AMONGST all the noise and rhetoric about the flag protests and riots, the most important and insightful response came from east Belfast UDA leader Jimmy Birch.
In a BBC Radio Ulster news special called ‘Inside the Flag Protests’, Birch commented: “Every time they [Sinn Fein] call a tune, we take to the streets. We are wrecking our own areas, we fight with the police, we are burning our own cars and we stop our own people going to work and disrupt our own people’s way of life. It is wrong, we need to step back and we need to stop being predictable.”
To address the problem of loyalist detachment from the peace process Birch stressed that loyalists must develop politically as well as realise that education is the way forward.
One might think that the Unionist Forum could be helpful on this score but some scepticism is required. Set up as a mechanism to address eight key areas of concern which include dealing with ‘deprivation and educational underachievement in the unionist community’ as well as ‘broader political economic matters’, the forum appears to have recognised the need to deal with the issues which Birch identifies.
The problem, however, is that the forum does not seem to have any way of actually dealing with the areas it wants to investigate beyond talking about them.
It certainly, as yet, has no formal structure or means of analysing and responding to the areas under examination and it certainly as yet has no discernible way of gathering, interpreting and verifying data or research about causes of anxiety, fear and anger within loyalism.
Indeed, and perhaps worryingly, it has already been made clear that the forum ‘would not be a decision-making body’ but instead would act ‘as a body within which a consensus might be built and implementation of any actions left to individual organisations’.
In other words, leaving groups to continue doing what they are doing instead of dealing with the issues collectively and decisively.
This will not address the overriding problem that besets loyalism which is detachment from the perceived benefits of the peace process.
To confront this dislocation progressive loyalist figures (and there are a number of them, contrary to popular perception) must be absorbed into the political process for only then will the bigger problem of deficit in educational attainment and aspiration be addressed.
If this does not happen the current tensions and trouble will emerge again and perhaps in more systematic and virulent form.
Though we must recognise that it is only a minority who have incited and participated in the violence, it is also important to avoid thinking that short-term responses alone will fix the situation.
It is vital to see this issue in the context of a bigger picture which is political and educational, as Birch rightly pointed out. These areas must be addressed if long-term peace and stability are to work.
Graham Spencer is Reader in Politics, Conflict and the Media at the University of Portsmouth and has written widely on loyalism