Policies to remove unionist and nationalist flags from Northern Ireland's main roads before they become dirty and ragged are not working, a new report claims.
Even though almost 4,000 were erected by the height of the loyalist marching season last July, nearly half of them were still flying by September when GAA fans raise their colours in support of county teams challenging for all-Ireland honours, according to Queen's University Belfast research.
A survey of political symbolism on all arterial routes and town centres during the first fortnight in July and the last two weeks in September was carried out over a five-year period between 2006 and last year. Researchers also conducted a survey in the two weeks which followed the Easter Rising commemoration parades in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
The new report published by the Institute of Irish Studies at Queens revealed that 3,876 flags were put up last July and 1,855 were still on display in September. Just over 750 were in support of GAA teams. There was a slight increase last July in the number of paramilitary flags.
Institute director Dr Dominic Bryan said displays of flags had a detrimental effect on people's use of facilities and shops in certain areas. While expressions of political identity at times of festival and commemoration were common all over the world, there was no doubt that displays in Northern Ireland were left to demarcate territorial space.
He added: "This issue remains a crucial one in developing a shared and equal society. It appears that overall policies developed to create more shared public space by reducing the length of time flags are flown have not been successful.
"Perhaps one thing that could be emphasised in the future is to treat symbols with respect and not leave flags to go tatty and dirty over the winter months."
Duncan Morrow, chief executive of the Community Relations Council, said it was very disappointing to learn that six years after the introduction of a protocol on the public display of flags and emblems along arterial routes there has been little change or improvement.
He said: "While it is legitimate for organisations and individuals to seek to celebrate cultural or sporting events in the public space this needs to be time limited. If left on public display after a reasonable time, they cease to be an expression of celebration and can become a threatening attempt to mark territory. This runs counter to efforts to create a shared and inclusive society.
"The Flags Protocol does not appear to be working effectively. Having clear agreements on cultural displays is a crucial issue for creating genuinely shared space. It is important that this issue is addressed as part of the wide review of Cohesion, Sharing and Integration."