“There is no way you would put up with this in Dublin. Violent protests would just be cleared off the streets, wouldn’t they?” This sums up pretty succinctly a lot of the comments I have heard from friends and supporters in the North over the course of the last fortnight, as the appalling flags fiasco continues to poison the conversation about and perception of what everyone hoped was a new Northern Ireland.
It is an excellent question. The obvious and correct answer is that Dublin wouldn’t tolerate it, that the entire political and business and security and community network would have united within a day to insist that it stop and that the Gardaí be supported in doing whatever they needed to move it on.
But the simple answer doesn’t explain anything; the more difficult question, which might shed some light on what has been happening in the North, is ‘why?’
When the flags violence first reared its ugly head in early December, I responded to the effect that it was evidence of a sickening and depressing problem. The problem, as I described it, is that if politics is not demonstrably and tangibly about making people’s quality of life better in Northern Ireland, politics will quickly revert to being about flags, emblems, parades and all the other things that have defined public life for too many people, for too long.
My critique is based on a deeply held belief that the Executive can and has to work. Over the course of the last year I have made a number of interventions on the same theme – that the peace process was supposed to be about more than the absence of violence.
If the Executive is not making progress on child poverty, or economic inactivity, or sectarianism; if it is not even seen to be looking at such issues in a serious way or making any impact on people’s lives, can we really be surprised when a section of society feels entirely comfortable walking out onto the streets and causing chaos without any thought for the effect it has on the wider community?
There are many within the Nationalist community who will characterise what’s been happening as a unionist problem – to reflect on a brief feeling of moral superiority over political opponents making a spectacle of themselves in the international media.
But that would be a mistake. It would be a mistake because anyone with any interest in moving forward republican politics in a spirit of equality will look at what has been happening and know that a genuine republican project means nothing if it cannot demonstrate to all communities that indigenous democracy delivers.
It would also be a mistake because the thugs who have the front pages of the newspapers do not have a monopoly on disregard for the rule of law. As recently as November, we watched as Sinn Féin’s Justice Spokesperson led 300 protestors in a picket of PSNI headquarters in East Belfast because that party were unhappy with the direction of a PSNI investigation and wanted one of their own released from custody.
What moral authority does any public representative have criticising a protest that challenges the writ and authority of the PSNI when their party was promoting just such a protest only months ago?
“But that’s different” is the answer I know I’ll get from the usual critics. “But that’s different” is also the stock response that each dominant political block in Northern Ireland has relied on to cover all manner of disputes in the past. My hope is that it will not work any longer.
If nothing else positive comes out of this obscene spectacle, I hope that at least some middle ground consensus will emerge that the time has come for the Executive to lift its game and that the time for any ambiguity about the primacy of politics and the rule of law is at an end. If this happens, and it is genuinely unequivocal, these protests will have the same shelf life that they would have in any other major town or city in Ireland or Britain.
If this doesn’t happen, if the north’s dominant political blocks continue to walk the path they have been for at least the last year, this dispute will drag on. And when it finally splutters to an end, my fear is that some other equally grotesque expression of disorder and disillusionment will take its place.