THE BLOG

Belfasts Riots Are an Indictment of the Unionist Ruling Class

11/01/2013 12:07 GMT | Updated 12/03/2013 09:12 GMT

The flag riots are just plain bad for Northern Ireland. Bad for business, bad for foreign investment, bad for community relations, bad for the image of Northern Ireland abroad and bad for the collective future of its people.

But I genuinely feel bad for the loyalist rioters. The scenes of rioting are the spasms and signs of a community in distress. A community of people who are uninformed, poorly educated, who have little opportunity and who, in many ways, have been left behind since the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998.

They are alienated from the rest of society and remain unheard and disconnected from the political process. But the one thing they have had in recent times has been their very specific identity and culture. A working class nostalgia just as it is in many of the poor estates in the North of England.

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The union flag flown upside down represents a community both uninformed and in distress

Central to their identity is their loyalty to the Union with Great Britain. And so the removal of the union flag from from the Belfast city hall after a decision taken by the city council at the start of December has been interpreted as direct assault on their identity.

But this isn't entirely the case and it certainly shouldn't exactly be seen that way. The Union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is secure. And so in many ways it has been the failure of political unionism to convey this message that has been at the root of the riots, civil unrest and street politics.

Yes the riots are unquestionably the doing of thugs and wrongdoers. But ultimately the riots are an indictment of a unionist ruling class who have offered no leadership or guidance to their lower class cousins.

Where nationalists and republicans have rallied the catholic community around the goal of a united Ireland the unionist leaders have allowed unionism to fragment and diverge. Working class protestants fester in sink estates; young middle class protestants shoot off to universities on the mainland and the chattering protestant class moderate their voices and just keep themselves to themselves.

By nature protestants are more disputatious and atomised in opinion. And so because of this unionists have no collective story or narrative. They have no common goal to rally around bar the vague notion that the union must be maintained.

And as the Irish historian Ruth Dudley Edwards said on the Today Programme on Radio 4: that's where the catholic community have the competitive advantage. Catholics are naturally hierarchical. In the catholic religion they adhere to a linear chain of command. And so in catholic politics orders flow from top to bottom and by and large the community toes the line.

And so as I've said, the fact that political unionism has allowed members of the unionist family to become so atomised and the working class so alienated is utterly reprehensible and deeply shameful.

The sudden jolt by unionist politicians towards opening up a pan-unionist Unionist Forum goes some way to addressing the atomisation and leadership-deficit issue. But talk about trying to close the door after the horse has bolted!

The removal of the Union flag from the city hall in Belfast was years in the making. This now stands as a lesson in strategic slow politics: the coming together of countless hours of republican and nationalist planning guided by their united-Ireland goal.

The political foresight, discipline and planning that brought the flag down is a product of the catholic way.

With that in mind unionist leaders and the unionist community could learn a lesson from their nationalist and republican counterparts who now do slow politics, not street politics.Unionist leaders need to set out and talk long term strategy and importantly, connect and present it to the whole of their people, not just some.