UVF symbols flag up bigger issues for peace
Organisations that fly illegal emblems must ask themselves if a flag is more important than peace and stability, writes Henry McDonald
John Hume's exhortation, borrowed from his father, that "You can't eat a flag" comes to mind whenever the issue of flags and emblems flares up.
The Nobel peace prize winner's point being that the politics of bread-and-butter issues should trump those questions focused on the symbols of nationality, religion, or ethnic identity.
This Humean appeal to rationality and economic self-interest seems the logical riposte to all those obsessing about how many days in the year the Union flag should flutter atop Belfast City Hall, or, more recently, how many Ulster Volunteer Force banners should fly across east Belfast, including some of its leafy suburbs?
Yet, for many human beings, the symbol is often more important than the substantial staples of life, like food, shelter, work and well-being.
For better or worse, sometimes people prefer the comfort of symbolism to the basics of life.
In Poland, during the Cold War, the communist regime attempted to buy off Solidarity in its Gdansk birthplace with offers of special shops stocking food and goods unobtainable elsewhere in the country.
One of the conditions the dictatorship tried to impose was that the shipyard strikers drop their demands for the creation of a memorial to fellow workers who were shot dead in a previous strike in 1970.
The Solidarity workers rejected the offer of more food in favour of the symbol, preferring to endure shortages as well as repression in their fight to form a free trade union.
On a much more malign plane, you have the seemingly endless procession of young men in the Islamic world who blow themselves up (and all those around them) partly in the delusional belief that they will be rewarded in paradise with 72 virgins.
Outsiders looking in on Northern Ireland since last December can justifiably feel bewildered over the two major disputes regarding flags.
Both conflicts are underpinned by irrational, primal appeals to blood and belonging.
The Union flag controversy is fogged with misinformation, paranoia, fear and insecurity.
Never mind that the currency in people's pockets continues to have the Queen's head on the back, or that, in fact, Belfast City Council's flag-flying policy is no different to other councils in other parts of the UK.
What really matters is the collective perception that restricting the Union flag being flown over City Hall is somehow yet another step towards a united Ireland, with Ulster's British identity being "hollowed out" of existence.
The proliferation of UVF flags in east Belfast following the mass commemoration of the movement's founding 100 years is also driven by irrational, but deeply held, urges.
It is unfair to fully blame the Department of Regional Development (DRD) for an inability to remove the hundreds of flags erected from areas as diverse as the lower Ravenhill Road to affluent Belmont.
Figures show that DRD took down 24 illegal flags in 2011/12 – a 79% drop on 2010/11, when they removed 116.
The bottom line is that DRD staff are in mortal danger if, in the absence of a deal with the paramilitary group, they start taking down the flags from lamp-posts.
Could the PSNI enforce and fully protect all the DRD teams driving around the east of the city, pulling down flags? Or, indeed, any of the workers who, having completed this task, must go back to their homes in loyalist strongholds across Belfast?
These questions beg bigger ones: why exactly is the UVF still in existence long after it promised it was going out of business? The UVF and its political allies in the PUP will point out, with some justification, that republicans engage in this kind of historical pageantry, too.
They will cite examples such as Sinn Fein-organised rallies, where some participants turn up carrying mock rifles, or even dress up young children (a truly stomach-churning vista) in paramilitary uniforms.
There are, however, even larger questions, again, which loyalists and unionists in general should be asking themselves. It is obvious that stability, normality and peace benefit the Union.
The mainstream republican movement engaged in an armed campaign for three-and-a-half decades to make Northern Ireland as unstable and abnormal as possible. Their alienated and estranged former comrades in the two main dissident forces are trying to repeat that strategy.
Turning the streets of Northern Ireland into a territorial battleground, marking out communal zones, does not benefit the Union, or the loyalist cause.
In fact, it creates a counter-reaction of emnity and bitterness from within the nationalist community, particularly among teenagers and young men, who didn't grow up in the worst years of the Troubles, and creates opportunities for the dissidents to garner support.
Of course, pointing that out is an appeal to reason and hard-headed thinking, instead of gut emotions.
As we stare beyond the feelgood-factor days of the upcoming G8 summit and Barack Obama's Belfast visit, we see a summer containing the potential for widespread street violence and deepening sectarian divisions. All sides of the community need to realise how dangerous this could be.
In the case of the UVF, if they have only one contribution to make to Northern Ireland in this, the 100th anniversary year of the organisation, it would be to take those flags down themselves over the next weeks in a small, but important symbolic gesture.
Whether they do so depends if anyone is thinking rationally about the wider political situation, or whether a flag is more important than stability and peace on the streets.
Henry McDonald is co-author (with Jim Cusack) of UVF: The Endgame (Poolbeg Press)