Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

A ghost returns to haunt us wrapped in Union flag

Loyalist protestors and PSNI officers pictured at Belfast City Hall on 22 December 2012
Loyalist protestors and PSNI officers pictured at Belfast City Hall on 22 December 2012
Loyalist protestors pictured at Belfast City Hall

Who would have believed that, having come so far, Northern Ireland could threaten to implode so swiftly? The ghost of Christmas present has stalked the streets, wrapped in a Union flag.

The seasonal greeting of peace and goodwill to all men has a hollow ring about it this year, not least for those who have suffered so much distress and disruption to their lives in the recent flag protests.

Where will it all end, we are left to wonder on this Christmas Eve. When the pine needles have fallen off the festive tree, when the last scraps of turkey are consigned to the bin, when a New Year beckons, will the flag-draped ghost return to haunt us all? Or can it be exorcised in 2013 to everyone's satisfaction?

The Union flag Christmas of 2012 has taught everyone a lesson: never take peace, stability and reconciliation for granted. The message has not been lost on the outside world, as European and American audiences take in images of violent protests on their televisions.

Of course, the ghosts of Christmas past were much worse than this one. For all the damage done, it is nothing in comparison to the 1970s and 80s, with security gates and searches in every city, town and village and seasonal hopes for peace constantly blown away by December bombing campaigns.

Clearly, the political leaders at Stormont are struggling to find any solutions and yet any repeat of the madness of the past month could undo what good they have done to date.

Can they find an answer? Or are we destined to spend the future forever wrangling over flags and emblems and parades?

The Union flag Christmas illustrates a fundamental flaw in the governance of Northern Ireland, which can be put right. Had the rules of democracy, as defined in the Good Friday Agreement and as operated at Stormont, been applied in Belfast City Council, all that has happened might have been avoided.

Had the council vote on the flag taken account of the need for cross-community consensus on sensitive issues, most likely it would not have been passed and Alliance would not have faced such an impossibly isolated position.

Flying the flag on designated days on public buildings in Britain was the protocol adhered to in the year 2000, when legislation was approved by then-Secretary of State Peter Mandelson for Northern Ireland. If it is good enough for Stormont, it should be acceptable across Northern Ireland.

But, not surprisingly, each district council has decided to do its own thing, resulting in Union flags flying every day of the year in some places and nowhere to be seen in others. Re-opening the flags and emblems debate across this divided province hardly bears thinking about. Yet somehow, in 2013, the issue will have to be addressed once and for all, along with a resolution of the handful of contentious parades which lead to so much community unrest every summer.

Locking the leaders of the five main parties in Stormont until they come up with an answer is hardly too extreme a suggestion, given the damage done to community relations, to the economy and to our international image by their collective failure to find a resolution to date. Northern Ireland operates under two very different systems of democracy. In one, applied at Stormont, cross-community support is essential on difficult issues. In the other, in district councils, majority rule rules the roost - a recipe for sectarian point-scoring and political discord, as we have seen so vividly in Belfast.

So where do unionist and nationalist parties stand on this issue? Strangely silent, it appears, which is perhaps no surprise, given that the 26 district councils are carved up between them.

These 26 councils are being reduced to 11, essentially breaking Northern Ireland into a network of even larger Protestant/unionist, or Catholic/nationalist, dominated fiefdoms.

How will they cope in respect of the display of flags and emblems, naming of parks and erecting of memorials? How will they decide what - if anything - is flown from their new headquarters?

Will majority rule mean one side or the other's feelings will be disregarded, as is the case now? Or will the Union flag Christmas of 2012 prove a spur to finding a better consensual system of decision-making on the thorny issues of flags and emblems? Unless the spirit of the Good Friday and St Andrews agreements is better reflected in the voting procedures of the new councils, Northern Ireland will face the turmoil of Belfast all over again. Do we really want that?

Happy Christmas.

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