Sinn Fein's prodding on flags only heightens fear
When Alex Maskey became the first Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast, he invited me to lunch.
On my way down Royal Avenue, I met a friend from South Africa and we walked together towards the City Hall. As he caught sight of the Union flag fluttering over the building, my friend expressed surprise: "I thought you told me the Lord Mayor was from Sinn Fein?"
"That's right," I replied. "The fact that the flag is still there and a Shinner is in the Lord Mayor's parlour tells you how far politics have travelled."
Now a decade later the Union flag has gone other than on designated days. The season of peace and goodwill is scared with tension and trouble. We are left to wonder if Northern Ireland is travelling anywhere other than back to the past. The Good Friday agreement states: "All parties acknowledge the sensitivities of the use of symbols and emblems for public purposes and the need in particular in creating new institutions to ensure that such symbols and emblems are used in a manner which promotes mutual respect rather than division."
The ambiguity of these words has been exploited to the full in this past week of madness. For republicans and nationalists, the restriction on flag-flying over Belfast City Hall is in keeping with the agreement. For unionists the absence of the flag is at odds with the agreement.
In the middle of an argument which would have been better left for another day, when a little more political maturity had been nurtured, the major casualties are community relations and the Alliance Party.
The lesson to be learnt is that Northern Ireland is not ready for radical change on flags and emblems. What we have - no matter how imperfect, annoying, or provocative - is what we've got. High profile arguments over flags - such as we have witnessed in Belfast - need to be put on the political back-burner.
What have nationalists gained? I would argue nothing other than now having to put up with worryingly increased tensions within the unionist community.
What have unionists gained? Nothing either. The images of destruction at Alliance Party offices, death threats and intimidation define Northern Ireland and elements within the unionist community in the worst possible terms. Only dissident republicans will be delighted and so they should be. A dissident terrorist attack could hardly do more damage to this province's improved international image than the Nazi-like behaviour of the past week. The flag dispute should serve as a wake-up call for everyone. It shows we are far from out of the woods and could still sleep-walk into a break-down of the peace process.
What political leaders have achieved in this place in the past two decades is something extraordinary but it has to be worked at constantly. The empty flag pole over Belfast City Hall now symbolises a breakdown in community relations which could have been avoided and which must be repaired in the weeks and months ahead for the good of every citizen, unionist and nationalist alike.
The dispute over the flag brings us back to a fundamental difference between nationalists, republicans and unionists over the Good Friday agreement. There is little or no meeting of minds. One side sees the agreement as an ongoing "peace process" and the other believes that by signing the pact, a line was drawn in the sand, no more concessions were necessary and we could all live in peace happily ever after.
The raw politics of Belfast City Hall destroy that illusion. Sinn Fein appears to unionists to be hell-bent on dismantling British culture and, at times, oblivious to the attitude of the wider unionist community.
Northern Ireland will not go forward in the way that it should unless Sinn Fein tempers its ways. It may be under pressure from dissident republicans to demonstrate a tough line with unionists but it must not forget that it is in partnership in a country where a majority of people still see themselves as British. Northern Ireland's wider image is tarnished yet again. It will be damaged further if unionists cannot demonstrate cooler heads.
What's done is done and we must all move on
Sinn Fein councillors in Belfast may congratulate themselves on scoring a knock-down in the perpetual boxing match with unionism. In raising the flags issue in the way that they did - especially on the eve of Christmas - they have hurt the feelings of even the most moderate unionists. That approach will take this community nowhere fast.