of Belfast City Council as those who are protesting on the streets – perhaps more so, considering some of those who protest previously supported designated days or supported Ulster independence which would have permanently lowered the Union Flag.
No one can deny the right of peaceful, lawful protest, but the present protests have long since become counter-productive to the cause they espouse and are deeply damaging to Northern Ireland. Protests in some parts of Belfast have now become synonymous with violence. The cause that prompted the protests has all but been lost amid the violence and disorder. The only cause they are advancing now is that of republicans.
In the past it was republicans who claimed that Northern Ireland was a failed political entity. Why on earth would any sensible unionist seek to prove them right through violence, disorder and attacks on the police?
Who now remembers that it was Sinn Fein who pressed this issue in the weeks leading up to Christmas or that they were supported by the SDLP and the Alliance in limiting the flying of the Union Flag. That has all been lost amid the violence and protests. People’s anger at the flag decision has been obscured by their outrage at attacks on the police and the devastation of many businesses.
So what has been achieved in recent weeks by the Union Flag decision in Belfast City Council? Northern Ireland’s international reputation has been damaged, potential investors and tourists will have been deterred. Our local businesses have been crippled at a time they needed a boost. Scores of police officers have been injured, and many of the young people involved in the violence will emerge from these disturbances with nothing to show for their efforts but a criminal record.
On a political level we are seeking to channel concerns through the political process. Last week the Unionist Forum met for the first time to discuss how we could address a range of problems that face the unionist community. It was the most representative group to gather in more than half a century and comprised people from right across the unionist community. It was a good start and in time I hope and believe it will pay dividends.
An engagement process with the wider community has already commenced. As politicians we need to listen and understand the concerns of those who have been brought onto the streets. But we also need to listen to those who are not on the streets and whose views are every bit as important when charting a course for the future.
Some of the problems are long-term and deep-seated. They were not created overnight and will not be solved overnight either. The Executive has already commenced work to deal with some of the problems. That is why the Executive has been working on an £80 million social investment fund to help areas that suffer from deprivation.
I believe that most sensible people will appreciate that it is in the interests of us all that unionism speaks with a coherent and unified voice. But we also recognise that long-term and sustainable solutions will involve people from right across the community in Northern Ireland.
As someone who got into politics to defend the Union let me make it clear, the only future for Northern Ireland is as a shared and united community. That will ensure our place in the United Kingdom more than anything else. Make absolutely no mistake about it, the violence on the streets is damaging to unionism and to Northern Ireland. The events of the last six weeks have been deeply damaging but I am not prepared to allow Northern Ireland to return to the bad old days.
Like every other setback, we will emerge from the present difficulties, but the challenges will be greater and the hill we have to climb even steeper the longer ‘mobocracy’ prevails on the streets. The only way that we can and will succeed is with the support of the people of Northern Ireland. As a community we have come too far for us to be thrown off course by dissident republicans or by those elements within unionism who would seek through street violence and death threats to plunge us back to the past.