Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney says that loyalists should be allowed to fly the Union flag in Northern Ireland.
The Co Londonderry-born poet — who once famously protested at being included in the Penguin book of Contemporary British Poetry because his “passport’s green” — said there is “never going to be a united Ireland” so “why don’t you let them (loyalists) fly the flag?”
Almost two months of angry loyalist protests, illegal roadblocks and street disorder have followed the new flag policy, which was voted in by Sinn Fein, SDLP and Alliance councillors at the start of December. The flag will now be flown on designated days, such as royal birthdays, rather than all-year round, as had been done for decades.
In an interview with The Times newspaper on Monday, Mr Heaney warned that current times in Northern Ireland are “very dangerous indeed”. He added: “I think Sinn Fein could have taken it easy. No hurry on flags.”
He said that as someone who “knows something of prejudice” he can “understand the loyalists”.
Mr Heaney said that at the beginning of the Troubles in Derry, the city’s nationalist leader Eddie McAteer told him “both sides are entitled to their pageantry”.
He added that loyalists “take the pageantry to extremes, they wipe the floor with it”.
Mr Heaney, from Bellaghy in south Derry, also said that “loyalism or unionism or Protestantism, or whatever you want to call it in Northern Ireland, it operates not as a class system, but a caste system”.
Back in the 1980s Mr Heaney resolutely identified himself as Irish when he objected to his inclusion in the Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry with the lines: “Be advised, my passport's green/ No glass of ours was ever raised/ To toast the Queen.”
But — despite his Catholic, nationalist background — in relation to the current Union flag row, he said: “They (the loyalists) have an entitlement factor running: the flag is part of it.
“There’s never going to be a united Ireland. So why don’t you let them fly the flag?”
Belfast SDLP councillor Tim Attwood on Monday night defended the decision to restrict the flying of the Union flag at the City Hall.
Mr Attwood said the SDLP “remains committed to creating an Ireland, as John Hume said, built on respect for diversity and for political difference”.
He added: “That is why in Belfast the SDLP supported an honourable compromise to fly the Union flag on designated days as it does at Stormont and many public buildings in the UK.”
Born to a farmer in Co Londonderry in April 1939, Seamus Heaney is Northern Ireland’s most famous poet and winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature. His poems first became noted in the mid-1960s when he was active in a group of poets later recognised as the ‘Northern School’. His first volume, Death Of A Naturalist, was published in 1966 to acclaim and won several awards. Heaney’s birth into a divided society has informed his writing over the years.