Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

Flag row is really all about a fear of what future holds

Anger: scenes such as the City Hall flag protests and riot police back on the streets have damaged Northern Ireland’s image
Anger: scenes such as the City Hall flag protests and riot police back on the streets have damaged Northern Ireland’s image

Thank heavens it's almost Christmas. The new Northern Ireland has never needed a breathing space like it does now.

Events this December are a reminder, if one were needed, of the fragility of the much-lauded peace process. A legacy of inter-party bitterness and community unease will be carried into the New Year.

The dispute over the Union flag is damaging in many respects. For the seasonal economy of Belfast city-centre. For relations between political parties in the City Hall and in the wider community. For the future stability of Northern Ireland. Possibly, in the longer term, for power-sharing at Stormont.

With each passing day of division over the flag, the aspiration of a shared future is consigned to that of a shared-out future.

The dispute shows up the reality of politics just under the surface - no real meeting of minds between the two power-blocs of unionism and nationalism.

Mutual understanding? What mutual understanding? Where, in the past month of political passions, have we seen any evidence?

Reason has gone out of the window among elements of the unionist community. The passion to protest has proved too overwhelming.

The damage to Christmas trade, to job security, to tourism, to Northern Ireland's international image, has been ignored by too many.

What's the problem, ask the nationalists? Let's get the flag down and get on with it.

And if unionist protesters block the roads, get the PSNI to clear them by whatever means necessary.

If only life were that simple. Striking a balance between tough policing and preserving community respect is an unenviable role for the PSNI.

People in nationalist neighbourhoods should surely know better than anyone how difficult policing can be in a divided society.

Using water-cannon and firing baton rounds is a deterrent which can work in the short-term, but can have adverse long-term consequences for relations between the police and the community it serves.

Many unionists have made the point that the dispute over the flag is symptomatic of a wider issue - that they feel Irish culture is gaining ground and their British culture is diminished.

A latent sense of unionist frustration has now been blown into the open, which will not be abated by the new census figures.

Those figures show that the balance of power is shifting uncomfortably for unionists and across Northern Ireland. That balance is now close to 50:50, as it is in Belfast and which has led to the flag dispute.

The census reveals that a generation of young people from a Protestant/unionist cultural background have already voted with their feet not to live in Northern Ireland.

Having attended universities and colleges, or taken job opportunities across the water, they are not for returning.

No doubt, some have been scared off by their childhood experience of violence. And yet their ties with their native province run deep still, as will be evident this very week.

Thousands will flood our airports and ports for the seasonal homecoming to be with their parents and grandparents, but therein lies another problem identified in the census figures.

The welcoming party grows older and is subject significantly to the sands of time. Put at its starkest, too many young unionists have left and too many old unionists are dying.

One way or the other, the census figures appear to show that Protestant/unionist dominance is slipping away.

Is it any wonder, in such circumstances, that the unionist electorate clings to and cherishes the Union flag? Nationalists and republicans see the flag flown provocatively in their face, a hark-back to the old days of majority rule and Protestant domination.

In reality, the excessive display of the flag may symbolise the very opposite - constitutional and cultural insecurity about what the future really holds.

If there is a more encouraging sign in the census for unionists, it lies in the answers to the question about how people wish to describe themselves - as British, Irish, northern Irish, or whatever.

The census shows a significant minority now see themselves as northern Irish and that only one-in-four describes him/herself as Irish.

These figures present a greater challenge to nationalists and republicans than they do to unionists, but no party can ignore what appears to be significant changes in public attitudes. The Good Friday Agreement may have drawn decades of violent conflict to a conclusion, but the Union flag Christmas of 2012, coupled with the census returns, shows that the future for British unionism and Irish nationalism is still filled with much uncertainty.

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