Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

All parties have to share blame for flags debacle

Jamie Bryson takes part in a protest in Belfast city centre

The past two months have seen this society lost in a crazy maze from which, until the last few days, it seemed incapable of escaping. Nothing has been gained through the Union flag dispute and much has been sacrificed, and now we are charged collectively with picking up the pieces.

The inquests will go on about who did what and when but we are where we are now. With the benefit of hindsight, republicans, nationalists and unionists alike in Belfast City Council might reflect none of them can be absolved from some responsibility for the mayhem so many have suffered.

There are no winners - only thousands of losers - from the people who were trapped in their homes in fear or who couldn't get a bus in their neighbourhood, to the traders whose despair went unanswered for so long, to the protesters who will now languish in jail or the police officers still harbouring the wounds of battle.

Televised images of the violence have done much harm to Belfast's reputation. If we are going to fight over every flag in this manner, then heaven help the future.

The flags dispute has emphasised that we remain a divided society in a small shared space and that we are still a long way from working through the many problems which separate us.

The fact that the First and Deputy First Minister couldn't hold a joint press conference last week to address the issue with one voice is a matter of deep regret but hardly surprising.

Pictured together, they are the symbols of power-sharing and partnership and yet the strains of recent weeks show through their relationship. The fundamental flaw at Stormont is that one side still sees the benefits of partnership in an entirely different light than the other.

Unionism aims to preserve and protect British values and culture and to alert and muster its followers to any attempt to scale the walls of fortress UK.

The aim of nationalism and republicanism is quite different - to pursue an as-yet unfulfilled aspiration of equality of citizenship and to breach those walls. The Belfast City Hall flag dispute is a microcosm of this unending political and cultural dichotomy.

Politics in Northern Ireland abides by Isaac Newton's third law of physics. To every action there is an equal reaction. Every now and then, someone on one side or the other makes a move which provokes unrest or, as we have just witnessed, serious street disorder.

The flag debate falls into that category. It would have been better had it not taken place when it did but the reaction should teach all sides to think not once but twice or three times before making any move in future on such a sensitive issue.

This is not rocket science. It is good, old, plain and simple Ulster commonsense of the kind most people employ in mixed company every day of the week, taking care not to give undue offence or express partisan viewpoints in the interests of having a civil conversation.

That is how we have arrived at the Northern Ireland of today - mindful of our differences and a bitter past yet trying valiantly to put it behind it us in the interests of a better future.

If we all need to watch our P's and Q's in what we say and do, the same applies to the media in Northern Ireland and the BBC in particular. The latter should review the coverage given to the flags dispute on last week's infamous Nolan TV programme.

Politics here has always been a major test of media responsibility, sadly missing in the programme. What was a disgracefully inflammatory debate in front of a fiercely intimidating studio audience was hardly in keeping with the BBC's reputation for balance.

Both communities need space and time to work through the differences which have surfaced yet again. We know now, if we didn't before, is that the use or misuse of flags and emblems has the capacity to destroy a fragile peace.

From this moment on, nothing further should be done by either side to exacerbate a potentially dangerous situation. A flag is only a flag is only a flag, whether it is a Union Jack or an Irish tricolour.

Flown or not, a flag of itself makes no difference to daily lives. It will not guarantee employment or pay the household bills.

For the foreseeable future and until or unless the parties at Stormont agree a common policy, the status quo should apply. Where flags fly let them fly. Where they don't, leave them be.

Imperfect as that is, Protestants and Catholics alike can live with it and after recent horrendous events are probably more than willing to do so.

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