Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Flagging up a compromise the only way forward

Northern Ireland's obsession with flag-flying took off after the Good Friday and St Andrew's deals

Belfast's Westlink is lined with tattered tricolours. The Union flag atop the Orange Hall in Clifton Street has seen better days.

The many flags of Northern Ireland cannot withstand the winds and rain of autumn. Faded and frayed, they have become symbols of neglect, rather than respect for any tradition.

Northern Ireland's obsession with flag-flying took off after the Good Friday and St Andrew's deals. Ironically, the more political agreement is reached, the more flags and emblems seem to have become of more importance to unionists and nationalists alike.

Flags are virtually two a penny these days, thanks to cheap Chinese mass production. They come in all sizes and designs made to order to fit any patriotic, political, provincial, or paramilitary cause.

For example, a loyalist feud led to one group ordering a batch of 1,500 flags, which were duly displayed all over north Belfast and Newtownabbey.

The excessive display of flags and emblems is not confined to Northern Ireland. Much of the world sees flying a flag, or displaying an emblem, as a fundamental human right, which makes any control, or removal, more difficult.

Perhaps because he was a Scot who felt the English did not regard him as a true Brit, Gordon Brown, when prime minister, actually encouraged people to fly the Union flag all year round, rather than on specific designated days.

Still, many people living in unionist and nationalist areas express a common dislike for excessive flag-flying. The problem is that they are powerless to do anything about it.

Surveys conducted between 2006 and 2010 showed that 30% of flags erected in July were still flying in late-September.

No-one in authority seems prepared to take any responsibility. The police say it is not their job to remove flags. Local politicians and councils have no joined-up thinking, no effective protocol by which public agencies can act. As a result, the flags fly whether neighbourhoods want them, or not.

So can Richard Haass devise a new and proper protocol? What form might this take?

Firstly, he is likely to conclude that neither nationalists, nor unionists, can have it all their own way.

The research to date suggests much stricter controls are needed on the flying of flags in city and town centres and on main arterial roads.

Even stricter controls must be evident on any display of flags and emblems outside schools, hospitals and places of worship.

There is overwhelming community opposition to paramilitary flags, but can the unionist leadership persuade these organisations to stop marking out territory in this way?

That remains a doubtful proposition – given the detachment of so many people in working-class Protestant districts from the political process.

If flags are to be flown – and the idea of a total ban seems out of the question – a time limit is needed and either the police, or some other agency, must have the clout and resources to enforce it within a period of perhaps two weeks, as is the case with election posters.

What, then, of the dispute over the flying of the Union flag on public buildings, such as Belfast City Hall? Again, nationalists and unionists cannot have it their own way if they really want a lasting and stable solution. Why shouldn't the existing protocol agreed for the Union flag's display at Stormont be extended to all the new district councils across Northern Ireland?

If that were so, the flag would be restricted to designated days honouring royal birthdays and the like on public buildings in predominantly unionist areas, including the City Hall.

However, such a protocol would also mean the Union flag would be flown on the same restricted designated days in other, predominantly nationalist, areas, where it is currently not on display at all. Can Sinn Fein and the SDLP sell that to their followers?

The big question is whether unionists and nationalists alike can swallow their respective patriotic pride and accept such compromises.

Something has to give on flags and emblems and the clock is ticking. If answers cannot be found on this issue, what hope is there on contentious parades and the most difficult task of all – dealing with the past?