Belfast Telegraph

Mark Bain: The one rule on Belfast streets - don't talk flags

A flag in support of the Parachute Regiment on the Lisburn Road in Belfast
A flag in support of the Parachute Regiment on the Lisburn Road in Belfast
Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

On the streets of Belfast there's one rule about flags -you don't talk about the flags.

Whether that's through ambivalence or intimidation, they shall not be named.

Just past Eglantine Avenue, one of the most cosmopolitan areas of Belfast, the banner proclaiming 'Lisburn Road Supports Our Soldiers' flutters in the sunshine.

The Parachute Regiment emblem clearly signals its meaning, but cars stream underneath, people walk by, all seemingly oblivious to the controversy hanging over their heads.

Some, you suspect, are not quite as oblivious as they appear. They simply refuse to look up.

They do serve their purpose well, there's no denying that.

Strategically placed flags and banners get attention whether people look at them or not.

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Popping into the shops along the Lisburn Road, you're met by a shrug of the shoulders.

"I didn't even notice it and no one has mentioned it all day," says one shopper.

Another said "no one is talking about it".

A young shop assistant looks puzzled when I explain why I'm there.

"Thanks for the history lesson," comes the smiled reply, as the latest political drama plays out far away from the cares of the man in the street.

The easy way to ignore something is to bury your head in the sand. Ignoring it, though, doesn't mean it goes away. It remains uncomfortable.

And as banners have gone up in support of the Parachute Regiment - Bloody Sunday's Soldier F in particular - across the country, the issue again has politicians speaking out while the silent majority say, well, silent.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has spoken out against the unofficial banners.

Does that not suggest it's time to take those heads out of the sand?

"Flags, emblems and associated regalia are an integral part of the unique identity and heritage of the many regiments and units that make up the British Armed Forces," the MoD said.

"The Ministry of Defence does not condone their misuse in any way."

And that was in response to banners, in support of one of their own, placed in loyalist areas. Not across the Lisburn Road.

"People are entitled to make their case, but they must do so responsibly," said Alliance South Belfast MLA Paula Bradshaw.

"Such banners are clearly erected to antagonise."

SDLP MLA Claire Hanna labelled it "provocative, divisive and intimidating".

The Northern Ireland hamster continues to run on the wheel, round and around getting nowhere. Wave a flag or two at it and it runs that little bit faster.

Now we have tricolours going up in the Cushendall Road area of Ballymena, "designed to claim territory and raise tensions in the area," according to TUV leader Jim Allister.

'Whataboutery' abounds and the hamster is not tiring yet.

The final word goes to a former soldier, now Ulster Unionist MLA, Doug Beattie.

"It is precisely because of my respect for the Armed Forces that I do not want to see Regimental emblems used in a manner that may be intended to cause offence or mark out territory, any more than I want to see the Union flag being misused for the same purposes," he said.

The PSNI say flags "will only be removed where there are substantial risks to public safety".

People will wonder if one has to be flying at half mast before that happens. Saying nothing says it all.

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