Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

While our grey politicians fail to offer any leadership our young people offer a brighter future for all of us

The past week has been one the most depressing in Northern Ireland’s recent history.

The images which have been broadcast around the world of violent disputes over the flying of the Belfast City Hall union flag have brought a sense of despair when, just before Christmas, when we should all be looking forward to happiest time of the year.

As the Belfast Telegraph |stated in a front page leader| yesterday, “a slough of despondency has settled over the country”. This paper argued that now is the time for our political leaders to shine. Instead we have heard meaningless words. From unionist anger over the City Hall decision to nationalist attempts to defend keeping the name of an IRA hunger striker for a Newry play park, they have been words with no sense of compromise. Ironically, it has fallen to one of our best known faces to use the language of compromise. Not a politician but a sportsman, Darren Clarke. Speaking from the other side of the world he said: “So sad to see, from the other side of the world, what's going on at home. We have come so far, please compromise.”

But there has been little sense of this from the grey, mostly male political figures of Northern Ireland. Instead this paper decided to seek an alternative

view about what was happening by speaking to younger people, and to hear female voices about what is going here.

While there is much sadness about what is going on and anger over the role of our |politicians, there is also optimism. Optimism because the prevailing view is in support of compromise, commonsense and reaching an accommodation.

Speaking about the City Hall flag 21-year-old Fionnuala |McGrane said: “A lot of people didn’t notice it was even there until they took it down.”

Jessica Kirk (22) added: “People need to take a step back and see the wider picture, all this over a flag?” More than 2,300 |people have said they will attend a ‘peace gathering’ at Belfast City Hall this Sunday.

The Facebook group organising the event said it would give the peaceful silent majority a chance to be heard and to show the world that Northern Ireland is not about two communities at war, but has moved on.

“Northern Ireland is about many people of many nationalities and religions, colours and creeds living peacefully |together,” said the organisers. “This is not about a flag — it’s about peace and freedom.”

Compiled by Chris Kilpatrick, Claire McNeilly, Anna Maguire and Aisling Scally

After depair, comes hope...

Old guard speak language of the past

Sammy Wilson, DUP MLA for East Antrim

He said the flag motion was always going to have consequences for Alliance Party members. “The Alliance members of Belfast City Council are not stupid enough to think that there will be no consequences. I am not saying they deserved it, but they should have known the consequences.”

Mick Murphy, SF councillor in Newry

He said he didn’t see an issue with a play park in the city retaining the name of an IRA gunman who died on hunger strike in 1981. Mr Murphy said: “Since the park was renamed, I do not see why at this stage it should be changed. It’s been used as a leverage against the flag situation in Belfast.”

Billy Hutchinson, PUP leader

He said the flag motion was another attempt to undermine Britishness by republicans. “It’s not over a flag. They (republicans) don’t want us to be British. They are not going to make Northern Ireland a grey, neutral area. They (Sinn Fein) are making life very, very difficult.”

John McArdle, SDLP major of Newry

He said of the park row: “When I look at what is happening in Belfast at the moment and look at a decision taken 11 years ago and no one commented or disagreed.

Look at what happened in Belfast where a young police officer was nearly murdered and we are talking about this at the moment.”

Anthony Flynn, SF councillor in Newry

He voted in favour of the play park retaining its name. “It (the play park) was named 11 years ago. That was not the motion. The motion was to confirm that everything was done properly. I was not there when it was done years ago. I agreed what was brought forward by the council.”

Ruth Patterson, DUP councillor in Belfast

She said: “They (loyalist protesters) are disillusioned, they are left in like a wilderness and they need the leadership. Burning the Tricolour is something that the nationalist/republican community do at most of their parades. But I don’t condone it but I’m not going to condemn it.”

Jimmy McCreesh, SF councillor in Newry

He said the debate over the Raymond McCreesh park had been turned into a political football by unionists. “The decision was made a long time ago. And the unionist fraternity in that area brought it up again after 10 years. They lived with it for 10 years, they brought it up for a political debate.”

Edwin Poots, DUP MLA, Lagan Valley

Poots and Sinn Fein’s North Belfast MLA Gerry Kelly told each other to “bring it on” over proposals regarding the flying of the Union flag at Parliament Buildings. Mr Poots added: “That is something that has been opened up as a consequence of what has happened at the City Hall.”

