Wednesday’s Northern nationalist paper ‘The Irish News’ betrays the exasperation of many at the continued widespread disruption and violence caused by loyalist protests. Its front page headlines with ‘Arrest the loyalists who are taking us back to a wasteland’. Inside, their columnist Brian Feeney excoriates the unionist leadership and their hypocrisy and mendacity. He dismisses their ‘unionist forum’, which has been called by the unionist political leaders to unite all shades of unionism, and claims that they no longer rule the state, including the police, as they did in the past because “of a raft of legal changes which have gone through in the last 25 years guaranteeing equal rights for all.” To paraphrase: Unionists will have to accept the reality of equality with nationalists and sit down with them to sort out their problems.
Meanwhile, on that day’s Dublin-based ‘The Irish Times’ its Northern editor reports on the flag riots and the new Unionist Forum and states that “most people will wish it good luck.”
What we have here is three examples in which reality, which stares one in the face, is ignored and sacrificed through ideological wishful thinking. Let’s take them in turn.
First ‘The Irish News’ calls for the arrest of the loyalist protestors, expressing the now widespread view that they have broken the law and caused widespread disruption and intimidation with seeming impunity. Inside it has a hard-hitting editorial which never mentions the only people who can carry out their demand and who have so utterly failed to do so – the police.
The new Police Service of Northern Ireland was supposed to banish into history the partiality of the Royal Ulster Constabulary but there is no apparent difference in the way the new PSNI has treated loyalist protest from the old RUC. In the past this would have led to criticism of the latter but now nationalism supports the PSNI but is faced with the uncomfortable fact that the PSNI appears in no respect to be fundamentally different in its approach. The paper’s editors are left calling on the new emperor to put on clothes while still cheering him and recoiling from pointing out he hasn’t got any on. It is unable to truly call the police to account or to explain its role in facilitating the protest because to do so might raise uncomfortable questions why all the “raft of legal changes” arising from the peace process have changed so little.
Which brings us to Brian Feeney, who has the same problem, because the last three weeks show that the Northern State continues to treat the two communities differently. It is hardly conceivable that republicans could have caused the disruption of the past three weeks without vigorous suppression by the State. So how can he claim that equality is a reality that unionists are refusing to accept? Just who is blind to reality?
Even if the proposed Unionist Forum is simply an attempt to regain the political initiative by the Unionist parties who set the whole protest off, it signals that only sectarian organisation is capable of political effect. The joint call by Peter Robinson of the DUP and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein for an end to the protests achieved absolutely nothing. Brian Feeney calls for the unionists to sit down with nationalists apparently oblivious not only to the fact that they have been doing so throughout the crisis, in fact for over five years but that they have actually been in government together for all this time. During these years they were supposed to be drawing up a joint anti-sectarianism strategy which was to include how to deal with such issues as flags. So the clichéd call for the two parties to get together to sort out their differences now has to ignore that this has been a failure. What’s the alternative now then?
Finally we have the pious declaration of the ‘The Irish Times’ Northern editor that most people will wish the Unionist Forum good luck. As we have said, if it is to be more than a device for the unionist leaders to regain control, in which case it simply gives control back those who caused the protests in the first place, it will be a sectarian construction uniting the unionist political parties with the political fronts of the loyalist paramilitary outfits who have been organising much of the violence. The policy of promoting these forces by the state became news again when it was revealed that ex-prisoner groups were to get £4 million in state funds through what has been widely described as a “slush-fund”. The smell coming from it was such that the neither Peter Robinson nor Martin McGuinness wanted to be publically associated with it despite it coming out of their Office. Fashionable talk about reconciling the combatants doesn’t look so smart when one set is promoting riots and intimidation in the streets and seemingly getting paid for it.
What we have therefore is Irish nationalism in denial of the reality that stares it in the face. It is of course possible to deny reality for a long time even while this becomes more and more uncomfortable. But it is not possible to do so forever. Its smug assumption that what we have witnessed is unionism in crisis ignores its own role in covering for the Unionist political leaders who kicked the protest off and who they must now cling to as the way out of the protests. It is reflected also in its support for the police who have “facilitated” the protest.
If unionism is in crisis then in a system which is a joint sectarian carve-up so is nationalism. Most nationalists may not believe it but that too stares them in the face when they can’t get home from work and can’t go Christmas shopping in Belfast city centre.