The five Executive parties meet next Wednesday for a three-day session to try to resolve the outstanding issues left over from last year’s Haass discussions On the agenda will be the parades question and how to deal with the legacy of the past. But perhaps the most intractable issue of all revolves around the public flying of the Union — and other — flags. Here we ask four well-known political commentators how they would resolve this thorniest of problems.
It only matters because unionism has failed to give people leadership
Alex Kane is a political commentator and writer. He says:
Unionists tend to fly flags for the wrong reasons. From 1921 to 1972, it was about triumphalism; today, it is a defiant "we are still here" thing.
The flag seems to matter now because unionism has failed to give leadership – and failed so much that symbols and cloth mean more than fundamental values and beliefs.
Poll after poll suggest that a fairly comfortable majority of people in Northern Ireland would, in a referendum, choose to remain in the United Kingdom.
So why are some unionists so insecure that they need dining table-sized Union flags flying (although most tend to be drenched and limp) alongside a multiplicity of other 'unionist' flags?
Flying more flags and flying bigger flags is, to my mind, a sign of weakness. I don't need to see a flag flying every day. I don't even need to see one flying over Belfast City Hall every day.
I am comfortable in my pro-Union skin. I have no fear of a united Ireland. I don't believe that my sense of identity is being diminished.
And it annoys the hell out of me when I hear a mixture of elected unionist leaders and self-styled unionist "spokesmen" taking every opportunity to spook their own constituencies.
The solution to the "flags problem" is actually pretty simple: use them sparingly and with respect. Don't use them to mark out your turf. Don't use them to offend or provoke.
Don't use them as some sort of ya-boo-sucks response to others. Don't leave them tattered and weather-beaten.
Don't hoist a collection of flags, because that hints at an identity crisis. Don't hang your hopes and agenda and angst on every lamp-post.
The Union flag is the defining symbol of the multi-ethnic, multi-national, mulit-identity United Kingdom. It is a flag that celebrates diversity. It is a flag that celebrates an equality of citizenship.
It is a flag that reminds us that there are values, beliefs and standards that unite the people of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
And, whether some unionists/loyalists like it or not, that flag is the flag for everyone here.
Ironically, some of the greatest disrespect shown to the flag is by the very people who claim to treasure it most.
I'm a firm believer in the value of quiet confidence and of refusing to allow yourself to be deliberately riled.
The flag matters most to that section of unionism/loyalism that imagines itself on the losing side: and too many unionist leaders encourage that sense of failure.
Yet here's the reality: the Union is safe and the only people denying that are the people hoisting flags everywhere to prove a point that doesn't, in fact, need to be proved.
To put it bluntly, if your unionist identity needs constant reassurance, then it says more about you than about your supposed opponents.
There is no need to fly the Union flag every day. There never was.
The answer is stronger, confident leadership – and a much better grasp of political/electoral realities.
Limiting its flying was misguided, even if council was well-intentioned
The Rev Chris Hudson is a Non-Subscribing Presbyterian minister in Belfast. A former trade union leader, he spearheaded the Peace Train initiative. He says:
Last Tuesday, while watching Greece take their penalty kick against the Ivory Coast in order to stay in the World Cup, I got so excited I grabbed a wee Greek flag and waved it at the telly.
I have a great passion for Greece; well, to be more precise, Crete, where I holiday every year. I was absolutely delirious that Greece will be in the last 16 and my Greek flag was waved with great passion as I thought of all my Cretan friends cheering and dancing in the tavernas, waving flags and downing shots of raki. So my flag had to come out.
Flags — and controversy over flags — is not unique to Northern Ireland. Indeed, Crete has a regional flag, as well as the Greek flag and both are flown with great pride. In my opinion, the unilateral decision to reduce the flying of the Union flag on the City Hall in Belfast was misguided — even if it was well-intentioned.
The result was to heighten tension between communities and make the issues around flags even more difficult to resolve.
It is interesting to note that, in an opinion poll in the Republic at that time, most people thought the introduction of designated days in Belfast a bad decision — even though they agreed that designated days on a universal basis would be fairer. I agree.
However, how would I resolve the issue? The obvious answer must be a universal decision to fly the Union flag over all civic offices on designated days throughout Northern Ireland. This is a balanced approach and clearly recognises the reality of Northern Ireland's status as part of the United Kingdom.
But there has to be more to it than that. There is a need to have a regional civic flag to fly alongside the Union flag — a flag that is acceptable to all the people of Northern Ireland, as is the case in England, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man.
Surely it is not beyond the imagination of someone to provide us with a simple design that is aesthetically pleasing and doesn't contain every symbol in creation?
Talk of flying two flags — the Union flag and the Irish Tricolour — is not a runner, because it would suggest joint authority, which there is not.
