Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

As winds of change shift on key issues, Northern Ireland politicians must fly the flag for diversity

Flags continue to mark out our society as having divided and contested loyalties as both  nationalists and loyalists stake their claims
Flags continue to mark out our society as having divided and contested loyalties as both nationalists and loyalists stake their claims
Flags continue to mark out our society as having divided and contested loyalties as both nationalists and loyalists stake their claims
Flags continue to mark out our society as having divided and contested loyalties as both nationalists and loyalists stake their claims

Change can be a good thing, but not if politicians fail to grasp its opportunities.

That doesn't always happen and moments of opportunity can pass.

Take now.

National identity is weakening on all sides but, particularly amongst Catholics.

People are more open to ideas like gay marriage, they are worried about the economic future and they fear violence and unrest.

The existence of the State, a corrosive issue which overshadowed everything for most of our history, is no longer in any real doubt.

That is surely an opportunity to build.

At most points in our history there has always been a significant section of Catholics who said, in polls, that on balance they favoured retaining the UK link.

That led to a siege mentality.

At times it was justified by a real threat to the unionist community, but the sense of siege and threat also became a tool for managing unionist voters at elections.

It was basic to the Orange Order, which has every year warned of a threat to the status quo and prides itself in never giving ground on any issue.

Despite all this, Catholic support for the border never fell below 20%, even in the days of unionist majority rule when Northern Ireland was, in David Trimble's phrase, "a cold house for Catholics".

The support has risen in recent years as a result of the peace process.

There isn't much polling in Northern Ireland but a run of Life and Times surveys showed a majority of Catholics who favoured remaining in the UK.

Our LucidTalk polls have all confirmed that position and so has the IPSOS/MORI poll conducted in February.

Today's findings suggest a growing proportion of Catholics self-identifying as British, almost as many as say they are Irish. There is no real evidence to the contrary.

The shift may be partly a response to the £10bn subsidy we get from London each year.

It may be due to the fact that we have power-sharing, that Irish cultural pursuits like Gaelic games are treated with respect and that there is rigorous oversight to ensure fair play in areas like employment, housing and policing.

It certainly isn't because most Catholics want to ensure that the Union flag remains on permanent display on council premises, much less that they wish to see Orange marches going past their homes without consultation.

Our poll makes all these points clear.

Only 7.5% of Catholics wanted to see the Union flag hoisted every day on all councils. But then only 31.4% of Protestants favoured that option, a considerable swathe of opinion but far from unanimity on the issue.

There was no consensus on the issue; instead there was a variety of views including a scattering of support for civic flags, significant cross-community buy-in for designated days in all areas and considerable apathy.

Twenty-seven per cent didn't feel strongly enough to give an opinion on this supposedly black and white issue.

It was the same on the touchstone issue of parades.

Only 7.8% of Protestants and 1% of Catholics favoured breaking the law by ignoring Parades Commission determinations.

There were a variety of views but most people wanted peace, agreement and the rule of law in one form or another.

This should be an opportunity for politicians to show leadership and calm fears.

This should be an opportunity for open debate and creative solutions.

It should also be an invitation for politicians to move forward and foreground political and economic concerns which affect people's everyday lives.

There are enough of them.

With four years of elections and a decade of centenaries stretching in front of us it will be tempting for politicians to keep the old quarrels going and fan their embers.

It would be deeply cynical to focus on traditional divisions, string out negotiations and use sectarian tension to try and rally support at election times.

Failing to give a lead and reassure people that things need not run out of control could lead to the instability and crisis that many people sense is coming.

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