Posted By: June 19, 2014

Neon Emerson. Irish News (Belfast). Thursay, June 19, 2014
A PICTURE that did the rounds on the internet four years ago showed lines of people
outside an American Star Wars convention, all dressed as Imperial Stormtroopers. The
caption read: 'Fascism. You really think it'll be this obvious?'

We could do with a similar reminder about segregation. After the DUP and Sinn Féin
entered government in 2007 there were several weeks of warnings led by the SDLP's
Seamus Mallon about a "balkanised" Northern Ireland. However, nobody saw lines of
imperial and republican stormtroopers outside their window each morning so the
warning fell on deaf ears. Only now and again is the danger still glimpsed.

A month ago, residents of Belfast's mixed upper Ormeau road looked out of their
windows to see a huge increase in the number of union flags. Pressure on the PSNI to
act has produced a response, with police saying the erection of further flags will
be treated as a breach of the peace.

This promise was immediately attacked by the DUP, with Nigel Dodds and others asking
how a 'mixed area' could possibly be defined and why the PSNI would direct resources
to enforcing such a minor law.

These questions should be easy for any responsible party of government to answer.
Loyalist attempts to brand residential areas with flags have been a news staple for
years, accelerating dramatically in recent years due to the housing boom and the
loyalist political bust.

A striking feature of these stories is how residents always say 'this is a mixed
area', even if they have no idea of the religious composition of their neighbourhood
and census figures suggest it is entirely Protestant.

In other words, a mixed area is a state of mind, not a minimum quotient. It requires
and can have no better definition than a place where people of all backgrounds would
feel comfortable, welcome and safe.

That feeling is destroyed when the first flags appear, so any equivocation over
flags is an unequivocal rejection of mixed areas. Because the flags are generally
put up by loyalists, failing to enforce even a minor law sends a serious signal of
weakness to a sectarian criminal gang.

A great deal of the present loyalist delinquency can be traced to one such signal
sent by the PSNI in Ballyclare in 2011.

The DUP is not alone in its hostility to mixed areas. Sinn Féin MeP Martina Anderson
has denounced plans for mixed social housing as "social engineering", adding "shame
on it".

As with integrated education, Sinn Féin sees mixed housing as a plot to 'normalise'
Northern Ireland and therefore partition. Census figures for the upper Ormeau road
bear this fear out. The area is 57 per cent Catholic and 27 per cent Protestant, yet
just 36 per cent describe themselves as 'Irish', with the remainder evenly split
between British and Northern Irish.

So what can explain the DUP's betrayal of an area that epitomises Peter robinson's
stated vision of a Northern Ireland "at peace with itself" and "for all of us, not
them and us"?

Cowardice in the face of loyalism must be a partial explanation, and it is quite
some cowardice, as the upper Ormeau flag flyers are believed to barely number into
double figures. Electoral calculations in Belfast and more widely against the TUV
will also be a factor. However, this retreat from its own policy and constitutional
objective implies so much short-sightedness, spinelessness and stupidity that there
has to be a deeper explanation.

Is the DUP really envisaging a Northern Ireland that depends on Catholic support,
which would in turn depend on tolerance, neutrality and equality? The fact that the
party sees no value whatsoever in protecting places like the upper Ormeau road
suggests its true vision is a retreat into a patchwork of ethnic laagers, with
Northern Ireland becoming a Catholic Bosnia overlaid with a Protestant republika
Srpska. What other explanation can there be when 10 loyalists with a ladder outweigh
the 40 per cent of Catholics in upper Ormeau who, even now, have made their peace
with partition?

What the DUP wants or fears is not necessarily what will come to pass. Council
reorganisation still points more to a 'Belgium on the Bann' scenario, with an Irish
west, a British east and an uneasily shared capital. But that less-than-ideal future
is the best we can hope for and every step the DUP takes to the right brings the
Balkans closer into view.

By the time that is obvious, what hope will there be of turning back?