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2 February 2014 Edition

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Unionist leaders follow the Orange Brick Road

• The DUP’s Peter Robinson and the UUP’s Mike Nesbitt were never serious about the talks

PEADAR WHELAN argues that the DUP and UUP leaderships have been immobilised by the reactionary nature of the unionist ideology that frames their thinking

“WE’RE still in Ulster,” exclaimed a shocked Dorothy Robinson to Toto Nesbitt as they emerged from the Haass talks.

Behind them snaked the Orange Brick Road, stretching as far as the eye could see, as far back as 1690. Before them it only stretched as far as the new challenges of 2014.

Aghast at the notion of showing leadership and making decisions, the pair eyed each other knowingly and set off – back through the flag protests, the Twelfth riots, Camp Twaddell and the broken promises – on the road to the Boyne.

“No Surrender,” they sang to the tune of, well, ‘No Surrender’ as they shuffled to the back of the howling mobs to be led from behind and go to whence they came.

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THIS is how I saw the end of the Haass/O’Sullivan Talks that were scuppered by the DUP and UUP.

The talks had been billed as the way out of a year marked by the violence, threats and intimidation that bubbled up out of the chaos of the so-called flag protests. But the last-minute loss of nerve that saw first the Ulster Unionist Party drop the ball, then the DUP, meant that the efforts of Haass and O’Sullivan come to a halt.

For now it seems that unionism is content to parade back along their Orange Brick Road rather than meet the challenges of the days ahead.

The certainties of the past are more comforting than the possibilities of a better future.

As it became clear that the unionist parties were not willing to implement what has become known as ‘Haass 7’ (the seventh and final draft of his compromise paper), opinion makers and commentators from across the political, social and media spectrum concurred that DUP leader Peter Robinson and UUP leader Mike Nesbitt were never serious about the talks.

The suggestion that they were bounced into them reluctantly has a degree of merit in my mind.

Last year, 2013, started off badly for both unionist parties.

The violent reaction to the vote by Belfast City Council on 3 December to limit the flying of the Union flag was being squarely laid at the doors of the UUP and DUP in light of their decision to issue a leaflet that clearly inflamed the situation.

The leaflet’s focus on the Alliance Party (which had taken Peter Robinson’s DUP Westminster seat in east Belfast) led to scores of physical and verbal attacks on party offices and members.

From December 2012 through to April  (see An Phoblacht of April 2013), so-called flag protesters were responsible for scores of attacks on political opponents, nationalist homes or businesses, and the PSNI.

The small nationalist Short Strand district of east Belfast was repeatedly attacked as illegal march after illegal march went past, with participants urging respect for a flag directing their sectarian venom at people.

Unionist Forum

Having let the genie of loyalist thuggery out of the bottle, the unionist leaders set up a ‘Unionist Forum’ on 10 January 2013, It established a ‘task force’ to consult the public on issues including flags and symbols, parading, unionist identity and educational under-achievement in unionist areas.

By the end of March the initiative was floundering with much of the criticism coming from none other than the Reverend Mervyn Gibson, Grand Chaplain of the Orange Order.

Gibson (who would end up as part of the DUP delegation at the Haass/O’Sullivan Talks despite not being a member of the DUP) said the Orange Order would not be a “sticking plaster” for the project.

Needless to say, both Jim Allister (Traditional Unionist Voice) and Billy Hutchinson (Progressive Unionist Party) expressed their own reservations about the Forum.

Indeed in June Jim Allister jumped ship from the Unionist Forum after Peter Robinson and Sinn Féin joint First Minister Martin McGuinness announced that the Long Kesh site was to be developed and would include the building of a Conflict Resolution Centre.

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• TUV leader Jim Allister, PUP leader Billy Hutchinson and The Orange Order’s Reverend Mervyn Gibson

Allister resigned, saying the “greatest issue of concern to the wider unionist community are the DUP/Sinn Féin plans to build a so-called ‘Peace Centre’” at Long Kesh.

The TUV leader added:

“The 13 groups representing innocent victims who signed up to the Charter for Innocent Victims – FAIR, the UDR Regimental Association, the RUC GC Association, the RUC GC Widows’ Association and the biggest mass-member organisation in the unionist community, the Orange Order – have all urged the abandonment of the project.”

It was from this coalition that much of the unionist opposition to Haass emanated.

Just days before the US diplomat arrived in the North, the Orange Order was setting out its stall — dump the Parades Commission.

