The Good Friday agreement is a work in progress. The minority protesting over the flag must not be allowed to undermine it
Belfast 2013 is not the city I grew up in. In my youth, and for much of my adult life, Belfast was a place in which nationalists had no rights; a place where sectarianism and discrimination, injustice and inequality were commonplace and exercised as a matter of institutional and political practice.
Tens of thousands of nationalists were denied the vote in local and Stormont elections. They were denied jobs and housing. The Irish language, music and culture were marginalised, and the political representatives of northern nationalists had no influence and no power. The northern state was an Orange state. The Orange Order was the cement that held the political, economic and institutional structures of the state together.
The legacy of those decades still haunts Norther Ireland. Sectarianism remains a scourge. The scars of discrimination can be found in the disproportionate number of citizens on the housing waiting lists in nationalist areas; in the employment patterns across the six counties where nationalist areas experience the highest levels of unemployment; and in the depth of deprivation. Of the 40 most deprived wards in the north, 36 are nationalist.
For unionism the Orange state gave them a sense of belonging, of cohesion and superiority. The peace process and the Good Friday agreement have changed all of that. It is a process that has been good for everyone on this island. It is also irreversible. The underlying ethos of the agreement is parity of esteem, mutual respect and equality. But there are those who fear change, and see equality for all citizens as a threat.
Equality is not about one side dominating the other – nor is it about anyone attacking what some describe as unionist culture. It is about nationalists and unionists, and others, living in a society in which decisions are taken democratically and peacefully. It is about tolerance and inclusivity – not hatred and bitterness. Symbols, including flags, can be divisive, but only if the debate is seen in its narrowest context.
So Belfast is no longer a unionist city. It is a shared city. The vast majority of citizens don’t want the old Belfast.
The decision taken by Belfast city council is part of this. It was a compromise position, democratically arrived at. Sinn Féin wanted either no flags, or equality of symbols with both the union flag and tricolour flying side by side. Sinn Féin councillors supported the compromise position of the union flag being flown on a set number of designated days a year. This compromise was based on flags legislation brought forward by the British government and which unionist leaders at the time recommended.
The Good Friday agreement itself was a compromise between conflicting political positions. Its success is to be found in the lives saved, the power-sharing arrangements that are working, and the numbers of young people who, unlike their parents or grandparents, have had no experience of conflict.
So, where do we go from here? It is clear that there are some among unionism who want to turn the clock back. Who believe the unionist ethos must dominate. That’s not mutual respect or equality. Nor does it reflect the political and demographic realities of today. The northern state was carved out of the rest of the island 90 years ago, on the basis that it provided unionists with a permanent two-thirds majority. But in the census figures published just before Christmas, less than half of the population designated themselves as being British.
So, the north is not as British as Finchley – as Margaret Thatcher once claimed. Could this gradual change in demographics and in opinions be part of the motivation of those who seek to stoke the sectarian fires? Playing the Orange card – fuelling sectarian divisions – is an old unionist and British tactic used to mobilise unionist opinion and put nationalists in their place. It is a dangerous tactic which in the past brought pogroms and partition and decades of violence.
The vast majority of the protests taking place around the flag issue are illegal. Most are being organised by BNP, UVF and criminal elements. It is important to understand that the Good Friday agreement must not be taken for granted. It requires constant attention and work.
After the Massereene attack in 2009, in which two British soldiers were killed, Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson brought together all of the political leaders, church and civic leaders to map out a way forward and to ensure that the tiny minority of voices who want to undermine the progress that has been made do not succeed.
That approach is needed again. The Unionist forum established by the DUP and UUP may have a role to play but it is limited. Stability and inclusivity and progress are not in the gift of one section of people. Everyone has to be involved.
We need an all-party, cross-community response to the flag protests and the violence which has accompanied them. It also needs to address all the other outstanding issues.
This will be a huge challenge. Republicans do not underestimate the problems involved, and in particular the difficulties facing unionism. But there can be no going back. The tiny minorities who want to cling to the past must be rejected. Sectarianism must be tackled and ended. The promise of the Good Friday Agreement for a new society in which all citizens are respected, and where fairness and justice and equality are the guiding principles, has to be advanced.
A longer version of this article appears on Gerry Adams’ blog site