By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)
For understandable reasons most of the publicity about petrol bombs flying over interface fencing is focused on east Belfast’s Short Strand. It’s not the only place where there is tension, of course. A couple of weeks ago someone threw a petrol bomb into the small Protestant enclave at Suffolk in west Belfast. In some respects that enclave is a mirror image of the Short Strand but in important ways it is completely different. It’s a tiny orange blob in a vast sea of green facing Lenadoon and Andersonstown across the Stewartstown Road. Middle-class Catholic housing around Black’s Road completes the encirclement. Fewer than 750 Protestants remain in the district. The Short Strand is much larger, with over 3,000 people hemmed in against the River Lagan by the more than 60,000 in overwhelmingly unionist east Belfast. Both enclaves are cut off from their ethnic soul mates.
There the similarities end. In the case of Suffolk, Sinn Fein people have worked hard to reach out the hand of friendship and develop links across the two communities. It hasn’t always been successful. After all there was that recent petrol-bomb attack. However, immediately afterwards Sinn Fein councillor Gerard O’Neill issued a statement saying: “Whoever was behind the attack and for whatever motive, it is a disgrace and will not stop the good work continuing between the communities of Suffolk and Lenadoon areas. If it is sectarian then the people of the Suffolk estate should know that those that carried it out do not represent their neighbours in Lenadoon. Sectarianism from whatever guise is a cancer in our society and needs treated as such.” Of course it was sectarian but apart from that flaw in his remarks O’Neill made an effort to reassure the people in Suffolk.
On the other hand it’s rare to hear similar condemnation of their own side from unionist representatives in east Belfast. Yes, it does happen but almost invariably only after someone in the media has called to ask for a reaction. There’s almost never a spontaneous and unequivocal rejection of sectarianism. The Short Strand’s Niall O Donnghaile last month appealed to unionists to “show leadership”. He’s wasting his breath. Maybe he’s being ironic. Why does he assume that unionists disagree with the antics of Orangemen and the loyalist bands they hire prancing past St Matthew’s? Virtually every elected unionist in Belfast (including the one who occasionally dons the mantle of first minister) signed the notorious letter last year defying the Parades Commission’s statutory role. Unionist politicians march along behind bands that breach Parades Commission determinations. None of them has ever condemned misbehaviour during marches. On the contrary they have justified and excused it. By asking unionists to show leadership presumably Sinn Fein politicians, for it’s not only O Donnghaile, expect them to make speeches castigating misbehaviour. Why would they when they agree with what is being done? That’s why they justify and excuse it.
Yes, it is worthwhile for Sinn Fein to talk of reconciliation and try to find ways to reach out to unionists but the party needs to realise that most unionist public representatives oppose equality and disagree with the Good Friday Agreement and its principles. Most DUP politicians didn’t even agree with the St Andrews fig leaf and have since reneged on what they agreed. Peter Robinson was faced with a revolt at Hillsborough in February 2010 when Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen compelled him to subscribe to devolved policing and justice.
Has any politician of note from any mainstream unionist party made a speech supporting the concept of partnership in northern society? The sad fact is that most unionists who vote, though admittedly we’re approaching the stage where most don’t vote, vote for a party that disagrees fundamentally with the political arrangements they’re operating and look forward to ‘a return to normality’ and you know what that means. So when Sinn Fein appeals to them to show leadership, unionists must be puzzled because the truth is that they are showing leadership. It’s a fallacy to think they’re looking over their shoulders at more hardline rivals. Sinn Fein doesn’t even need to review the DUP’s performance during the ‘fleg protests’. Just consider the idiotic remarks of Paul Girvan about burning tricolours.