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Back to the future: Why Magherafelt flag storm is a lesson from history

The latest emblem row - this time in Co Londonderry - transports Henry McDonald to a depressing period before the ceasefires

After reading last week about a pole being erected with a Union flag flying from it in the centre of Magherafelt before being cut down, I looked outside my door to check what year it was. I was almost expecting to see a DeLorean-made DMC-12 car in the driveway and a nutty-looking, greying, spikey-haired professor wearing a white coat kicking its tyres.

Because the current row in the Co Londonderry town over the severed flag pole creates the uneasy sensation of being transported through space and time to the 1980s in a kind of malignant Back-To-The-Future experiment.

The controversy over the erection of a flag in a public space also brings back some old, notorious faces from three decades ago. George Seawright, the murdered firebrand extreme Ulster loyalist, comes to mind for a start.

The former DUP councillor - expelled from the party over his "burn Catholics" remark at a Belfast Education and Library Board meeting - had a thing about flags. Seawright could never resist a sectarian stunt - especially those involving him clambering onto the roofs of leisure centres in nationalist parts of Belfast, where Sinn Fein supporters had erected the Irish tricolour.

Councillor Seawright spent considerable energy entering the enemy's lair and scaling on to the council-owned properties to take down the flag of the Irish Republic. He also clearly enjoyed his role as master flag-puller-downer.

One former Belfast councillor once relayed an hilarious anecdote about bumping into Seawright during the 1980s, when the City Hall was a sectarian bear-pit.

Seawright couldn't wait to show the socialist councillor a postcard he had been sent from the Costa del Sol. It was signed by a couple of "concerned republicans" and contained this message: "Dear George, here we are over in Spain putting up tricolours all over the top of our hotel."

The hardline Scottish-born loyalist was delighted with the postcard and actually got the joke, which he quite visibly enjoyed, according to his political rival on the council.

In a sense, this was very characteristic of Seawright, who, while revelling in his public image as a sectarian bigot, could in person be courteous and helpful even to his enemies. Sinn Fein veterans of City Hall politics recall that Seawright was one of the very few on the unionist benches who was actually prepared to talk to republicans.

Journalist colleagues - including this newspaper's late political editor Liam Clarke - told this writer that Seawright was one of their best sources of information on all things happening in the greater Shankill area and may have tipped Clarke off about a planned murder bid on a Sinn Fein politician, which Clarke - to his eternal credit - helped to thwart by tipping off the republican about the threat to his life.

Yet, despite the clowning around and the stunt politics, the memories of Seawright's leisure centre war are also warnings from history.

It is worth reminding ourselves that the backdrop behind these types of sectarian machinations was a blood-soaked one. The Troubles were still raging; people were still dying.

None of this is to suggest that the kind of tribal antics going on in places like Magherafelt at present hold the potential for propelling this society back into the Troubles again.

Belfast survived the City Hall flag row after two years of turbulence, which included the disgraceful firebomb attacks on Alliance Party advice centres and the unrest that flared up in the city centre, as well as a flashpoint such as the Short Strand. A flag pole in Magherafelt will hardly push us over the edge towards another disastrous phase of communal violence.

Nonetheless, the poison in a small Co Londonderry town over flags and emblems is emblematic of a wider problem infecting the peace and political processes within Northern Ireland.

Whatever else she said (and did) since the RHI scandal blew up, Arlene Foster was right about one thing: the election nobody wanted was going to be a brutal contest.

The dismissal of an Irish Language Act, the portrayal of Sinn Fein as voracious crocodiles, the labelling of the DUP as "alligators", the proposed removal of a Union flag from the Department of Finance and the boasting about the Shinners "putting manners" on Foster's party are an aggregate of tribal toxins threatening to destroy the region's body politic.

The prospects of two parties, who appear more diametrically opposed to each other than ever before (or, at least, in the era after the ceasefires and the Good Friday Agreement), rebuilding trust and establishing power-sharing once more appears - at least for now - remote.

The paradox of all this is that the Government fell, not due to traditional controversies over the constitutional question, marching, or alleged IRA activities. The DUP-Sinn Fein axis broke due to a botched green energy scheme.

However, the subsequent issues have been tainted again by the usual sectarian mud-slinging over language, flag, symbols and the perception of the powerful dominating a minority.

Combined with the uncertainty of Brexit and what it means for the border, the current election campaign is deepening the destabilisation of Northern Ireland society. The liberal, tolerant centre who came out to vote in their tens of thousands for the first time in more than a decade for the EU referendum will probably retreat from the ballot box this time around and leave voting to those who take more extreme positions, who have longer folk memories of the Troubles and have less capacity to forgive and forget.

The odds are again for a return to the bad old days between 1969 and 1997; even the "unforgiving" elements of the electorate don't want to reverse back to that period.

There are, though, times in history when a society can, almost unconsciously, sleepwalk into disaster once again. On one level, a petty row about a flag pole in the centre of a mid-Ulster town can be seen as pathetic and ridiculous.

On another, it could be symptomatic of the biggest default of our unique devolution settlement - the prevalent sectarian fault-lines running just beneath the surface of a society that appears to be settled with itself.

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