Unionists must tone down the rhetoric at this dangerous timederry

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I was particularly struck by Friday’s comments from Mark Lindsay, chairman of the Police Federation NI, when he said: “I think it is one of the most disappointing things, 23 years on today from the Good Friday Agreement, that policing has never been more politicised – it has never been more toxic in our society.”

nd responding to a question about the calls for Chief Constable Simon Byrne’s resignation, he noted: “They are very worrying. I think whenever we see unionism almost united over this, I think it presents problems for everybody.”

It reminded me of another time when the relationship between the police and a section of unionism was maybe just as toxic.

It was in June 1986, when unionists were still organising protests against the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the RUC was policing a particular event at which Ian Paisley was present. As the crowd were pushed back the future First Minister roared to a senior officer: “Don’t come crying to me if your homes are attacked. You will reap what you sow.”

During those continuing protests against the AIA, the homes of over 500 RUC personnel were attacked, picketed or threatened by militant elements of unionism/loyalism and over 150 police families had to move for safety reasons.

It was a particularly tough time for the force: their job was to uphold the law and obey orders, yet there had always been a sense of being safer living within the wider pro-Union community. It was never quite the same afterwards.

I’m not suggesting we have reached that point of distrust right now, but it is worrying that elements of loyalism in particular accuse the PSNI of a two-tier attitude to policing gatherings and of serving a Sinn Fein agenda.

Add to that the fact that the Loyalist Communities Council has already said that on-the-ground community spokesmen will not be liaising with the PSNI at future events in loyalist areas; while the Grand Orange Lodge of Belfast is presently reviewing ‘engagement’ with the PSNI during the coming marching season.

Here is the dilemma for mainstream unionism: accusing the PSNI of facilitating IRA funerals and letting Sinn Fein get away with everything is picked up and spread across social media.

Worse, it is spread without filter or context and posted over and over again. Which means it will, at some point, be picked up and acted upon and probably end in confrontation, arrests and injury – often serious – to police officers.

So yes, words do count. Tweets and Facebook messages count even more.

That is why the leadership of unionism needs to find a way of nuancing their anger and saying absolutely nothing which can be construed as incitement.

Because if they don’t, then any post-riot condemnation and ‘don’t get involved in stuff like this’ advice will, inevitably, fall on deaf ears.

It is also worth remembering that many of the ‘old hands’ of loyalism were originally recruited into paramilitarism after they had experienced their first couple of riots.

And it is probably also worth noting that many of the younger rioters we have seen over the past few days – some barely teenagers – probably have as much contempt for mainstream unionist leaders as they do for the PSNI and media.

It might help if there was an unambiguous joint statement from the DUP, UUP, TUV, PUP, LCC and Orange Order condemning the riots and rioters: and which doesn’t include lines like, ‘we can understand why they’ve been driven to it.’

It would also help if the statement was used to narrow rather than widen the present levels of distrust between the PSNI and some elements of unionism: acknowledging, for instance, that frontline officers are in a very difficult position.

There is no possible, plausible ‘understanding’ for why anyone would attack the PSNI.

There is no justification for the riots. They are wrong. Plain and simple.

And the leadership of political unionism, loyalism and the loyal orders need to make that very clear.

Because, if they don’t, it will only get worse.

Source: Irish News