Belfast Telegraph

In a city where divisions are toxic and total, the problem is not with the flag: it's with the people who can only see it as an insult to themselves

By Malachi O'Doherty

Of course it was inevitable that a shop selling tricolours in the centre of Belfast would attract complaints. The very sight of the Irish flag drives some people into a rage.

One might even trace the start of the Troubles to a demand that it be removed from the window of a Sinn Fein office on the Falls Road during the 1964 election campaign.

That, and the rioting that followed, was the trigger for Gerry Adams joining Fianna Eireann, the youth wing of the IRA.

So you have to marvel at the secular complacency of the managers of Poundworld in Donegall Place who thought that they could turn a few bob by flogging the flag on St Patrick's Day.

It would be nice if the city centre could be a shared space as distinct from a neutral space.

There will be tricolours waved all round it this afternoon during the festivities to mark St Patrick's Day, as there will also be union flags and Orange banners borne triumphantly past the same shop window on the Twelfth of July.

But none of this must intrude on the day to day life of ordinary people until they have had a chance to clear off out of the way.

The mistake that the managers of Poundworld made was in treating Belfast like a modern, diverse city.

Probably someone in there thought St Patrick's Day was a bit like the Notting Hill Carnival, an occasion when culture and affinity could be on display and people would enjoy themselves.

But Belfast isn't a modern city.Its divisions are toxic and almost total.

A shop window display of Union jacks would be just as off-putting to as many people. It's just that they'd be other people.

In New York or London or New Delhi, ethnically focused celebrations are for everybody.

Here they are for the indulgence of one side only, swanking up its clear sense that it is different and better.

There was an effort to persuade St Patrick's Day revellers to leave the tricolour out of it, to make it easier for unionists to join in the celebrations.

That was never going to work; and where it is left out it looks strange, given that tricolours feature in St Patrick's Day Parades in New York and Sydney and across the world without anyone thinking that's odd or offensive.

The problem is not with the flag; it's with people who can only see it as an insult to themselves.

We will not be clearly past our sectarian horrors until neither flag evokes that response.

Either flag might be flying on Mars before that happens.

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