Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Flags row masks failure to tackle the real issues

While politicians obsess over emblems where are the campaigns to highlight child poverty and the crisis in the economy, asks Micheal Martin

I have come to Twitter relatively recently. I can’t claim to be a convert yet, but I can see its usefulness as a way to get instant feedback and get a quick sense for how the people who use it feel about breaking news.

One example was last Monday night, when I took to the platform to share an initial view on the appalling scenes emerging from Belfast after the City Council vote on the flying of the Union flag.

My tweet was fairly straightforward: “The news coming out of Belfast this pm is depressing. Northern political and news agenda taken over by a dispute over when to fly a flag.”

In response, I got a lot of supportive messages, but what struck me most was the tone of much of the criticism that was coming from Belfast. It was summed up best by one correspondent who took my message as confirmation that I wanted to raise the British flag over the city hall in my native Cork.

It’s clearly an idiotic assertion to make to a life long member of Ireland’s republican party, but for me it summed up a problem which has been developing over recent years and one I’ve been trying to draw attention to over the last 12 months. It’s also a problem which I think has come to the fore in a sickening and depressing way on the streets of Belfast over the course of the last week.

The problem as I see it is this — if politics is not demonstrably and tangibly about making people’s quality of life better in Northern Ireland, politics very quickly reverts to being about flags, emblems, parades and all the things that have defined public life for far too many people for far too long.

If loyalist gangs are able to burn the offices of political opponents, issue death threats, close schools early and cause economic havoc in the run-up to Christmas without sanction, all ostensibly in support of a proposition from unionist parties that was democratically defeated in Belfast City Council, there’s something very seriously wrong within the leadership of unionism.

Similarly, if republican politics in the North has not evolved beyond the point where a change in the timetable for flying a British flag and the naming of playgrounds are celebrated as major victories, it should raise serious question marks over what leadership is being given and how much serious thought is going into defining republicanism in a post-GFA world.

That is of course unless, at some level, it suits the dominant leadership of unionist and nationalist blocks for a society and its media and its political establishment to continue to be seized by images and rhetoric of flags and emblems.

Is it entirely unreasonable to worry that arguments about flags and emblems are tacitly encouraged as a distraction from the fact that politicians are not delivering on issues that make a difference to the quality of people's lives? Those who are interested in politics wonder where are campaigns highlighting the fact Northern Ireland suffers unforgivably high levels of child poverty and economic inactivity?

At home in Cork, my wife and I have friends who run a small Irish crafts business. It’s a precarious enough existence, but their income each year is essentially earned in the few weeks running up to Christmas. I thought of them on Sunday when I heard that the excellent Continental Market was forced to close for a time the previous day. How many families are quietly and helplessly seeing their livelihoods being threatened as this failure of politics continues?

When the Fianna Fail leader expresses an opinion on what is happening in this part of Ireland, predictable and equally bogus criticism follows from both of the dominant political parties in Stormont.

Hopefully, this time, both blocs will look past who is making the argument and consider instead what is being said — can they look at what has happened and ask themselves, is this really what the peace process was designed to deliver?

Micheal Martin TD is the leader of Fianna Fail

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