After more than a month of protests against restrictions on the flying of the Union Flag in Belfast, the authorities are floundering. Scores of police have been hurt and scores of Protestant youngsters have been charged and will face adult life saddled with a criminal record. The violence, together with the frequent blocking of roads, has damaged community relations and cost millions. And who could blame potential investors if they decide to look to alternative locations with rather fewer petrol bombs?
There is no sign of any early end to all this, despite the fact that in the city itself there is practically universal disapproval of the disorder. The Belfast News Letter, a unionist voice since 1737, yesterday restated its support for flying the flag but described the protests as a disaster for unionism. It denounced those involved in violence as "blockheads".
But while such views are widely held, the problem is that those taking to the streets appear utterly oblivious to the damage they inflict on peace and prosperity, and indeed to the union with Britain which the flag symbolises.
Most of the formerly murderous Protestant paramilitary groups are now inactive, but some remnants are using the unrest to flex their muscles. They are sending the message that if the authorities pursue them for past killings, there will be trouble. But most of those on the streets are involved in a barely coherent protest against the new Northern Ireland which almost everyone else is trying to bring into being.
It is clear from voting patterns that a substantial majority of Protestants believe that the creation of a more equal society should continue and have, however reluctantly, accepted that this means having Sinn Fein in government. But this attitude has yet to reach every dark corner of the loyalist enclaves where the unenlightened still cling to sectarian bigotry and thuggery.