SF culture war fuelling unrest - Michael Copeland

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A MAJOR factor in the recent rioting is that republicans are continuing their war against loyalists by cultural means, a UUP MLA has said.

Michael Copeland has been at the scene of every main instance of rioting in east Belfast since the flag protests began last month.

“I have met senior police officers, at local, regional and chief constable level, in that time – including Drew Harris, Alan McCrum and Chief Constable Matt Baggott – in an attempt to deal with the situation,” he said.

He has also been involved in talks with Presbyterian minister the Rev Mervyn Gibson, the PSNI and loyalist Jim Wilson, among others.

“My interpretation of the problems is that things have been developing, not only over weeks and months, but years,” he said.

“The signing of the Good Friday Agreement followed by the St Andrews amendments and Hillsborough negotiations represented, to unionists, the end of the Troubles and the dawn of a new day.

“But it now seems that republicans saw that process as a stepping stone to their ultimate goal of a united Ireland.

“You may say that rioters do not have a political thought in their head, but they absorb the atmosphere around them like sponges.”

The Chief Constable has said that senior UVF figures have been involved in the east Belfast violence, without the sanction of the organisation’s leadership.

“You would have to ask the Chief Constable about that,” said Mr Copeland. “All I can say what I have seen with my own eyes.

“I have not seen anyone I suspect to be from that background [UVF] directing violence. What I have seen is people at protests that have been organised on Facebook, which is how I find out about them – the same way as everybody else.

“Normally, in the past, I would have a fair idea what and who was behind any trouble – but this time it is different.

“Nobody I have spoken to expects the flag to go back up again [at City Hall].”

After Tuesday night’s protests, he got to bed at 1.20am. Since October he has lost four-and-a-half stone, which he puts down in part to how busy he has been in relation to the flag unrest.

“The flags issue is the tip of a much larger iceberg,” he said.

“The Good Friday Agreement was sold to both communities differently. I never saw it as anything but the start of a new phase in the republican war, but grassroots unionists thought it was the end. What they feel is that their identity is under threat.”

Mr Copeland listed the following perceived grievances:

:: Ex-servicemen say that Stormont proves that the bad guys won;

:: There is a feeling that unionists should have been delivered more than this;

:: It is almost impossible for people to get new social housing in their own areas;

:: High levels of unemployment and educational underachievement.

“There has been substantial investment in east Belfast but the psychological feeling of people is akin to mass depression, as reflected in benefits claimant levels and suicide rates.

“East Belfast is not a happy place. Ex-security force personnel see those who were, for many years, intent on killing them, and in some cases their families, now at Stormont. They feel that they fought a war within the law and that those they fought against are now placed in authority over them. The republicans simply see it as a continuation of that war.”

As for solutions he is pessimistic.

“The only vehicle for progress I see is the unionist forum. We need to look at where we are today and where we have come from. The immediate need is to do everything we can to ensure that violence is no longer seen as promoting the agenda.”

He said he has around 14 families from east Belfast interfaces who are desperately seeking to be moved as a result of the trouble.

“They simply cannot stand the psychological pressure. In Cluan Place, cars and homes have been repeatedly damaged by bricks and other missiles coming over the peace line each night.”

In the longer term, a list of grievances should be addressed, he said.

“There are many different flakes in a whole porridge of issues that must be addressed.

“We have one-sided investigations into the past being very skilfully deployed by republicans.

“On parading, there are persistent restrictions which have a great impact on unionist communities. The Historical Enquiries Team, to be honest, has not delivered what families were expecting, in my experience.

“We have had millions spent on inquiries which has not changed anything except supporting an attempt to justify the historical activities of armed republicans and demonise the police.

“The current violence deserves to be condemned. But simple condemnation without an attempt to understand it condemns us to repeat it.

“I support the right of people to peaceful protest.”

:: Follow journalist Philip Bradfield on Twitter.