By Peter Kelly
BELFAST, Northern Ireland – The unceremonious scenes that unfortunately dominated Northern Irish headlines in the end of last year were, for so many, a sorry and unwanted reminder of the dark, old days of The Troubles – a time the Northern Irish people thought they had left behind.
The local Stormont government voted on December 3rd to limit the number of days that the Union flag flies over Belfast City Hall. That’s when Protestant unionists took to the streets in protest.
The protests had originally set out to be peaceful demonstrations but inevitably spilt over to violence and caused serious detrimental effects to the country.
Nearby businesses were forced to close and took a serious hit. Most noticeably, the Christmas continental market was forced to extend its stay to regain income. Roads became shut off and trains were cancelled, and the overall economy of Northern Ireland is reported to have missed out on roughly 20 million pounds.
Businesses were at a loss of just under 15 million, while policing the protests cost a further 7 million pounds. Moreover, since December, approximately 150 people were arrested and charged with offenses connected to street disorder, and injuries to police officers are in the hundreds.
The horrific scenes of rioting cast an undesirable resemblance to the days of the Troubles, and the people of Northern Ireland can take two important lessons from it all.
Firstly, and somewhat disappointingly, is that the two main parties of the Stormont government can unfortunately continue to bully and manipulate both sides of the community.
It was Sinn Fein who propositioned the removal of the union flag, which was irrefutably an action from which they can seem to keep up a nationalist agenda, and appeal to the republican voters. It all simply should have been dealt with in a more sensitive manner.
On the other side of the coin, it was the Democratic Unionist Party that pressured the loyalist communities onto the streets in protest, boiling sectarian blood even more and influencing the inevitable development of violence.
This is regrettably an illustration of the two main parties’ persistent ability to employ sectarian politics to ensure a majority vote, and crucially, it’s where the main problem of Northern Ireland lies.
For as long as the people of Northern Ireland are governed by parties that can fuel sectarian tension for the requirement of votes, then there will always remain the potential for the return of the scenes we unfortunately had to endure over the past months.
Northern Ireland needs a government that will cater to both sides of the community and steer the country in the direction of a collective national identity, which is what the vast majority of Northern Irish people seek.
Protests have unfortunately continued into March, with yet another police officer injured as a result of rioting on Sunday, March 17, but the Northern Irish people continue to remain positive. This is where the second and more importantly, positive, lesson comes in: that the Northern Irish people will not accept being clawed back into the dark days by the narrow-minded actions of the few.
On Jan. 6, more than 1,000 people turned out for a peace demonstration in Belfast in opposition to the violence, highlighting quite clearly that the Northern Irish public will not stand for a return to sectarian divisions.
A “Backin’ Belfast” campaign was launched in January as a response to the violence and bid to thrust the Northern Irish people back to the shops in the city center. The campaign was a great success with the Northern Irish Retail Consortium recording an encouraging increase in Belfast shoppers during the month of February. This demonstrates the resiliency of the public to not let the protests intrude on their everyday life, and highlights the success that such positivity can bring.
With the protests sadly continuing nearly four months after the initial flag bill was passed, Belfast however remains a commercial hub bursting with culture, attracting millions of visitors each year.
It is undoubtedly the majority from within the country who condemn the recent violence and want Northern Ireland to continue on its path of peace.