Gerry Kelly, SF Policing Board member

He hit out at police following trouble in the aftermath of the council vote. “It was a disgraceful police operation, or lack of a police operation. If that had been 1,000 or more republicans out there, they would not have left it that they were able to come into the back of City Hall.”

Terry Hearty, SF councillor in Newry

He said the passing of a motion to keep Raymond McCreesh’s name on a play park was correct. “The decision was made 11 years ago. Everyone was aware of the decision. I think it was the right decision. From my own point of view, it has been that for 11 years and there's never been any issue.”

Sean Doran, SF councillor in Newry

He said the community in the city wanted the name of the IRA gunman to remain on the playground. “I would think it's a good idea because the people there wanted it. (Regarding) the flag, when democracy suits some people they go for it, and when it does not suit for them they do not go for it.”

Jim Rodgers, UUP councillor in Belfast

He said of party colleague Basil McCrea’s backing of the Alliance flag motion: “My colleagues and I will be meeting soon to consider our position. We still want Basil McCrea disciplined for speaking on the public airwaves without clearance and for interfering in council business.”

Michael Carr, SDLP councillor in Newry

He said he felt his hands were tied in relation to last week’s park vote. “I think we have to take each vote as it comes along. We were under great pressure from a legal point of view.” He previously said: “We have considered this issue in depth. We were wrong if we did it and wrong if we didn’t.”

David McNarry, UKIP MLA, Strangford

He accused Alliance of being “foolhardy in placing in jeopardy the future of Stormont” for refusing to discuss the flags issue while violence continues. “They cannot call the decision at Belfast City Hall yet turn away from, and obstruct, a democratic decision taking place at Stormont.”

Christopher Stalford, DUP councillor in Belfast

He said there should be no surprise at the furious reaction to the flag motion. “Those who started this debate should have known from the outset that it would stir up tension and cause division. I trust as they look back on the damaged relationships, they will realise their focus was wrong.”

Jim Allister, TUV leader

He launched an attack on Sinn Fein as the blame game continued in recent days following trouble at flag protests. “Culture is Sinn Fein’s new theatre of war. Hence, parades must go and flags must go. Those who orchestrated and justified terror must rule over us.”

Declan McAteer, SDLP councillor in Newry

He backed the park decision at the council meeting, but after the media focus on the issue wouldn’t comment further, saying it was an internal matter. He said: “I'm not making any comment on it. There is no particular reason. I'm just not commenting on it. The party are dealing with it internally.”

Mike Nesbitt, UUP leader

He blasted the Alliance Party as “anti-British” after the flag motion. “They’ve demonstrated that they are not a kind of cuddly form of unionism, but they're actually anti-British in some ways. That is where the focus should be — not on the fact that they're being attacked, which is utterly wrong.”

David Hyland, Independent republican councillor in Newry

He accused unionist councillors of “trying to make political capital” over the Raymond McCreesh Park row. Councillor Hyland quit Sinn Fein’s over the party’s acceptance of the new policing arrangements. He has also spoken out in defence of dissident group Eirigi.

Younger generation bring optimism

Elaine O'Neill, HR manager

The 38-year-old says: “Flags are key to identities but not to the point that all reason goes out the window. It’s time for calm heads politically because some of our politicians have infused and inflamed the situation. It was a democratic vote and we have to stand by democracy.”

Annemarie Rock, Shop manager, Belfast

Mother-of-three, Annemarie (35), said: “There wasn’t enough consultation on the flag, which is obviously important to some people, before they made the decision to take it down. The situation hasn’t been handled well. It has been chaos. A lot of our staff have been having problems getting home.”

Rebecca Hall, Student

The 20-year-old, a student from Great Britain and chair of Queen’s University Belfast’s Labour Students, said: “Flags are still a divisive issue in Northern Ireland. Our politicians had an opportunity to show strong leadership over the last few days and yet they have seemingly turned this down.”

Marcus Hunter-Neill, Drag queen from Bangor

The 30-year-old, who is also known by his stage name, Lady Portia Diamonte, said: “I don’t think so much power should be put into a flag. It’s time we got a bit of normality back. Now we don't know whether visitors or tourists will come to Northern Ireland next year.”

