Belfast Telegraph

Monday 21 April 2014

Compromise is not failure when everyone's a winner

Only an all-party Assembly agreement on flags can draw a line under the protests, says Jacqueline Irwin

Jacqueline Irwin
Jacqueline Irwin

Few people can have expected the level of unrest that has followed Belfast City Council's decision to fly the Union flag on designated days: peaceful protests, rioting, intimidation, attacks on elected representatives and police and the loss of visitors to the restaurants, bars and shops of Belfast.

While working hard to present ourselves as an attractive option for investors, we transmit nightly images of unrest across the world.

Demonstrations are arranged on social media. Everyone else adapts. Buses and taxis keep up-to-date with the disruptions and alter their routes. Roads are deserted as people leave the city to avoid the hassle.

Unionist political parties have set up a forum to try to deal with the concerns, but the protests persist. They appear, for the moment, to be beyond a political response: an expression of rage that unionist heritage is being erased.

The Assembly has affirmed the "absolute and unconditional commitment of all its members to respecting and upholding the rule of law and the pursuit of their political objectives by purely legal and political means".

This is an important, unifying statement, but it is unlikely to be sufficient. We urgently need an all-party Assembly agreement on our approach to flags if we are to stabilise this situation.

Local negotiations will always be important in implementing such an agreement, but they cannot take its place, because they can all-too-easily descend into a tit-for-tat show of voting strength.

In this contested space, flags matter. Democracy is a numbers game. The loss of the stability we need to flourish is only a vote away.

And guess what? It makes us feel insecure. We start talking about who won and who lost in our peace agreement. We assert our right to be who we are and we start to yearn for our first preference, whether that is a united Ireland, or a United Kingdom.

The dangers of descending into the logic of conflict need to be urgently recognised by all of us. Staking a claim and shouting our rights at each other is a default position. Easy to slip into; expected of us.

Communal distrust – and sometimes hatred – is still embedded in our society and it makes our peace fragile.

Simply put, we still don't care enough about each other. We are waiting to be tricked, disrespected and treated like second-best.

But we are supposed to be trying to learn to do things in a different way. The political, economic and legal aspects of our peace agreement have been operating for many years. But other things have not been dealt with in the formal arrangements.

Commemoration, truth, reconciliation and identity are some of the issues that still lack a negotiated settlement and it would seem that leaving them alone is not an option if we are to avoid slipping back into conflict.

The political peace process and the social peace process are intertwined. Negotiated settlements demand a lot from their negotiators and just as much from those who live with the outcome.

We all want to retain our own cultural capital. Cultural continuity is an important part of our sense of belonging.

But we are also supposed to be slowly trying to stop living separate lives, to build common links and to establish a more inclusive story of who we are.

We are still negotiating our way to peace and compromise will continue to be a part of our future. If peace is the prize and if we still value it, then we win, even when we compromise.

We all need to hear that said without apology and see that in action much more than we do in our everyday lives, because we are in danger of forgetting the value of the peace that we made.

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