Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Will we ever have our own flag for everyone to honour?

The Union flag at Belfast City Hall, an issue which splits the parties

Flying a flag can be a fairly vexed issue in Northern Ireland. Indeed vexed is the appropriate word since the study of flags and emblems is actually known as 'vexillology'.

The issue to hand in Belfast City Council is the Union flag on the top of the City Hall.

Currently it is there every day of the year. On Friday a council committee voted to have the flag removed from the City Hall and two other facilities but that will not be the end of the matter.

The question which the full council is expected to vote upon is whether the committee decision should stand and unionists are in no mood to see the flag come down.

Belfast with a 50:50 sectarian split is polarised on such an issue. The crucial decisive votes rest with the Alliance party which is likely to support flying the flag on designated days - a policy which applies to government buildings such as Stormont. That seems a reasonable compromise between two irreconcilable positions.

Flags matter a lot. Their insensitive display has the capacity to provoke anger, raise tension and trouble between neighbourhoods, and to undo the positives of peace and relative stability which we now enjoy.

Belfast can only progress on a basis of give a little, take a little because the balance of power in the City Hall is so constantly on a knife-edge that some element of consensus is required to keep matters on an even keel.

Anyone who drives around Northern Ireland today will see hundreds of flags including tricolours on display in very public places. The vast majority of Union Jacks, Northern Ireland flags, Ulster flags, loyalist and republican flags, tricolours, and, bizarrely, even at one time Palestinian or Israeli flags, mark territorial claims on streets and neighbourhoods. However, the centres of cities, towns and villages are more accepted these days as shared neutral spaces.

Belfast unionist councillors argue that other British cities fly the flag throughout the year and that they should be entitled to do likewise. But Northern Ireland is not as Margaret Thatcher once asserted, as British as Finchley.

Belfast is Belfast, a city rebuilt in a new political climate. For the first time in its history, unionists, nationalists and republicans, are collectively supporting and actively engaged in bettering the city.

We have come some way since the 1960s when Ian Paisley protested at the display of a tricolour in a shop window in Divis St. The Flags and Emblems Act which gave the police powers to remove any flag other than the Union Jack was repealed in 1987. The legislation in existence now relates to government buildings from which the Union flag is flown on designated days each year.

Unionists will argue that the Good Friday Agreement affirmed Northern Ireland's constitutional position in the UK and therefore justifies the flying of the Union flag. However the agreement also defined power-sharing between British unionists and Irish nationalists and a new relationship between Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, which applies to no other part of the UK.

Northern Ireland is an integral region of the UK but in a different political context to England, Wales or Scotland. Displaying the Union flag and singing God Save the Queen remain sacrosanct for unionists. Notably in the case of the City Hall, the Democratic and Ulster Unionists are united in insisting that the flag is flown throughout the year. However, other parts of the UK are expressing their identity with their own flags, most notably the Scottish Saltire, and even singing alternative anthems at sporting events - witness the fervour for Flower of Scotland at Murrayfield.

It is still too early days in the new power-sharing arrangements at Stormont but who can say that at some point in the future, Northern Ireland may follow the Scottish or Welsh lead and adopt an alternative flag and, perhaps even an anthem for major sporting occasions to which more people across this divided community will subscribe.

As the Scottish and Welsh might testify, expressing regional or national identity in this way within the UK does not necessarily mean disrespect to Queen and country. On the contrary, the Queen might be first to commend us for showing more mutual understanding of one another. In the meantime, Belfast City Council is embroiled in another divisive debate on flag-flying which it could well do without.

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