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Haass raises standard over flags

If Dr Richard Haass wanted to grab the attention of Northern Ireland's political parties then floating the idea of a new flag for the province should certainly do the trick. A year after the controversial decision to limit the number of days the Union flag can be flown over Belfast's City Hall, the protests still rumble on and flags and emblems have always been a divisive issue here.

So should we regard his idea – which has been sent to the parties for their views – as serious outside the box thinking or just a clever negotiating ploy?

Sometimes it is a good idea to put forward a proposal which you know in your heart of hearts will never get off the ground but which diverts attention away from what you really want to talk about.

By allowing your proposal to go by the wayside you then appear to be making a concession and can ask for one in return.

Nevertheless this is the sort of questioning and probing which must be undertaken if Dr Haass and his team are to make progress on the substantive issues of flags, parades and the past.

Old certainties and beliefs have to be challenged and politicians, who have spent many years dodging hard questions, have to come up with positive proposals and potential compromises.

Remember that they were able to agree on a new badge for the PSNI which was no mean feat for parties, which on one side, never wanted to see the RUC disbanded, and which on the other side never fully supported the police at all.

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Just as the Attorney General kick-started a debate on how to deal with the past with his proposal for drawing a line in the sand as far as investigations, prosecutions and inquiries were concerned, so maybe the idea of a Northern Ireland flag with give the Haass talks a new dynamic when the hard talking begins.

What the politicians must do is reclaim the moral authority to make decisions on these contentious issues and not allow them to remain festering sores with shadowy groups calling the shots on the streets.

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