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It's time to park all this rhetoric and reflect on the fact it should never have got this far

(Liam Clarke, Belfast Telegraph)

Yesterday (Monday) in the Assembly they talked the talk. We now need them to walk the walk.

The parties united in defence of democracy. The tone was positive, though punctuated with snarls and hints of resumed hostilities.

Proceedings had to be tightly managed to keep it civilised. Only party leaders were allowed to speak, and a partisan amendment from UKip's David McNarry was ruled out.

Still, the outcome sent a positive message to the world. The Assembly condemned rioting, intimidation, harassment and violent attacks on elected representatives, police and others. It reaffirmed an "absolute and unconditional commitment of all its Members to respecting and upholding the rule of law and the pursuit of their political objectives by purely legal and political means".

Making that unanimous, with nobody demanding that a vote be taken, is a step forward. It is a long way from Sinn Féin's position during the years of conflict.

It is a somewhat shorter but still significant distance from the defence some DUP members offered for illegal protests as recently as August.

Let's bank an achievement and not belittle it.

So it is, as the writer E M Forster once wrote, a case of "two cheers for democracy". Forster added, writing amidst the growth of dictatorships in 1938, that a third cheer was excessive at this point.

So it was with the Assembly. Members need to move beyond the rhetoric to the give and take that is necessary for peace to endure and prosperity to grow.

The four biggest parties have moved belatedly to try and put the genie of violence back in the bottle.

Let us hope they succeed, but let us not forget their mistakes that led to this.

The flags issue should never have got this far. The old joke that republicans are too clever to admit it when they lose and unionists are too stupid to realise when they have won contains a grain of truth.

Republican leaders present every change as leading inevitably to Irish unity, often with little evidence.

The evidence is that as Northern Ireland is reformed, effectively made a warmer house for Catholics, nationalists become more reconciled to partition. Flying the Union flag less frequently probably won't make a big difference but it will, if anything, move things in that direction.

Just as often unionist leaders present every change as a harbinger of doom. In the current flags row unionist voters were leafleted to tell them they were about to be defeated. During the council debate they were told defeat was in progress and Alliance was responsible. Afterwards they were told that they had suffered defeat due to Alliance treachery.

Having whipped up emotion unionist leaders failed to take charge. Some initial condemnations of loyalist attacks were sometimes mealy-mouthed and qualified by talk of understandable anger. Thankfully they soon grew stronger. When crowds came onto the streets they were addressed by Jim Dowson, a former BNP activist, and later stirred up by UDA and the UVF elements while the leaders who initially fanned the fury washed their hands of responsibility.

Our politicians should never let things reach this pitch again. Nobody can afford to pump up a vote on flag flying at Stormont to Armageddon-like proportions.

Unionists should remember that when the 17 days rule was mooted in 2000, both the UUP and PUP welcomed it as progress.

December 12, 2012

This article appeared in the December 11, 2012 edition of the Belfast Telegraph.



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