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How much of a threat to Northern Ireland's peace is loyalist alienation?

By Paul Goodman
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  • Last week, Belfast City Council voted to restrict the number of times the Union Flag can be flown in a year.  Alliance Party councillors voted for the measure. The attempted murder of a police officer later took place outside the office of Naomi Long, the Alliance MP for East Belfast.  She herself received a death threat.  So did Jim McVeigh, a Sinn Fein city councillor.  So did Conall McDevitt, an SDLP MLA.  So did Jeffrey Donaldson, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MP for Lagan Valley.  And so did Edwin Poots, a DUP MLA for Lagan Valley and a Health Minister in the Northern Ireland Government. The office of Stewart Dickson, an Alliance member of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLA), was later set alight.  That of William Irwin, a Democratic Unionist Party MLA, was also attacked.
  • This week, David Cameron also responded in the Commons to the report by Sir Desmond de Silva "into the nature and extent of state collusion in the murder of Patrick Finucane".  Alasdair McDonnell, the SDLP MP for Belfast South, backed the Finucane family's criticism of the report: "We feel that we have still got only half the truth out," he told the House. "This report confirms why Judge Cory was right, as the family were right, to demand an open, international, independent inquiry." However, William McCrea, the DUP MP for South Antrim, said that the Irish Government should "hold a public inquiry into collusion between previous Governments of the Irish Republic and the IRA, including the arming of the Provisional IRA and inflicting 30 years of murder and mayhem on the people of Northern Ireland?"

These three stories, different but also intertwined, have raised the profile of Northern Ireland in the mainland media - never high unless violence or terror takes place - several notches.  So it is perhaps an opportune time to ask if Northern Ireland's troubles, which I briefly reported when working for the Sunday Telegraph during the mid-1990s, are likely to return.

It is also worth remembering that a relatively new Conservative Northern Ireland team is in place.  Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State, comes fairly fresh to the politics of the province, and Mike Penning has replaced Hugo Swire as her junior.  The sum of the views that I have had from contacts is as follows:
  • The commitment of the Republican movement as a whole to the present Northern Ireland settlement, in which the province remains part of the United Kingdom, has always been uncertain, and the nature of the relationship between Sinn Fein and dissident republican is strongly contested.  One source I spoke to said that in his view Martin McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister, has little effective support from his colleagues for making the Belfast Agreement work.
  • Arguably, however, loyalists are more unhappy at present than their republican counterparts.  Loyalist violence has tended to rise and fall in relation to how secure the Protestant majority feels about their continued place in the United Kingdom.  (As the figures above suggest, there are certainly Catholic Unionists, but in my experience they don't fear the potential loss of that place in quite the same way.)  The Belfast City Hall flag rumpus has as much to do with the internecine politics of Belfast as with this larger theme, but the mood of many Unionists and loyalists is definitely uneasy.  The census findings will have done little to calm it.
  • Rightly or wrongly, lots of Unionists who are strongly opposed to violence are none the less unhappy at what they see as double standards in the way in which the consequences of the Troubles are being treated.  Mr Mcrea's Commons question put its finger on the resentment that many feel about the consideration given to Republican victims - such as Mr Finucane and the Bloody Sunday dead - and the lack of it given to those who were murdered by the IRA and other republican terror groups.  History matters in Northern Ireland.
  • There is a strong sense among those I've spoken to that the Northern Ireland Office no longer has the expertise that it acquired in, say, the Major and Blair years (it is now works alongside the Scottish and Welsh Office, and no longer has its own Permanent Secretary), and that  "the Irish Government doesn't have its eye on the ball".
  • The consensus view is that the Troubles won't return on the same scale, since there is no equivalent of the civil rights movement of the late 1960s; no international backer of terror to arm terror (as Libya did during the 1980s and 1990s), and no incentive for Northern Ireland's republican leadership, in particular, to return to violence.  "They have been stuffed with gold, as Bevan said of the doctors," one source told me.  Whether this holds as true of loyalists, given the demographic trajectory of the province, is more difficult to say.


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