The nightly protests at Ardoyne in north Belfast, centred on the Orange Order’s self-styled ‘civil rights camp’ (established after the Parades Commission placed restrictions on bands passing the Ardoyne shops on the Twelfth) is proof that Orangemen and their supporters still see Catholics and nationalists as second-class citizens to be walked on.

Then we had the ‘RUC and B-Specials old comrades’ organisation, the NI Retired Police Officers’ Association, who in their submission to Haass demanded there be “no form of moral equivalence between those who take life and those who attempted to save life” during the conflict.

If when preparing for the Haass negotiations the unionist parties were looking over their shoulders at Jim Allister and his ultra-Right coalition of ‘moral high-grounders’ then there is no doubt that events on the ground completely unnerved Robinson and Nesbitt.

Cranking up tensions

The events of 2013 saw the Orange Order and the UVF crank up tensions around marches.

What have become known colloquially as the ‘fleggers’ still made their presence felt and turned up to wave flags as Sinn Féin Culture, Arts & Leisure Minister Carál Ní Chuilín opened the North’s first Olympic standard pool in Bangor in March.

They erected flags at interfaces and thoroughfares near nationalist areas and daubed the kerbstones near the well-known Holy Cross Girls’ School at Ardoyne red, white and blue. On 26 April, a loyalist mob gathered at the school gates in a clear act of sectarian intimidation.

St Mary’s Star of the Sea Church and St Enda’s GAA Club on the outskirts of Belfast were targeted with hoax bombs. Both have suffered badly at the hands of loyalists over the years. (St Mary’s would also be paint bombed in September and October.)

St Patrick’s Church near Belfast City Centre became a high-profile battleground for Orangemen as they demanded their unfettered right to march where and how they see fit.

On 4 May, a Catholic teenager from west Belfast, her Protestant friend, and her sister, were lucky to be alive after a gang assault in a Rangers FC supporters’ club in the loyalist Donegall Road. Leading members of the UVF were involved in the incident.

On 7 June, a hoax bomb was left at a family home in north Belfast. UVF graffiti was also daubed on the door and windows of the house.

A 4-year-old girl and her friend suffered minor burns and were lucky to escape serious injury after loyalists lobbed a petrol bomb across the Short Strand peace wall at Bryson Street on 18 June. This was just one of a series of petrol bombings in the area.

Tension rocketed in the lead-up to the Twelfth as a result of the Parades Commission’s curb on north Belfast Orangemen passing Ardoyne on their return journey after passing it earlier.

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• Sinn Féin Mayor of Belfast Máirtín Ó Muilleoir is attacked by loyalists at Woodvale Park

As the PSNI blocked the parade on the Woodvale Road on Friday the Twelfth, serious rioting broke out.

March supporters who were clearly drunk, Orangemen in collarettes and uniformed bandsmen were involved in frenzied attacks on PSNI lines.

Martin McGuinness called the Orange Order “a disgrace”, saying “responsibility rests with the leadership of the Orange Order”.

In related incidents, loyalists rioted throughout Belfast; in Portadown and Derry, loyalists took to the streets.

The venomous sectarian nature of loyalism was exposed in all its bitterness at the beginning of August.

On 6 August, a baying mob swamped Sinn Féin Mayor of Belfast Máirtín Ó Muilleoir and a PSNI escort at a family fun day during the reopening of Woodvale Park. Ó Muilleoir suffered cuts and bruises in an attack which many believe could have ended in serious injury to the mayor or the PSNI.

On 10 August, Belfast City Centre became a battleground as, in the words of Martin McGuinness, the “combined forces” of the UVF and Orange Order rioted against the PSNI. The violence erupted as loyalists tried to prevent an ‘Anti-Internment League’ march passing through Royal Avenue.

Rioters also attacked the Short Strand and Carrick Hill.

In September, the loyalist paramilitary Red Hand Defenders told schoolchildren from three Catholic schools (including Holy Cross, in north Belfast) they were “legitimate targets”. The RHD was a cover name used in the past by loyalist groups to claim attacks.

UVF members got the guns out on Wednesday 25 September and shot 24-year-old Jemma McGrath five times in the abdomen, legs and arm, reportedly over a personal fall-out with a senior UVF figure in east Belfast.

The shooting was a clear indication that the UVF is in the driving seat in east Belfast and the re-emergence of militaristic UVF murals reinforced that point.

Caught in a pincer of the moral and violent wings of unionism, Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt got themselves stuck on the Orange Brick Road. Where will they go now?

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• Drunken ‘fleggers’ attack PSNI lines on the Woodvale Road

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