Amidst on-going violence on the streets of Belfast over the decision by the City Council to fly the Union Jack only on certain days at the city hall, Labour MP Peter Hain went on to warn of a “toxic” situation now engulfing the province, linking the violence with Northern Ireland’s high rates of unemployment.
Speaking to the BBC’s “The Wales Report” on Sunday evening he explained:
“In Northern Ireland, I think there is a particular issue with the loyalist community and I do not think the government is doing enough to engage with them.
“I took some risky decisions to engage with people who were on the fringes and some actually almost in uniform as it were, in paramilitary activity, and it paid off.”
“Youth unemployment is horrific in Northern Ireland and particularly loyalist youngsters feel that they don’t have a future. They think that republicans are getting everything.
“You’ve got youngsters without training, without jobs, on both sides of the divide actually feeling that this is ‘not their scene’ any more.
“Because they can’t get jobs, they don’t have a stake so they’re causing trouble, and there’s also, I think, an identity issue there as well.”
His words came as DUP First Minister, Peter Robinson pledged that the rioting seen over the last month would not deter politicians across Northern Ireland from pursuing the shared society so craved for. Speaking on the Andrew Marr programme ahead of a week which will see Ministers from Stormont discuss the situation with the British and Irish Government Robinson explained:
“We took some difficult decisions, some might say historic decisions to build a shared society in Northern Ireland.
“I think it is important to tell the wider community in Northern Ireland and our friends in the rest of the United Kingdom that we are not giving up on that.
“We are very much of the view that we are determined that we build the kind of society where everybody can have a peaceful and stable existence.”
Meanwhile, a leading figure in one loyalist paramilitary group has called for the violence to end. Speaking to BBC Northern Ireland for a documentary on the trouble surrounding the flag protest, Jimmy Birch of the Ulster Defence Association urged unionists not to be sucked into a Sinn Fein trap. He expanded:
“We are so predictable. They (Sinn Fein) are playing us – they’re like our band captain – they’re calling the tunes and we’re playing them.
“And every time they call the tune, we take to the streets, we wreck our own areas, we fight with the police, we burn our own cars and we stop our own people going to work and coming home from work and disrupt our own people’s way of life.
“It’s wrong, we need to take a step back and we need to stop being predictable.”
Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams meanwhile has called for a cross-community response to the protests. Writing for the Guardian online he argues that Belfast is no longer a purely “unionist” city and that the decision on the flying of the union jack was a compromise in the same vein that the peace process has been based on compromise.
Citing the way that Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness brought Northern Ireland’s communities together in the wake of the 2009 attack on the Massereene Barracks which saw two soldiers killed Adams declared:
“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.”
In summing up the mood of much of Northern Ireland meanwhile, the Belfast Telegraph, in its editorial has simply called for the “madness to stop.” “The streets need to be cleared” it said, “and politics need to be made to work. Otherwise we will all remain at the mercy of anarchy, and we simply cannot go on living like this.”