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Daithi McKay: GAA flag debate is timely, but unionists must learn to respect tricolour, too

Equality of identity should never be sacrificed in the interests of perceived better community relations, writes Daithi McKay

The GAA has done some fantastic work in recent years in reaching out to unionists and others in the north that are unfamiliar with Gaelic games and culture. Quietly and effectively, it has built a lot of bridges. I have the utmost respect for those who have made a very valuable contribution to our collective community without seeking credit or kudos.

Earlier this week GAA president Aogan O Fearghail flew a kite that will spark off much debate amongst Gaels.

"In the future, if there are new agreements and new arrangements, we'd be open-minded about things like flags and anthems, but not in advance of agreements," he said.

It is, of course, for the GAA to have that debate and it alone. However, the issue of flags, of identity, of inclusiveness, cannot be restricted to groups such as the GAA.

If unionist politicians want to see changes at GAA games - and there is to be a debate about that - then, surely, there has to be a wider debate about flags throughout the north, especially at Government and civic buildings?

I grew up going to GAA matches in rural north Antrim, a can of Coke and a packet of Farmer Brown crisps in hand, watching the action through wire fencing while the adults hung their arms over the top. The masses would be collectively glued to the scoreboard at championship matches, when the point difference was low and the time left on the clock even lower.

My great-grandfather played in goals for Antrim when they won the Ulster Championship in 1913 and was a proud and active Gael in north Antrim in the early 1900s.

The sports, the flag, the anthem and the culture are part of my DNA and the identity of many across the north. However, local councils and, indeed, Parliament Buildings in Belfast, have never reflected this identity appropriately. Indeed, for many years, in many places, it was ridiculed and demonised and that intolerance of any steps to accommodate an Irish flag, or even an Irish word, still lingers strong.

Last week we saw the Communities Minister Paul Givan kicking a ball about a Gaelic pitch and even scoring some points. That has been welcomed widely, but it says a lot that we still see this as a huge step when the minister responsible for sports kicks a GAA ball.

When Gregory Campbell held a reception for All-Ireland holders Tyrone in 2009 it was seen as significant. Should ministerial participation in such events really be seen as equally significant nearly 10 years on?

The elephant in the room when it comes to flags is the lack of any Government recognition - at Stormont or council level - of the Irish tricolour.

Eighteen years on from the Good Friday Agreement and the enshrining of people's right to be Irish, as well as British, that is a indictment on us all.

No one wants to see another flag dispute - far from it. However, there is an onus on unionists to show that compromise applies to everybody.

Local people, equally, have the right to identify as being British. There should be no reluctance in recognising the two primary identities of our community.

Local authorities - particularly those that have a majority of nationalist and republican members - should take the initiative in this regard and show that British and Irish flags can fly side by side on civic buildings.

This would be a reflection of identities, not sovereignty, and would be in the same spirit as when Alex Maskey introduced both flags to the Lord Mayor's parlour in Belfast back in 2002.

If adopted, this would be the first time that the Irish flag has ever officially flown from civic buildings in the north and it would expose how exclusive and one-sided flags and emblems policies at Belfast City Council and Stormont presently are.

Not every issue has to be narrowed down to the issue of sovereignty.

Just because Government buildings reflect both British and Irish identities does not mean that there will be a united Ireland in the morning.

It is not like a game of paintball, when the team that plants their flag at the target spot wins. All it would show is a generosity and a maturity of Government towards those who identify as either Irish or British.

Flags have been flown from council buildings reflecting the Orange Order tradition as well as the British Army in the north. Therefore, given the fact that the precedent has already been set for flying flags to reflect different traditions within the community, why should the Irish tradition be any different?

In the face of unionist opposition many nationalists have adopted a position of neutrality when it comes to the flying of flags, rather than pursue equality for the Irish flag and, therefore, their Irish identity. Equality of identity should not be sacrificed in the interests of perceived "better community relations".

Neutralising identity, creating neutral flags and carving out some sort of catch-all, anodyne space is nothing more than papering over the cracks.

Flags should never be left duct-taped to lampposts to disintegrate into blackened rags. It's an eyesore and embarrassment in many places.

Surely there would be an argument for many of those in positions of community leadership to discourage that practice if they can point to the Irish flag being respected and displayed appropriately at councils and civic centres in a shared context?

There has already been some criticism of what Aogan O Fearghail has suggested from prominent players, such as Paddy Cullen (Dublin), who uses the example of the New Zealand rugby team.

"Look at the All Blacks. Imagine they were told to do away with their haka. That's part and parcel of your culture. You just can't do away with that."

In my view, such a change is not going to happen anytime soon.

The GAA has a right to debate its policies on flags and anthems in the future, as the president articulated earlier this week.

Firstly, however, we need to see a more open-minded approach to the flying of the Irish flag from unionist politicians and also a more open-minded approach to flying both the Irish and the Union flags from nationalist and republican politicians in the north.

  • Daithi McKay was Sinn Fein MLA for North Antrim from 2007 until August this year

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