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Demonstrators attend a peace rally at Belfast City Hall January 13, 2013. The rally followed another night of violent protests as loyalists renewed their anger against restrictions on flying the union flag from Belfast City Hall. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)
Demonstrators attend a peace rally at Belfast City Hall January 13, 2013. The rally followed another night of violent protests as loyalists renewed their anger against restrictions on flying the union flag from Belfast City Hall. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)

Protests

Belfast long way away from solving sectarian struggles, first minister says Add to ...

Northern Ireland’s leader is warning that the recent violence in Belfast is taking a heavy toll on the city’s economy and shows that the province is far from resolving its sectarian struggles.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, First Minister Peter Robinson said he and other unionists have taken unprecedented steps to try to quell the rioting, and he will meet with British and Irish officials this week to consider further action.

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“The peace process in which we are involved was never going to be some straightforward linear progression to peace. There were always going to be bumps along that route,” said Mr. Robinson. “And anybody who simply closed the chapter and thought that was the end of the story I think is wrong. There is still a lot of work yet to be done.”

Belfast has been gripped by almost daily protests for more than a month, with images of masked men throwing rocks and firebombs at police broadcast around the world.

It’s the worst violence the city has seen in years, and there are fears some neighbourhoods could revert back to the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s, when Belfast was overrun with sectarian violence and battles raged between the IRA, Protestant paramilitaries and British soldiers.

The protests started after Belfast city council, led by Catholic republicans, voted to fly the British flag atop city hall only on 18 days per year instead of every day. Catholics argued the decision was a fair compromise because the Union Jack is a divisive symbol. But Protestants saw the move as a rejection of 103 years of history and a slap in the face. Many have been protesting ever since.

“I can understand that a lot of people [around the world] will be scratching their head and finding it difficult to understand,” said Mr. Robinson, whose position is akin to a provincial premier. “The flag encapsulates the identity of a community and we had a very peaceful Belfast city council for many decades.” A Protestant, he blamed republicans councillors for provoking the issue. “Nationalists and republicans decided to poke unionists in the eye by pulling down the flag simply because they could, and that has had consequences – consequences that you’ve seen on the streets.”

But he also acknowledged there are bigger issues at play, in particular the growing disconnect between working-class Protestants and their political leaders. Many believe Mr. Robinson and others are out of touch and too complacent. And some are turning to a new radical group called the Ulster People’s Forum that is leading the protests. Police say paramilitaries have also taken a leading role in the violence – a worrying throw back to Northern Ireland’s dark past.

“What I do recognize is that there are many people who feel that they are left behind – that they are disengaged with the political process,” said Mr. Robinson, who has been involved in unionist politics for 40 years and leads the largest Protestant party, the Democratic Unionist Party, which was founded by Rev. Ian Paisley in the 1970s. “I don’t know any country in the world where you will get unanimity with everyone on the population on any political issue. So of course there are people in our society who are against what we are doing.”

Last week, he other community leaders created the Unionist Forum – an outreach group that they hope will convince angry Protestants to give up their protests and become involved in the political process. It’s the first time unionists have worked together like this in decades, he said. And this week Mr. Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, of the republican Sinn Fein, will meet with Britain’s Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Eamonn Gilmore to discuss the flag protests.

So far, there is little indication anything is quelling the fury. The protests have battered Belfast’s economy, which was already struggling with a recession. Business at some downtown shops and restaurants has been down as much as 40 per cent since the protesting started and foreign investors have started to become wary of investing in the city. “We are having to spend a lot of time talking, not just to people that are close to taking investment decisions to come into Northern Ireland, but even some people who have invested in Northern Ireland, and we’re obviously trying to convince them that this is isolated,” Mr. Robinson said.

He recently went to Chicago to try to reassure nervous investors who were considering pulling out of a project in the city. “I noted that there had been 330 murders in Chicago over a period of time, yet there had been only one in Northern Ireland. So Northern Ireland still, on the world stage, is a safe place to come,” he said.

That kind of hand holding is frustrating, he said, because he and others have spent years promoting what was supposed to be a new period of reconciliation in Northern Ireland. “I’ve spent a lot of my time going around the world. I’ve been to the United States, Canada, China, United Arab Emirates. I’ve been to Dubai, I’ve been to India,” he said. “So I go around the world trying to convince people that we have a new era here in Northern Ireland and then the violence that happens in a few streets in Belfast gets shown around the world.”

And yet, Mr. Robinson is hopeful Northern Ireland has changed and more progress will slowly come. “I have no doubt that ordinary people in Northern Ireland want to move forward. They want to enter a new era – they want to have a share in society,” he said, and then added: “We aren’t there yet. We still have to work on it.”

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