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There's desire for new dispensation on political hot potato

By Paul Nolan

Published 07/12/2015

For visitors to Northern Ireland it is the thing that most signals that this is "a place apart".

There may no longer be Army foot patrols or cordons of steel around town centres, but everywhere there are flags.

Union flags, Ulster flags, loyalist paramilitary flags, Irish tricolours and other flags that act as proxies for the political sympathies: Israeli and Palestinian flags, the Scottish saltire. All these and more are used to express a sense of cultural identity.

The study we have embarked upon in the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen's University has been designed to tell us more about how people feel about flags and, more importantly, if there is any mood for compromise on some of the flashpoint issues.

What we discovered is that a clear majority of people, 70%, see flags as either 'important' or 'very important' as a political issue.

And of course, there is not just one issue, but two - the flying of the Union flag on the official flagpoles of district councils, and then the separate issue of the unofficial flags or the "flags on lampposts".

As regards the district councils, the most popular option is for the Belfast City Council policy of flying the Union flag on 18 designated days, and the largest degree of cross-community support would be for a deal agreed by the Assembly which would see this policy adopted by all 11 of our councils.

Our poll shows the continued existence of intense minorities.

One of our respondents indicated that they would not only hold out for the Union flag to be flown 365 days a year, he specified '366 in a leap year'.

The percentage choosing absolute positions, either 365 days or no Union Flag, when combined amounts to 41%.

The other problem area, flags on lampposts, proved equally controversial, with a very sharp divide between Protestants and Catholics.

Put simply, support for the display of flags on lampposts is almost entirely confined to the Protestant community.

Among Catholics 80% find the practice to be either slightly annoying or very annoying, and only 4% indicate any level of support.

But even within the Protestant community there is divided opinion. While two in five (39%) are either slightly or fully in support of flags on lampposts, half of the Protestant population are not. One quarter (25%) find them to be slightly annoying, and another quarter (25%) find them to be very annoying.

In the focus group discussions we have run as part of this project, we have found some grounds for optimism.

In some of the most hardline loyalist communities there is a recognition that flag-flying has become a problem, and with that a determination to move to a new dispensation.

  • Dr Paul Nolan is from the Education Faculty at Queen's University and co-author of the report

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