Guidelines recommended for unofficial flying of flags in public spaces
Flags flown unofficially in Northern Ireland should only be erected with community consent and remain in place for just two weeks, a new academic report has recommended.
The flying of flags on lamp posts, such as the Tricolour and Union flag, in nationalist and unionist areas has long been the source of contention in the region.
Advocates insist the tradition is a means of cultural expression while critics claim the practice is a sinister way of marking out territory and intimidating people from different community backgrounds.
The official display of flags in Northern Ireland is no less controversial. Four years ago mass protests, some descending into violence, were staged by loyalists when Belfast City Council voted to limit the flying of the Union flag on top of City Hall.
Researchers from Queen's University in Belfast have now proposed a new set of guidelines for the unofficial flying of flags in public space.
They form part of a new report on the flags issue from the university's Institute of Irish Studies.
The academics recommend that flags should only be flown to mark significant community dates. Such fixtures in the calendar would no doubt include the Protestant loyal order's Twelfth of July commemorations or the anniversary of the republican Easter Rising.
Flags should only be flown for two weeks around the key dates, the report urged.
In regard to where flags should be flown, the researchers recommended:
:: In residential areas the views of all the people should be given consideration, including those who are in a minority, with openness and transparency in all discussions.
:: Flags should not be placed outside homes in any way that could be considered intimidating or threatening.
:: Places which deliver public services are not suitable for the display of flags for celebratory or commemorative purposes. Flags should not be placed outside hospitals, health centres, schools or community centres.
:: Flags should not be placed in community 'interface' areas.
The guidelines also stressed the importance of communication, recommending:
:: To prevent or mitigate conflict, the utmost courtesy should be shown to those who might feel uncomfortable with flag display. Residents can reasonably expect to know who is putting the flags up and how long they will be displayed. This information should be communicated to the police, community leaders and advertised in the press.
The report compiled by Dr Dominic Bryan and Dr Paul Nolan is based on a study involving a survey of 1,421 residents across Northern Ireland's 11 council areas.
The academics also held focus groups, interviewed political and community representatives and reviewed current policies.
Key findings from survey, which was undertaken by Lucid Talk polling agency, include:
:: 70% of people felt the issue of flags on public buildings was either important or very important, with 18% saying it wasn't important.
:: Seven out of 10 people polled want to see more regulation of flags in public spaces.
:: 53% of people support the flying of flags on council buildings on 18 designated days.
Dr Bryan said the flying of flags on lamp posts was a "complex problem".
"While new legislation would make it easier for agencies to act, there are real issues about the likely level of compliance and the resources required," he said.
"Also, due to links to bonfires, murals, kerb-painting and other forms of cultural expression, any legislation aimed solely at flags would achieve little on its own. Therefore, rather than recommending legislation we are proposing a set of guidelines that we hope will provide a template for any group of people who are trying to agree a way forward for the display of flags in their community."
Politicians in Northern Ireland have agreed to establish a commission on flags, identity and culture in a bid to find a way forward on issues such as flags and contentious parades.
Dr Nolan added: "The setting up of a new commission on flags, identity, culture and tradition offers another opportunity to find a way forward, and we hope that today's report will help inform the work of the commission and lay the groundwork for policy efforts over the next few years."