Also, the flying of the Tricolour is guided by article 7 of the Irish constitution and under the direction of the department of the Taoiseach. It is clearly regarded by the Irish constitution as the flag of the Irish state.
To say that we should have a neutral space is a vacuous and passionless nonsense. The people of Northern Ireland are passionate about many things and public manifestations — such as flags — are high on the list.
I would like to see the flag issue resolved, but with some consideration around other issues, such as the use of language (Irish) thrown into the mix. That way, there can be a trade-off.
But I fear this is not possible, because my experience since moving to Northern Ireland is that people are more polarised than I ever imagined.
The notion that some outsider can solve our problems is delusional
Ruth Dudley Edwards is a historian and crime novelist. Her column appears in the Belfast Telegraph every Monday. She says:
Flags, flags, flags, flags, flags. In truth, like most people, I'm flegged out. After more than 30 years following matters Northern Irish closely, the very word “flag” make me feel like retiring to a darkened room for a long lie-down.
I recognise the ancestral urges of the bellicose to fly more and bigger flags as often as possible as a defiant statement of identity guaranteed to make you feel better and wind up the other tribe.
And I'm also familiar with their determination to suppress those that give comfort to enemies and thus drive them mad.
The Union flag/Tricolour wars have been going on for almost a century, but we should pay a special tribute to the contribution of Ian Paisley.
If that well-known peacemaker were given to objective reflection on his past, would he think he helped community relations when, in 1963, he organised protests against the Protestant parliament's courteous gesture of lowering flags in public buildings to mark the death of Pope John XXIII? Is he still happy with his achievement the following year, when he told the RUC that, if they didn't seize an illegal Tricolour from the window of an obscure west Belfast republican election candidate, he would incite his followers to do it themselves?
As a result of the police weighing in with guns, batons and crowbars, there was widespread rioting, a boost in the candidate's vote and in support for the Belfast IRA — and another permanent grievance for skilful republican exploitation.
And on and on this nonsense goes half-a-century on. How should the flag issue be resolved? I don't know, but I hope Richard Haass's failure has challenged the delusion that some outsider can always solve whatever problem key Stormont players are too bigoted, stupid, unimaginative, or lazy, to resolve themselves.
Too much interest from outside has not just gone to the heads of Northern Irish politicians and made them think that they are far more important than they are. It has also infantilised them.
The DUP and Sinn Fein have split between them the lion's share of the spoils of peace. It's up to them to ensure that the future is better rather than worse.
The only way to resolve the flags and other such contentious tribal issues is for Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness to agree to behave like responsible grown-ups, with the DUP filling the leadership vacuum in loyalism and Sinn Fein restraining their footsoldiers from undermining at every opportunity vulnerable loyalists's sense of identity.
No, of course I don't think they're mature enough to do it. But one can dream.
Why I decided to think of it as nothing more than a bit of cloth
Malachi O’Doherty is a writer and also a broadcaster. He says:
Personally, I don't care about the flags. They are just coloured cloth to me. I can even see them as looking a bit festive in the sun, when they are still clean and crisp.
I believe that they are put up to annoy me, but I'm not annoyed at all.
A flag is a symbol that works when it has meaning for the person who waves it and for the others who see it.
The Union flag and the Ulster flag have no meaning for me. I have seen them flaunted in front of me so often that I am virtually blind to them.
I am sure that those who erected them did so to annoy those of us who do not share their reverence for them. But you only get annoyed if you believe in the symbol in a way, too. And I don't.
I don't mind if you wave the Union flag over your head, or mop your floor with it.
I have decided to regard it as nothing but a bit of cloth.
Familiarity first bred contempt and then indifference.
So what would I do about the proliferation of flags in my neighbourhood? Nothing.
But others are not as indifferent. Some of my neighbours are exasperated that the mixed area we live in as been made to look like a loyalist estate.
These include, I'm sure, unionists who are embarrassed to consider that others think they might want these flag over our heads. To spare the neighbours who care, I would suggest that the police take down all of the flags.
So I prescribe one thing if my own feelings are what matter — do nothing — and another out of consideration for my neighbours — take them down.
I would be more upset by the flags if my neighbours themselves had actually erected them. I would read that as a calculated offence.
But no such offence comes to me from my neighbours; only from people who live elsewhere, who have come into the area at night with cherry-pickers.
My response to their sense that they have done something clever is to ignore it.
I feel differently when I see the Irish flag on lamp posts.
It embarrasses me to think that anyone would associate me with it, so I wince at the sight of it.
No one is going to blame me, or associate me with the Union flag, because I am not of the community that identifies with it.
I am easily understood to be part of the community that reveres the tricolour.
Believe me, I would as happily mop the floor with it, too.
Who needs them?
I certainly don't.