The all-party talks chaired by Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan in late 2013 were designed to examine the ongoing issues of dealing with the past, parades and flags and emblems. How did they get on?
Well, in two areas they produced substantial proposals. In the area of parades they came up with some substantive proposals. This is not surprising given that since 1998 we have had three major public enquiries, two parliamentary enquiries, and rounds of political debate examining the legal structures in which disputes over parades might be handled. In the area of dealing with the past they suggested four new interlinked commissions to attempt to take forward a need for truth and justice over the past.
Surely the simplest of the areas was flags? Apparently not. They appear to have spent a lot of time on the rather simple area of how many times the Union flag should be flown of official buildings each year. Even so, they reached no agreement. On the much more difficult issue over the proliferation of flags flown from lampposts and street furniture, demarcating territory and marking out paramilitary areas, nothing was advanced. Indeed, quite extraordinarily, their final report tells us that ‘in these circumstances, some members wished to forgo this area of the panel’s work entirely’.
The Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey in 2012 tells us that 56% of the public think that Union flags are put up by loyalist paramilitaries and 59% think tri-colours are put up by republican paramilitaries. The public are of course, to a certain extent, right. The flags are reminders to people that the paramilitaries have not gone away. And we know from the same surveys that this influences people behaviour and people are less likely to use these areas.
Of course this is not the only reason flags are displayed and there is a long and legitimate custom of displaying flags on commemorations and celebrations. But no one can be in any doubt that the use of cheap flags on lampposts is about more than that.
The Shared Future policy of 2005 recognised the problem. The utterly ineffective Flags Protocol introduced in 2005 became the failed inter-agency response led by the police. And right up until the recent Together: Building a United Community it has been recognised that this remains a significant issue.
There are plenty of policy options but they require political leadership. It could start by a simple statement from leading politicians that we need to treat important symbols with more respect. But even that seems to be beyond them.
Coordinated by the Community Relations Council (CRC), Community Relations Week will feature around 200 events under the theme ‘Building a United Community’.
Dr Dominic Bryan is the Director of Institute of Irish Studies and reader in Social Anthropology
Further information at www.nicrc.org.uk