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Middle-class moralising won't solve bonfires and flags problem in Northern Ireland

By John Barry

The issues of bonfires and flying of flags from lampposts dominates our local political lives at this time of year. A minority of our community put up flags on public space which, like Marmite, we either love or loathe.

While I have come to appreciate, if not fully understand, the reasons of those who illegally put up flags, the reality is the overwhelming majority of people in my experience would either rather not have flags at all, or a clear protocol on when, where and what sort of flags are put up in our communities.

So, what's in a flag? Here we need to discriminate, in the sense of distinguishing some issues. The first is the difference between a flag symbolising a paramilitary, proscribed organisation (such as the IRA, or UVF or UDA) and a Union flag, Northern Ireland flag or flag of the Republic of Ireland.

And further to understand that while flags depicting 'UVF 1912', or 'Ulster Defence Union', with the colours and patterns of the UVF and UDA are not legally speaking "illegal organisations", we all know what they mean to do - mark out territory.

A second, crucial difference is the consent or agreement of the local community to the flying of flags. The reality is, with the exception of the Union and Northern Ireland flags going up before July 12 and coming down after it, there is no agreement for the flying of paramilitary or pseudo-paramilitary flags.

Yet these go up, are threatened to go up, with the further threat of more flags going up if they are taken down.

The PSNI, Transport NI, the NI Executive and councils are viewed as powerless by the local community who do not want them, or worse, as colluding and encouraging the flying of flags that do not have community support.

I can only speak from my perspective on this and say that all local councillors in my experience, from whatever party, do a tremendous amount behind the scenes to try and resolve the issue in terms of reducing, or removing, flags that people do not want. But often in vain, because of the lack of an agreed flags protocol from the Executive.

A third issue is the class dimension with loyalist paramilitary flags. In my experience as a local councillor and as a socialist, I have observed the working-class character of loyalist flags.

For some of those putting up flags it is an indication of their distance from the mainstream unionist position, a defiant act against the unionist political mainstream, the sense of abandonment felt by working-class loyalists by parties such as the DUP, UUP and Alliance.

My own experience and political view is that the complex issue of the flying of paramilitary flags will not be dealt with by moralistic condemnations by largely middle-class commentators and positions. We need, as I have sought to do, to listen to those putting up the flags, ask them why they are doing it, what support they have and, above all, not see them as "the other" or somehow not part of our community.

However much we may not like those putting up flags in our communities, they are part of our community and it's only through dialogue, each different in different local community situations, that we can find a solution.

In 1998 we made a 'big agreement' to end the conflict. What negotiations across communities in Northern Ireland in 2015 around flags effectively symbolises is the "trickling down" of the 1998 Agreement to the local level.

As WB Yeats put it: "Peace comes dropping slow."

  • John Barry is Professor of Politics at Queen's University Belfast and a Green Party councillor in North Down

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