The decision by Belfast City Council to restrict flying the Union Jack and the subsequent actions of the various political parties involved highlights the degree to which political ambition has always trumped real leadership and a more long term view for the greater good in Irish politics.
Having lost his seat in 2010, Peter Robinson and his DUP colleagues have been waiting in the long grass for the Alliance Party’s MP Naomi Long to slip up. Long took the seat in 2010 with a 1,533 vote majority.
With 90% of the vote shared amongst unionist parties, East Belfast has always been a battle for the heart of unionism where unity, let alone cooperation and leadership, appear extinct. The Alliance Party’s decision to support flag restrictions over City Hall was quickly pounced upon by Robinson’s DUP camp and by the UUP who immediately circulated over 40,000 leaflets to all homes in the area. The target was always Long whose name, home address, telephone number and email were highlighted on the leaflets even though she does not sit on the City Council.
The actions of all three unionist parties have acted as a lightning rod for the already marginalised working class Protestants in the area. In particular, it is the tone set by the direct mail political communication that has lit an uncontrollable fuse and backed East Belfast rioters and their politicians into a corner.
The DUP and UUP targeted Long and her family home making her the subject of death threats and has returned Belfast rioting news stories to news programmes across the globe. Rioting has caused damage, injury and fear with city centre businesses severely affected and up to a 100 police officers injured.
The issue has gone from local to national to international and is being watched by potential business investors who will be meeting in boardrooms across the globe and scratching Northern Ireland off their investment list.
And where now the political leadership needed to restore calm? Ruthless Unionist political communication tactics may have won brownie points to boost political careers and party prospects but have surely thwarted compromise for no party will want to capitulate to violent mobs, even the ones they are responsible for setting loose.