Belfast 2013 is not the City I grew up in. In my youth and for much of my adult life Belfast was a place in which nationalists had no rights; a place where sectarianism and discrimination, injustice and inequality were commonplace and exercised as a matter of institutional and political practice.Tens of thousands of nationalists were denied the vote in local and Stormont elections. They were denied jobs and housing. Any sense of Irishness was prohibited or frowned upon. The Irish language, music and culture were marginalised and the political representatives of northern nationalists had no influence and no power.
Elsewhere in the north the gerrymandering or manipulation of electoral boundaries ensured that local councils, even in those areas like Derry which had clear nationalist majorities, were run in unionist interests by unionist controlled councils. And Belfast was among the worst.
The northern state was an orange state. The Orange Order was the cement that held the political, economic and institutional structures of the state together. Most business people were members of the Order. If you were a unionist and wanted to be a senior RUC officer – you had to be an Orangeman. A judge? You had to be an Orangeman. A successful politician? You had to be an Orangeman.
The legacy of those decades still haunts the north. Sectarianism remains a scourge. The scars of discrimination can be found in the disproportionate numbers of citizens on the housing waiting lists in nationalist areas; in the employment patterns across the six counties where nationalist areas experience the highest levels of unemployment; and in the depth of deprivation. 36 out of the 40 most deprived wards in the north are nationalist.
For unionism the northern state was their state. It didn’t matter that some unionists also lived in appalling housing or worked in terrible conditions. The northern state – the Orange state – belonged to them. It gave them a sense of belonging, of cohesion and superiority.
The Peace Process and the Good Friday Agreement have changed all of that.It is a process which has been good for everyone on this island. It is also a process which is irreversible.
The underlying ethos of the Good Friday Agreement is parity of esteem, mutual respect and equality.It is also about change. Any process of change present big challenges. There are those who fear change.They see equality for all citizens as a threat.
Equality is not about one side dominating the other – nor is it about anyone attacking what some describe as unionist culture – it is about all citizens – unionist and nationalist – for the first time since partition being treated with mutual respect and on the basis of equality.
It is about nationalists and unionists, and others, living in a society in which decisions are taken democratically and peacefully.It is about tolerance and inclusivity- not hatred and bitterness.
Symbols, including flags, can be divisive but only if the debate is seen in its narrowest context.
So, Belfast is no longer a unionist city. It is a shared city.It wants to be a modern city. The vast majority of citizens don’t want the old Belfast – they want a new Belfast.
The decision taken by Belfast City Council is part of this. It was a compromise position democratically arrived at. Sinn Féin wanted either no flags, or equality of symbols with both the Union flag and Tricolour flying side by side. Sinn Féin Councillors supported the compromise position of the union flag being flown on a set number of designated days a year.
This compromise position was based on Flags legislation brought forward by the British government and which unionist leaders at the time recommended
This April the Good Friday Agreement will be 15 years old.It too was a compromise between conflicting political positions.
It’s success is to be found in the lives saved; the peace that has been achieved; the power sharing arrangements that are working; and the numbers of young people, who unlike their parents or grandparents, have had no experience of conflict.
So, where do we go from here?
It is clear that there are some among unionism who want to turn the clock back. Who believe that mutual respect means nationalists accepting that the unionist ethos must dominate.
That’s not mutual respect or equality. Nor does it reflect the political and demographic realities of today. 90 years ago the northern state was carved out of the rest of the island on the basis that it provided unionists with what was then believed to be a permanent in-built two thirds majority
In the most recent census figures published just before Christmas less than half of the population designated themselves as being British. 40% said they had a British only identity.
A quarter of citizens stated that they had an Irish only identity while 21% said they had a northern Irish only identity. That’s 46% of the population rejecting a British identity and seeing themselves as Irish.
So, the north is not as British as Finchley – as Margaret Thatcher once claimed – and unionists have to accept that almost half of citizens in the north have a different identity.
Could this gradual change in demographics and in peoples’ opinions be part of the motivation of those who seek to stoke the sectarian fires?
Could the decline in the unionist vote be part of the rational for the response of some unionists to the changes that are taking place?
Playing the orange card – fuelling sectarian divisions – is an old unionist and British tactic used to mobilise unionist opinion and put nationalists in their place.
It is a dangerous tactic which in the past brought pogroms and partition and decades of violence.
The vast majority of the protests taking place around the flag issue are illegal. Most are being organised by BNP, UVF and criminal elements, some of whom are well known drug pushers. They are seeking to exploit this situation for their own ends.
There is an expectation across the community that those who are organising these protests will be subjected to due process and that the protests will be policed in a fair way.
As political leaders on this island reflect on the events of recent weeks it is important to understand that the Good Friday Agreement must not be taken for granted. It requires constant attention and work.
There are important parts of the Agreement still not implemented – for example a Bill of Rights and legacy issues. These matters must be addressed.
After the Massereene attack in 2009 in which two British soldiers were killed Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson brought together all of the political leaders, church and civic leaders to map out a way forward and to ensure that the tiny minority of voices who want to undermine the progress that has been made do not succeed.
That approach is needed again. The Unionist Forum established by the DUP and UUP may have a role to play but it is limited. Stability and inclusivity and progress are not in the gift of one section of people. Everyone has to be involved.
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 of 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.
This blog first appeared on Gerry Adams’ Personal blog, Léargas.