Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Is it time we took a leaf out of Mr Mandela's book?

Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela

I have walked that long road to freedom. But I have discovered the secret that, after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb."

The words on the last page of Nelson Mandela's autobiography might just as easily apply to Northern Ireland today as they have to his South Africa.

On the eve of Christmas 2013, there are still many more hills to climb, as evidenced by the events of the past week, from the ongoing disputes over flags to the Smithwick Tribunal's findings.

Regrettably, Northern Ireland is far from South Africa when it comes down to discussing flags, anthems and dealing with the past. Inspired by Nelson Mandela and his white political opponent, FW de Klerk, black and white found a new national flag which all could respect.

They combined the words of their two anthems, even though, as Mandela writes, one was despised by whites, the other by blacks, and sang them together at his presidential inauguration almost 20 years ago.

Perhaps most difficult of all, they created a truth and reconciliation commission as a means of dealing with their deeply divided and mercilessly violent past.

Any such mechanism still eludes us here and is likely to continue to do so for years ahead, as evidenced by the reaction to the Smithwick findings only last week.

Nelson Mandela's passing coincides with the renewed efforts of the American diplomat Richard Haass to find agreement between local politicians.

As the life and times of Mandela are recalled on our television screens, it must be hoped that they will prove an incentive to find answers for Dr Haass which can unite, rather than divide Northern Ireland.

Those involved might gain much-needed inspiration from reading the 540 pages of Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom, or viewing the film version, which stars Idris Elba as Madiba (below), currently being screened in local cinemas.

Whether they do so, or not, it should be obvious to all of them that the difficult decisions needed on flags, emblems and the past cannot be put on the back burner any longer.

Like South Africa, giant political steps have been taken here, but sadly, Northern Ireland's image abroad is still defined by too many divisions, and the atmosphere at home is polluted by the failure to find mutual respect for even a flag or an anthem.

At least a debate has opened on whether Northern Ireland should have a new unifying symbol, much as Scotland has its Saltire, or Wales its red dragon, or South Africa its multi-coloured emblem to which black and white alike show respect.

The designs for a Northern Ireland emblem, which have been submitted to this newspaper, should not be dismissed lightly. Certainly, the public's imagination has been fired to the extent that creating a banner to embrace the British and Irish traditions is not out of the question.

Already, common themes are apparent. For example, many designs incorporate the British crown and an Irish harp, the red hand of Ulster and a shamrock.

I can recall a similar range of submissions which eventually led to the Police Service of Northern Ireland finding a new and widely acceptable emblem – even though many people were sceptical that any such agreement could be achieved.

Symbols are important, as Nelson Mandela recognised and South Africans have found. They are the outward sign of a country's patriotic pride in itself. They have the capacity to evoke hand-on-heart determination and tears-in-the-eye passion.

Having a new flag for certain cross-community gatherings in Northern Ireland is not to deny the Union flag, or the Irish Tricolour, their place on this island. Rather, it is recognition that, on some occasions, their display is divisive and counter-productive to ensuring a truly united team spirit.

Northern Ireland has a choice. It can continue to colour-blind itself, only seeing life through a red, white and blue prism, or a green, white and orange one. Or it can develop new symbols, in which more people will have pride.

In that respect, the last words in Nelson Mandela's life story are worth quoting for the benefit of our politicians engaged with Dr Haass: "I have taken a moment to rest... to look back at the distance I have come. But I can rest only a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended."

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