So, it’s been a few days since BCC voted to stop flying the union flag over City Hall 365 days of the year and instead to have the flag fly on designated days such as the Queen’s birthday for instance. Others and myself have commented quite a bit on this and how it may have something to do with the upcoming Census figures or Peter Robinson’s ‘Catholic Outreach‘, but I’m certain few of us would have imagined that we would have anything more than some rioting on Monday (that does say something about how conditioned Northerners are to serious, mob violence, right?) as opposed to the orchestrated trouble we are seeing the Alliance Party face right now in East Belfast, Carrickfergus and elsewhere.
First of all, I want to say that whilst I am a Nationalist who has been fairly critical of the Alliance party on occasion, the intimidation and violence being meted out and specifically directed at the Alliance party premises and more importantly its members is beyond disgraceful. Politics aside, I hope that all of the members of the Party are safe and free from intimidation immediately. As Stephen Doonan, Alliance Party ativist, wrote in the Belfast Telegraph:
‘This is not a protest, this is criminality and barbarism. You [unionism] just lost the argument.‘
And indeed they have. However, 4 days after BCC voted for a compromise motion/deal from the Alliance party to fly the flag on designated days and the fall out and ugly scenes we are witnessing, I thought it might be a good idea to see where each party/actor stands at the moment and what the fallout may be for each.
Starting with the Ulster Unionists, back in 1997 the UU had 13 councillors and had been used to running the show, usually to the detriment of nationalists, for a century. Now they have a rump of 3 councillors, all of whom are fairly old incumbents and none of whom covered themselves in any kind of glory on Monday night or since. They have rowed in behind the largest unionist party in BCC, the DUP, on all matters and seem fairly indistinguishable from the DUP in all matters. Questions have to be asked, will there be any UU councillors after the next round of elections? Bob Stoker has been on the council since 1995, David Browne since 1993 and Jim Rodgers since time begun. They are yesterday’s men and must be vulnerable to either the DUP for mainstream unionist voters, Alliance for liberal unionist voters or to ever increasing Nationalist voters in any of these areas. I will not shed a tear when they are rightly consigned to history’s dustbin along with other notably awful political parties such as the Ba’ath Party, Eastern European Communists et al.
Outside of the Chamber, UU ‘leader’ Mike Nesbitt has not really been seen to be leading anything. He released a fairly short statement without noting the trouble facing the Alliance party specifically or the fact that his party may have had a hand in bringing the men of violence onto the streets and instead tries to play party politics by referring to republican violence in his brief statement! In the words of a famous Pixies song, I’m amazed.
Meanwhile, liberal unionists John McAllister and Basil McCrea have come out noting that they are for the flying of the union flag on designated days and have supported the Alliance’s motion for an early recall of the Assembly regarding the violence we are seeing at the moment, something they must be commended for, but which also goes on to highlight how Nesbitt really isn’t fit for purpose and how McCrea and McAllister have become somewhat detached from the UUP in a lot of ways. This begs the questions, how much longer will they stay with the rabble and who will they jump to?
For the SDLP, I think this has been a good week of sorts too. They continue to show to the Nationalist electorate that they are no longer the ‘Stoops’ or are willing to bend over backwards to compromise with those who are more often than not incapable of compromise. It should be noted that they were for not having the union flag flying at all over City Hall, something most Nats would be in agreement with, however, again commonsense prevailed and the rowed in with Sinn Fein (SF) and delivered the next best result for Nationalism whilst respecting the constitutional position of the North, whether we like it or not.
Further, Alasdair McDonnell has visited the Alliance’s Carrickfergus offices that have been burnt down to show his support for the party which has to be commended and have gone in behind the Alliance’s motion to recall the Assembly to debate about the ongoing violence. Overall, this has been a good week for the SDLP not only among Nats but also with ‘unaffiliated’ voters.
SF have also had a decent week too. They have pushed through something they have long wanted to do, have shown that they can work with the SDLP and the Alliance and stayed fairly flexible on the outcome of the vote (no flag flying or designated days). There have been few if any rebel rousing speeches as such and they have had supporters on message regarding what to expect. As was the case with the GFA, they have been able to say off the record and to supporters ‘this is not ideal, but you are seeing progress in the right direction. Once we have a majority we will take it down all together and maybe even have the tricolour there but we will need your votes and you cannot trust the SDLP to deliver that now can you?‘ Will Nats in the main go for this? Yes and No, but part of it is very convincing while the remainder probably isn’t.
I actually expect SF to try and keep it’s head down on this matter. They have largely gotten what they want and have given their opponents (unionism in general) enough rope to hang themselves with whether it is with rioting, intimidation or mealy mouthed statements not really condemning the aftermath. In this instance less is more for SF and they will not get any votes from Alliance supporters any way, however, on a point of principle I would like to see them side by side with Alliance members at places like Carrickfergus, being seen to condemn these acts, though I don’t know if it would be a good idea if someone like Gerry Kelly were to make his way to East Belfast with a baying mob waiting for him. I’m sure he wouldn’t be too scared though it may descend into mayhem and be counterproductive in the long run.
