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All councils flying Union flag on 18 days a year 'is best option'

QUB study finds majority support compromise

By Liam Clarke

Published 07/12/2015

The flying of the Union flag has become a deeply divisive issue
The flying of the Union flag has become a deeply divisive issue

Forcing all councils to fly the Union flag on a few designated days every year could be the best solution to sectarian disputes engulfing local authorities in Northern Ireland, a study has concluded.

Research by two academics at Queen's University suggests that limiting flag-flying to 18 days a year - similar to Belfast - could be the most feasible compromise.

It would mean nationalist councils like Derry and Newry, which never fly the Union flag, would have to do so.

But unionist councils which hoist it every day would have to compromise by reducing their displays to the 18 days.

The findings emerged in a paper commissioned by Dr Paul Nolan of QUB's Education Faculty and Dr Dominic Bryan, director of the university's School of Irish Studies.

It has already been presented to the chief executives and good relations officers of our 11 councils.

It has also been discussed with flag protest groups and other interested parties.

One of the most stark findings from a LucidTalk poll was that 70% of people felt the issue of flags on public buildings was either important or very important, with just 18% saying it wasn't.

The cross-community consensus broke down at that point.

Opinions ranged from "the Union Jack should be flown 365 days per year, and 366 days on a leap year" to "the Tricolour should be flown as well".

The problem has always been to persuade what Dr Nolan calls "determined minorities" of the need for agreement.

However, 60% of people did feel that legislation from 2000, which specified designated days for Government departments, should be extended to council buildings.

"A consistent approach could help to neutralise bad feeling", was one comment.

When Belfast opted for designated days in December 2012 it sparked rioting and nearly a year of protest by loyalists.

Although dissent has cooled recently, it remains a highly controversial issue.

Replicating the policy across Northern Ireland was supported by 60% of Protestants in nationalist councils, but had less support (48.5%) among Protestants in unionist-controlled councils.

The sample of 1,421 voters believed strongly that Stormont should make the decision, rather than allowing the present patchwork of policies to continue.

"There is a deal to be done if nationalists in the west (of the province) could bite the bullet and say: 'Well, we got the nationalist deal in Belfast, we will take the same deal here'," said Dr Nolan.

"You would also need unionists to accept that: 'It may be only 18 days, but we win out by having the flag flying by agreement across Northern Ireland for the first time'."

When it came to the number of designated days, 18 was the most popular choice.

A compromise between 18 and 365 days was second most popular, with not flying it at all the least popular.

However, each of the options had considerable support and opinion splintered further when people were asked what the compromise should be.

Eighteen days, as in Belfast, received support from 39.82% of those polled.

This was followed by 22.4% who backed 18 designated days, plus an additional day a month - a total of 30 flag days.

Some 37.8% favoured weekly flag-flying in addition to the 18 designated - 70 days in total.

Nationalist tolerance for Union flag flying at councils would increase if the Irish flag was flown alongside it on occasions when the Irish President or a minister from the Republic was visiting Northern Ireland.

Some 58% thought it was either a very good idea or a fairly good one, with 75.4% of Catholics agreeing.

This would be similar to what happens in England when foreign dignitaries attend official occasions, as when the Taoiseach recently met the Prime Minister in London.

All other options for flying the Irish flag alone or alongside the Union flag got much higher disapproval ratings.


Polling was carried out by Belfast- based polling and market research company LucidTalk over a period from September 24 to October 28.

Some 1,421 completed opinions were obtained within the targeted demographic area of a representative sample of Northern Ireland opinion. This representative sample was aged 18+, and the interviews were by telephone (approximately 90%) and directly face-to-face (approximately 10%).

The sample of 1,421 was carefully selected to be demographically representative of NI residents within the targeted geographic area of NI.

All data results produced are accurate to a margin of error of +/-2.6%, at 95% confidence, and all reported margins of sampling error will include the computed design effects for weighting.

The project used an agreed set of poll questions, agreed with Queen's University Belfast (QUB).

All poll questions were agreed to British Polling Council (BPC) professional market research standards, to ensure neutrality and balance.

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