In an interview published today on the Newshound site, former First Minister David Trimble, who now sits in the British House of Lords for the Conservatives, linked the flag protests and riots that have engulfed Northern Ireland over the last ten days to the DUP's loss of its East Belfast seat to the Alliance Party in the last general election. This was the seat of party leader Peter Robinson who had held it since first being elected in 1979. It was also the Alliance Party's first parliamentary seat. Trimble was implicitly criticizing his former party, the Ulster Unionist Party, which has teamed up with the DUP to protest the compromise crafted by Alliance with the two nationalist parties on the Belfast City Council. As Alliance councilor Laura McNamee points out in an interview, had Alliance not acted the two parties would simply have voted to eliminate the flag flying over Belfast City Hall altogether.
So what are the motives for the unionist parties in these protests? Peter Robinson gets to act out and extract some revenge on Alliance for taking his seat. He may even stir up the electorate enough to win the seat back for his party in the next election. The UUP by putting Alliance on the defensive may end the attrition of party members to the party that has been going on since the last general election when Alliance outperformed the party. And the tiny Progressive Unionist Party can look statesmanlike by issuing statements calling for restraint and condemning the violence while also condemning the compromise. So, the unionist parties are the winners.
Who are the losers? The merchants of Belfast in particular and the province in general who see the riots gobble up their Christmas profits by discouraging Christmas shoppers. In Northern Ireland, as elsewhere in the UK and in the US, the Christmas season is a critical time for retailers to make sales. Former UUP leader Tom Elliott is to be congratulated for refusing to speak at a rally that would have interfered with shopping on a Friday night. Also losers are the British government, which subsidizes the province, and potential investors who might have been tempted to set up manufacturing plants in the province on the understanding that The Troubles were all in the past. Now potential investors will think very hard about investing in the province. And some existing investors will be deterred from expanding their plant facilities or may even think of relocating altogether to the Republic or to the British mainland.
But one thing can be said for the riots--they have put the ruling duopoly on a more even footing. In the past it was Sinn Fein that intimidated rival politicians through the actions of its Republican Movement partner. Now the DUP has also gotten into the intimidation business by stirring up mobs against Alliance. Several Alliance councilors have received death threats, two officers guarding the home of Alliance MP Naomi Long were attacked with a petrol bomb after she received death threats, and the Alliance mayor of Larne has been forced to temporarily evacuated her house on police orders. Soon the two parties will be hard to tell apart.