Loyalism and the PUP have definitely had a bad week, no doubt about it, unless of course they wanted to show everyone that they haven’t gone away, you know. What makes the whole matter somewhat frightening is the rather organised manner the violence has taken on whether it was the protests outside City Hall on Monday night that turned ugly and violent, or (again) the trouble in Carrickfergus.
The PUP had originally gotten behind the compromise motion to fly the flag on designated days, however, the DUP and UUP seemingly out ‘oranged’ the PUP and they decided to change their minds. Alan in Belfast (a great contributor) notes over on SOT/occasionally Bullshit Mountain Billy Hutchinson’s fine words to working class unionists/loyalists about what they need to do to receive recognition and a voice in Stormont:
‘If working class loyalists, protestants and unionists don’t decide to politicise and to tackle the political system, then they’ll be left behind. That is the problem with our community. We need to get it right. We need to articulate our arguments politically.
We are perceived to be sectarian bigots and we are not. We need to get the language right, and we need to challenge those people who are running us down. The media have not been kind to us. But it’s not just the media. It’s other people who are violence-setting and who blame it on loyalists. They’re a bunch of sectarian thugs and that’s what happens.’
Fine words, though unfortunately they are just that. Again, we have some more finely crafted words from a unionist politician that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in the real world. The PUP is a small, rag tag outfit that talks the talk but has little support. The longer they are tied to the UVF the longer they will have to wait to become electable.
As for the DUP, it is hard to say whether this has been a bad week for them or not, we will see soon. This campaign by the DUP is nothing remotely to do with the flying of the union flag over City Hall or the pereived hollowing out of ‘Britishness’ (whatever that actually means) in Belfast but is everything to do with the Alliance party in East Belfast. As Ian Parsley noted, the DUP who are in the majority on Lisburn City Council fly the union flag on designated days, yet they are against this with BCC? It is intellectual dishonesty and inconsistent on the part of the DUP, so why would they be going ahead with organising protests and be against the Alliance’s compromise?
In East Belfast, Naomi Long won the vote with 37.2% of the vote while the DUP came second with 32.8% thanks to the ‘Swish Family Robinson’ scandal, double jobbing and the TUV’s David Vance splitting the vote by taking up 5.4% of the DUP’s traditional vote too. With the implosion of the UUP (Trevor Ringland took 21.2% of the vote) the question has to be will Naomi be able to hold on to her seat? The DUP are gambling that by painting the Alliance as ‘selling out’ the union they will bring more unionists to their cause.
Will they be able to take a large number of Ringland’s voters or will the scenes from Monday night on harden the Alliance’s vote? It is a very risky strategy on the part of the DUP as Trevor Ringland is something of a liberal unionist and the UUP continually appear to be supplanted by the Alliance throughout the Greater Belfast Metropolitan area. Whilst many of Ringland’s votes may go to the DUP, many will surely go to Naomi too.
As for the Alliance party itself, it has been a very tough week for them in more ways than one. They are facing violence and intimidation on members and property. It is apparent that they have been singled out for abuse from political unionism who are effectively saying ‘we are against violence but you brought this on yourself for democratically seeking and voting on a compromise measure with your neighbours‘, and with physical force unionism who have attached their premises or threatened the lives of members.
At the polls, it is difficult to say how this will play out for them. For many unionists the Alliance are being painted as traitors, stooges and puppets of Nationalism for going along with the compromise measure, even though the hypocrisy of this opposition is plain for all to see. As noted previously, the Alliance appear to be taking the seats and voters of the UUP in the East of the North, particularly in the Greater Belfast area. They are happy with the symbols of the union to exist, yet they are a lot more civil and constructive in their dealings with Nationalists, making them in many ways a natural home for liberal unionists.
So, it has to be asked when the dust settles whether their stand will actually cost them any votes? Everyone is well aware of the Party’s position on this matter of the flag and thanks to the concerted violence against them they now have a lot more exposure outside of the rather sterile, press officer dictated confines of Stormont. Further, it may be somewhat tactless for me to say but they will also get a large amount of sympathy from many on the trouble they are facing and this could turn into higher preference votes (Council and Assembly elections) or regular votes (Westminster) in the future, though it may be some time before we go back to the polls and this whole matter may be consigned to history by then.
This whole matter has been a particularly poorly managed disaster for political unionism in general. They have used a dog whistle to bring their muscle out during the Christmas festivities over a matter that is trivial to outsiders or has been settled in other unionist controlled councils in the manner voted for at BCC and now they are seemingly unable to put a leash on their dogs. For Nationalism, another step in the right direction and they should rightly feel proud of willing to seek compromise and then stand above the fray. For Alliance, it is too early to say how this will play out for them though politics aside, all I can hope for is that the violence and intimidation ends immediately and without reserve.