Jean Wylie, Belfast mother of two

Jean (46), who works in marketing and communications, said: “I don’t define myself by a flag. The situation is a disgrace and shows Northern Ireland to the rest of the world in a very bad light. In Belfast, we are protesting to the extent where is it killing local business and for what?”

Janice Gault, Chief executive of the NI Hotels Federation

She said: “The timing of this and the fact that we’re all over the news has been particularly bad for our industry. It’s time for a reasonable discussion. We spent a fortune on marketing Our Time, Our Place to the outside world. Politicians haven’t handled this well.”

Katrina Doran, Fashion website editor

The 38-year-old said: “I don’t think this is an important issue; it’s a flag. I don’t understand the violence and I think it’s about time the politicians did something about what’s going on. Alliance leader Naomi Long is the voice of reason, the only one with common sense.”

Nichola Mallon, SDLP councillor, Belfast

She said: “Flags are an important issue, especially here. But it is absolutely time for calm heads. Tensions are dangerously high, we've had murder attempts, violence and threats of violence. We definitely need some breathing space, especially in the run up to |Christmas.”

Brendan Mulgrew, PR agency partner

The 44-year-old father-of-three from Belfast said: “Flags are clearly important to some people in terms of identity, but there are so many more important issues out there. It’s time for calm political heads, so far we haven’t witnessed much of that. This is the last thing our struggling economy needs.”

Fionnula McGrane, Student nurse

The 21-year-old from Co Tyrone said: “Flags are important to some people, but not to me, it is putting a whole dampener on Christmas. A lot of students don’t feel safe going out now. They need to try to negotiate something on both sides. The political reaction to the violence has been inadequate.”

Natasha Black, Law student

The 19-year-old from east Belfast said: “Flags aren’t important to me. The situation is ridiculous. I don’t think people would have noticed that they took the flag down at City Hall if there hadn’t been such a fuss made about it. The politicians will have to stick at it and try to calm things down.”

Sarah-Louise Baird, President of Law Society at Queens

The 21-year-old said: “I appreciate that the flag is a symbol for some, I cannot agree that it justifies threats of death, fear and havoc in our community. I think many in our society disregard mutual respect and a need for neutrality in such a divided city.”

Jessica Kirk, Equality officer, QUB

The 22-year-old from east Belfast said: “I personally don't think flags are as important as what they're made out to be. Obviously people are aggravated about it, but the whole thing has escalated out of control. Politicians shouldn't have let the situation escalate to the extent that we have seen.”

Michelle McMahon, Post-graduate student

The 25-year-old from Cavan — a student at Queens — said: “Flags are highly symbolic in Northern Ireland and strongly attached to identity, but it has gone beyond that. The word thuggery comes to mind. Politicians need to more actively use their connections in the community to stop this.”

Jason O'Neill, President, Students Union at QUB

The 24-year-old said: “We respect Belfast City Council’s decision and understand issues of identity are highly emotive. However, we strongly condemn any act of violence or intimidation against elected representatives. It is definitely time for calm heads.”

Emma Bricknell, Owner of Made in Belfast restaurants

The 35-year-old said: “I think politicians have handled the fallout over the flag terribly. It was a ridiculous time to do this. I think the tourist effect is awful. Why do it at Christmas? The market has suffered and likewise tourism. And we are suffering.”

Carrie Neely, Owns art consultancy firm

The mother-of-three (37) said: “If they could create a flag for Northern Ireland, maybe that would be able to keep everyone happy. I do not think we would be seeing the trouble we have if the politicians had done their jobs and handled this well from the start. They should have dealt with it better.”

Romano Mullin, Post-graduate student

The 22-year-old from Strabane, who lives in Belfast, said: “I don’t think the flag should be such an important issue. I understand the feeling behind a lot of people’s reactions, but there are more immediate issues. I’m not an Alliance Party voter, but I have been impressed by Naomi Long.”

Chris Bailie, Politics student

The 21-year-old from north Belfast, said: “I don’t think flags should be such an important issue. There's much more important things to be worrying about. But people should always remember that if they vote for sectarian |parties, they will get sectarian |politics.”

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