Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 April 2014

All sides must play a part to end our culture of division

Political football: Loyalists protest at the axeing of the national anthem at the irish Cup final

The Royal British Legion and the Irish Football Association made the right calls. Both organisations should be congratulated for the pragmatic stance they have adopted over the flying of the Union flag in one case and the playing of the national anthem in the other.

The Royal British Legion is an organisation commanding a huge well of community respect, but which was in danger of being used as a crude political tool.

The argument from some unionists appeared to go something like this: 'If we can't get the flag back on top of Belfast City Hall all the year round, we'll stick it up on the Cenotaph, instead.'

Whoever dreamed up this ploy was misguided. They have demonstrated what little understanding they possess about the meaning of memorials to those who sacrificed their lives in the cause of the freedoms we enjoy today.

That said, there remains no rhyme or reason about the flying of flags in Northern Ireland.

Disputes are bound to continue, because of the lack of proper and clearly defined protocol.

The rules are made up by one political side, or the other, depending on which holds the majority in a council area.

Union flags are flown 365 days of the year on public buildings in unionist strongholds, are restricted to designated days at Stormont and now in Belfast, and are nowhere to be seen in some council districts where nationalists have control.

The obvious compromise is to apply the Stormont protocol of designated days across Northern Ireland. It is hardly asking too much for standards of flag-flying on public buildings to be agreed in the Office of the First and deputy First Minister and applied to the reorganisation of the new council districts.

The good news is that some heat has dissipated from the flag protests – not before time, given the damage done by street violence.

The summer ahead requires responsible unionist leadership in place to ensure that protests are not led, as they have been, by people with a political agenda to turn back the clock.

When it comes to anthems in Northern Ireland, what is proudly patriotic to one spectator's ears may be deeply offensive to another's.

That is not what sport should be about. In recognising this simple fact, I hope the IFA have put down a marker for the future which is neither red, white and blue, nor green, white and orange.

The case for not playing God Save the Queen was incontrovertible, given the religious and political divide between the supporters at Saturday's Irish Cup final.

If ever there was a shared space, surely Windsor Park was it on Saturday – occupied by two sets of fans from opposite ends of the constitutional spectrum.

The issue as to whether God Save the Queen should be played at Northern Ireland matches remains far more contentious.

The international team and its supporters are drawn from across the community. They occupy a uniquely shared space in the context of the new Northern Ireland.

While fans have shown a commendable willingness to move away from the sectarian chants of the past at Windsor Park, attitudes towards the anthem are still entrenched. No consensus is on the horizon, but the lesson from the Irish Cup final – though, thankfully, it passed off uneventfully – is that one must be found eventually.

While the spotlight of attention rests on unionists, nationalists, too, have a part to play in the game of flags, emblems and anthems.

For example, if the British national anthem was not appropriate on Saturday afternoon at Windsor Park, can we look forward to the day when the Irish national anthem is considered just as unnecessary to the enjoyment of a GAA game?

The vice-president of Fifa, Jim Boyce, reminded us last week that sport and politics should not mix. The sad reality is that sport and politics do mix – to all our costs.

Other parts of the UK are coming to terms with this issue, as evidenced at rugby internationals in Edinburgh and Cardiff. The fact that Scotland has adopted Flower of Scotland as its anthem has not dissuaded even the Queen's daughter, the Princess Royal, from acting as the patron of Scottish rugby, nor singing along proudly with the fans. We may never stop sport mixing with politics, but unionists and nationalists alike have a part to play in lowering the flags of division, muting the music of contention and raising the level of mutual respect on the playing fields of Ulster.

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