On Monday, in a clear attempt to distance the party from its paramilitary links and detoxify it in case a deal is reached, a DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) spokesman told the BBC’s Stephen Nolan that paramilitary flags and emblems have no place in Northern Ireland communities and that
Paramilitaries are a plague on society. The DUP condemns all who cling to criminality and violence.
Within hours, however, DUP MP Emma Little-Pengelly had shot down the attempt by claiming that Northern Ireland communities are not that bothered about the issue, stating,
There were some people who were very supportive of the flags, people who felt very much it was part of the tradition of the local area and the wider area.
The majority of people said to me: ‘We understand that the flags have gone up, but we also understand that they will come back down again’. Really they didn’t want a public fuss around this matter…
There were some concerns raised, I reassured those individuals that I would be here to support them as well, I would represent their views to the housing association.
Ms Little-Pengelly is solidly in the mainstream of the DUP, having been a Special Advisor to party leader Arlene Foster before becoming an MP this month, one with strong connections to loyalist paramilitary groups.
Her father Noel was one of the ‘Paris Three’ convicted in the early 1990s on gun-running charges and the three main paramilitary groups – the UVF, UFF and UDA – sent letters to protestant constituents during the General Election campaign telling them to vote for her.
Ms Little-Pengelly’s attempts to gloss over the issue of the flags may not have been welcomed by her party leader and others who have reacted with alarm and surprise at the outcry in Britain against any Tory co-operation with the DUP, but they are entirely in line with the mainstream worldview of her party.
They will also meet with the dismay of her nationalist constituents, many of whom are Catholics and consider the fixing of flags and placards in their neighbourhood and sometimes even on their private property as intimidatory, frightening and a provocation.
Playing with fire
Meanwhile, Loyalists in Belfast – apparently emboldened by the prospect of their party co-operating with the Tories, even though a deal seems as far away as ever in spite of noises to the contrary from Theresa May and her representatives – are preparing for one of the potential flashpoints of the Northern Irish calendar.
Huge bonfires are traditionally built in readiness for the 12 July anniversary of the ‘Battle of the Boyne’, when Orangemen and others will march through towns and cities before lighting them. This year, accusations have been made by nationalist councillors against Belfast City Council, alleging that the council has even been storing materials on behalf of the builders of these huge illegal bonfires – fires often festooned with images of Sinn Fein MPs, councillors and historical figures:
Regardless of attempts to minimise the situation, both by DUP officials who want to publicly distance themselves from paramilitary groups and by those who want to normalise the promotion of such groups, the tensions in Northern Ireland are not far from the surface and are rising.
Like those bonfire stacks, they may be just waiting for the match to set them alight.
The British public needs to understand this – that in her desperation to legitimise and stabilise her chaotic government in the narrow interests of the Tory party, Theresa May is, almost literally, playing with fire and risking the restarting of the Troubles that cost so many lives and blighted decades of Northern Irish life.
And like a toddler with matches, she seems not to understand just what she might be setting off. Either that, or she just doesn’t care.