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Flags: What do you want to see flying on your local council building?

By Bill White

The problem of flags is not a new one. In 1964, in an incident that was the opening act to the years of violence that followed, riots broke out in Divis Street at the bottom of the Falls Road when an Irish tricolour was removed from the election offices of a republican group.

In every single year since then flags and emblems have provided one form of controversy or another in Northern Ireland. It is now more than fifty years since that first clash and we seem to be no closer to a resolution to the underlying issues.

The Haass/O’Sullivan talks made progress on some issues, but not on flags.

The Stormont House Agreement made progress on some issues but not on flags.

The recent accord 'A Fresh Start', delivered progress on various difficult issues, but on flags it was only able to offer the same idea that had been mooted in the Stormont House Agreement, the creation of A Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition.

What is the Commission likely to find? Have attitudes moved on since the vote was taken in Belfast City Council three years ago to limit the flying of the Union flag to 18 designated days?

A study started by the QUB Institute of Irish Studies is seeking the answer to that question. This study is also seeking to find the answer to another question: can anything be done to remove the tension around flags that are flown on lampposts and other public spaces?

LucidTalk were commissioned by the Institute of Irish Studies to undertake research into these questions. The NI-Wide poll-project targeted a sample of 1,421, which was carefully selected to be demographically representative of NI, and all responses were balanced and weighted to be reflective of Northern Ireland as a whole. The project used an agreed set of poll questions agreed with the Institute of Irish Studies and all poll questions were agreed to British Polling Council (BPC) professional market research standards, to ensure neutrality and balance.

An overview of the responses was featured in last Monday’s edition of the Belfast Telegraph. Today, we go into a little more detail on that first question, the policy to be adopted on the official flying of flags by district councils. First though we asked an open question about how important people think flags are to the political situation.

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So nearly 70% said they thought the issue of 'Flags within the NI political situation' is either important or very important.

As with all our poll projects we pick up comments from respondents and a sizable No. mentioned the issue of Flags on lamposts which they said was 'annoying', but some said that they could tolerate it.

One respondent highlighted the worry that removing flags could lead to conflict with the comment: 'The Flags issue is the spark that can lead to other conflict arising'.

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Then we asked the question i.e. 'In terms of possible options for flying the UK-Union flag at District Council Offices - Please rank the following in order of your preference as the best policy'.

This was a scoring Question and the current 18 designated days used by Belfast City Council came out top, closely followed by 'a compromise between 18 and 365 days', and '365 days per year'.

We got a more general answer when we asked if the policy introduced by Belfast City Council should be utilised in all councils.

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A narrow majority for 'Yes' to the 18 designated days policy. It is particularly interesting to look at the attitudes of Protestants in nationalist controlled council areas, those in Unionist council areas, and balanced Council areas (i.e. no overall control).

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We can see that Protestants in Nationalist controlled council areas would be much more keen (i.e. 60%) to get the 18 designated days policy across NI than Protestants in Unionist controlled council areas (only 48%).

This is probably because Protestants and Unionists in Nationalist council areas would see the 18 designated days policy as a step-forward, whereas Protestants and Unionists in Unionist council areas mostly see the designated days policy as a step backwards. But it might also suggest that Unionist political parties should further consider this policy in terms of their voters in areas where they are a minority.

Our next review will cover the flying of the Irish Tricolour on Council and government buildings in Northern Ireland - are there any circumstances were this would be acceptable? Watch out for our review and more poll results about this issue next week.

This review has been compiled by Bill White, Managing Director of Belfast polling and market research company LucidTalk, assisted by Dr Paul Nolan, Research Consultant in the Institute of Irish Studies and Dr Dominic Bryan, Director of the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s Belfast. You can follow LucidTalk on Twitter: @LucidTalk.

Project – Background Information

Polling was carried out by Belfast based polling and market research company LucidTalk, over a period from the 24th September 2015 – 28th October 2015. A representative sample of 1,421 NI residents, aged 18+, were interviewed by telephone (approximately 90%), and direct Face-to-Face interview (approximately 10%). The sample of 1,421 was carefully selected to be demographically representative of NI residents within the targeted geographic area of NI. NB The sample of 1,421 is larger than the normal 1,080 sample required for a representative sample of NI opinion. This was to allow representative and balanced samples to be obtained for each of the 11 NI Council areas.

Results presented are weighted, were applicable, to match the Northern Ireland (NI) demographics of gender, age, religion, socio-economic group, region (within NI), population density, and phone status (cellphone only/landline only etc.). This demographic analysis ensured the final results represented an accurate view of current opinion within NI.

All data results produced are accurate to a margin of error of +/-2.6%, at 95% confidence. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting. NB In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

LucidTalk is a member of all recognised professional Polling and Market Research organisations, including the UK Market Research Society (UK-MRS), the British Polling Council (BPC), and ESOMAR (European Society of Market Research organisations). The BPC are the primary UK professional body ensuring professional Polling and Market Research standards. All polling, research, sampling, methodologies used, market research projects and results and reports production are, have been, and will be, carried out to the professional standards laid down by the BPC.

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