Disconnected and disengaged are the buzz words often wheeled out to explain the past six weeks of rioting, much of it in east Belfast. Even Peter Robinson bought into them when he said: "People that feel disengaged and people feel that if we are trying to build a shared future they are not getting their share."
There is some truth in this analysis, but 'disengaged' is a curiously passive word, as if it was something that just happened, like the weather. It would be more accurate to say that politicians have lost touch with the people who elected them and have become complacent in their Stormont bubble. The fact that so many citizens, not just loyalist flag protesters, feel cynical and dismissive about politicians is a commentary on their leadership.
Our LucidTalk poll last June showed general dissatisfaction.
Less than one in 10 voters thought Stormont was performing well. Yet only 18% wanted it abolished; most just wanted it to work more efficiently.
Northern Ireland is the last place where politicians have any excuse for losing contact like this. Counting just the full-time elected officials, there are 108 MLAS, 18 MPs and 3 MEPs. Then we have the 582 councillors sitting on 26 councils. Beyond that the offices of the full-timers and their parties are stuffed with secretarial and research staff, SPADs and spin doctors, all paid at public expense.
Many MLAs do work hard but parts of this overstaffed political hierarchy seem to live in a world of their own. It does its best to avoid media scrutiny and the Government partners spend far too much time and energy scoring points off each other.
That is a general picture, reflected in the falling numbers of people, Catholic and Protestant, who vote in elections. The recent eruption of violence around the flag issue is specifically a failure of unionist leadership. It is particularly serious because it happened mainly in the First Minister"s own constituency where he lost the Westminster seat. That was a wake-up call, but his party has three of the six MLAs – the others are two UUP and Alliance. With five out of six MLAs, the unionist parties have no excuse for not knowing what people are thinking or what the consequences of their actions will be. These representatives should also be quashing the perception that Protestant working-class areas are not getting their fair share of the peace dividend.
For a start, peace is in itself a dividend, not something that you have to be compensated for. Secondly, the statistics show that poverty levels are high in Northern Ireland and have been rising since 2007, but they don't show the Protestant community at a sectarian disadvantage. In 2010 it was estimated that 26% of Catholics lived on incomes below 60% of the median, for Protestants it was 16%. Poverty is a shared problem between the two communities and one that needs more political focus. The distribution of 40,000 alarmist leaflets shortly before the flag vote in Belfast City Council in December seems to have been an attempt to reconnect with the grassroots and turn some heat on Alliance.
That is the lazy unionist way of rallying people by making everything a constitutional issue and every change seem like a disaster. In fact, the flag issue had been drifting on for 10 years, there was an equality impact assessment urging change and the unionist parties had lost their majority on the council. If they believed that the impact assessment was wrong, as is now claimed, they should have challenged it earlier. They should also have tried to negotiate the best deal they could with the other parties.
Instead, unionists let things drift into crisis and then issued a scare leaflet which predicted disaster and questioned the benefits of a shared future.
That fed feelings of disengagement and frustration. Then we had weeks of confusion as the violence built and the situation drifted out of control.
We saw councillors and MLAs supporting protests and we heard mealy-mouthed condemnations diluted with generalised defences of the right to protest.
It took about a month before the stance strengthened up and by then it was too late. This was a failure of the two unionist parties.
They should have got a grip earlier and acted more cohesively.
They should have explained the flag vote and worked for the best deal they could get, not dug their heels and then whipped up feeling when they lost out. They should never have let things get this far.
There is no use blaming nationalists.
That is like Labour in Britain blaming the Tories because they lost the election.
If you are in politics you must factor the likely actions of your opponents in your plans and then take responsibility for your own reactions. If you get it wrong it is always your own fault, and excuses sound hollow. With 21 unionist councillors to 24 nationalists in Belfast and the balance held by Alliance, negotiation might have worked, but it was never tried.
At last, though, unionists are taking responsibility through the Unionist Forum which has rallied round Mr Robinson's approach.
That is a good thing and it is the best hope of restoring order.
Mr Robinson deserves every encouragement in sorting out a mess that should never have been created in the first place and can't be allowed to happen again.
'Many MLAs do work hard, but parts of this overstaffed heirarchy seem to live in a world of their own'
'The unionist parties should have got a grip earlier. They should never have let things get this far.'