'No surrender' is a redundant cry in the new and complex North
No surrender! It sounded like slaughter in the henhouse, but the words were unmistakable, and the milling crowd, police sirens and breaking glass were in their familiar context. Hundreds of thousands of people have laughed at YouTube takes on the smashing of the pane of glass in the door into Belfast City Hall and the fierce wee face poking through it to shriek.
But when Santa, due to visit the Christmas market and deliver gifts to children with heart disease, had to turn his reindeer back to the North Pole, it was a measure of just how miserable these events in the wintry reality of Belfast 2012 actually were.
The weekend before, in one of the highlights of the loyalist cultural year, the Apprentice Boys burned a huge effigy of Lundy the Traitor in Derry. They were commemorating the 1689 siege when loyal apprentices shut the city gates against Catholic King James. Robert Lundy's treachery was, as the city governor, to recommend compromise. He had to flee. He goes up in flames to roars of "No surrender!"
The week after the siege commemoration, loyalists shawled in union flags were milling about on the Peace Bridge complaining of a new betrayal. There were flames in Carrickfergus when a mob torched the local offices of the Alliance Party. In Belfast, the offices of the party's Westminster MP, Naomi Long, were besieged. A policewoman's car was petrol bombed outside. Long was told she would be killed, and police advised her to leave her home.
The party's crime was to have voted for compromise when unionists and republicans clashed on Belfast City Council over how many days a year the union flag should be flown. Sinn Fein said it should never fly. Unionists said it should continue to fly constantly. Alliance, which holds the balance of power, urged that it should fly only on designated days, and this was accepted by both Sinn Fein and the SDLP.
Cue yet another outbreak of Nosurrenderitis. It is only a few months since the last one when the Parades Commission ruled on the conduct of a loyal orders parade. The DUP claimed then that this "monstrous determination" was an attack on Protestant culture, and unionist rage was such that there would be violence on the streets. Riots followed. The ruling stated that loyalist bands could not stop to play sectarian tunes while passing a Catholic church.
One of the placards held up last week read: "Democracy Doesn't Work." Unionism was always better at articulating what it was against than what it was for, and recent events make it hard to avoid the conclusion that it just can't deal with peace. DUP deputy lord mayor of Belfast, Ruth Patterson, said of those who took to the streets that they were disillusioned and needed leadership to take them out of the wilderness.
But why are loyalists still out there? Why are they so aggrieved? For decades the Reverend Ian Paisley led the roars of "No surrender!" But the DUP is now the biggest party in the Assembly and its leader, Peter Robinson, is First Minister. If peace has not delivered an end to poverty for many in the traditional loyalist areas – and it has not – shouldn't loyalist anger be directed at those elected to represent its interests?
Unionist leaders have a dishonourable tradition of stirring up fury among loyalists and then taking no responsibility for the consequences. Blame the IRA. Blame the British. Blame the traitors. The leaflet distributed by the DUP and the UUP in advance of the council flags debate was inflammatory, with its accusation that Alliance was going to support the "tearing down" of the cherished union flag. There can be no doubt that the DUP wants to win back the votes it lost to Alliance when Long took Robinson's seat.
Long, however, has emerged from this with her political stature enhanced. She spoke eloquently about the need to hold the line between mob rule and the rule of law, and about the dignity of compromise. She reminded the thugs that they were masking their faces with a flag under which people had fought against fascism, and she identified what was happening as having "the dynamics of a pogrom". Alliance MLA Anna Lo has dealt with similar dignity with loyalist racism against the Chinese community.
During the Troubles, loyalists were in demand. Paisley was always able to raise a rabble to denounce any sellout. We heard from the De Silva report last week that the UDA was used to carry out murders for the security forces. In the early days of the Ulster Defence Regiment, joint UDA membership was allowed. The Troubles over, there is no longer a role for them, though ex-paramilitary prisoners dominate many (though by no means all) loyalist community bodies. Unionism needs to stop using them and instead engage them constructively. The Assembly is an attempt at democracy based on historic compromise.
"No surrender" is a redundant slogan.