“ALL that fuss and bother over a flag.” I lost count of the number of times I heard that line trotted out over the past week: either that one or the revival of John Hume’s mantra that “you can’t eat a flag”.
And yet it is clear that the Union Flag does matter to an awful lot of people, not least to Sinn Fein and the SDLP, whose original position a few weeks ago was that the flag should be permanently removed from Belfast’s City Hall.
So let me put that question to them. Why all the fuss and bother over a flag that you can’t eat? Let’s face it, the vast majority of people – from both communities and none – probably didn’t know that it had been flying every day for the last 106 years.
It flew there in 1978, 1998, 2004 and 2009 when there were Alliance Lord Mayors (the most recent of whom was Naomi Long). It flew there in 1997, 2003, 2006 and 2010 when the SDLP held the office. It flew there in 2002, 2008 and 2011 when Sinn Fein accepted the post.
The flying of the flag didn’t stop any of them donning the robe and chain and taking all of the profile and prestige which goes with the territory.
But strangely, as soon as there are more SF/SDLP councillors than unionist ones (with Alliance holding the balance of power), the flying of the Union Flag becomes an issue. So much of an issue, in fact, that they voted (and one must assume that it was done with the approval of their respective party leaderships) for the removal of the flag.
One republican commentator told me that “you lot have enough symbols and pictures in there, we need to bank a few gains for our base”.
Forget the guff that either stopping or restricting the flying of the flag had anything to do with equality, reconciliation or shared space. It didn’t. It was done to annoy. Calculated to annoy. Timed to annoy.
The SDLP and SF knew that the only possible outcome was the raising of tensions and the souring of relationships. And I’m sure that there were a host of socio-economic issues they could have focused on, instead: issues which would have allowed them to cooperate with unionists rather than confront them.
It can’t have been easy for Alliance – I accept that. When you find yourself holding the balance of power between two power blocs then you have a very tough decision to make. Nationalists and republicans may have more councillors than unionists, but they do not represent a majority of the council.
Since they cannot claim to represent a majority of the Belfast electorate either, there would have been an opportunity for Alliance to say to them that the status quo should be maintained. In other words, let the flag fly every day until a point is reached when nationalists may command an overall majority and they – themselves alone, if you like – can vote to remove the flag. In the meantime all of the parties could have convened a joint committee/consultation and looked at the matter in greater detail and without the level of rancour that accompanied last week’s decision. That may have allowed them to reach an accommodation acceptable to all, the sort of accommodation that would actually have improved relationships.
Restricting the flag to designated days isn’t going to be seen as a compromise by unionists if the only other choice is removing the flag altogether. I actually think the flag issue plays much deeper within mainstream unionism than Alliance realises (which is why the SDLP/SF chose to focus on it in the first place). Alliance did what they believed was the right thing to do in the circumstances: that said, I could have done without the Uriah Heepish, holier-than-thou smugness and we-are-just-that-little-bit-nicer-than-the-rest-of-you sanctimoniousness which accompanies so many of their decisions.
The decision they took was determined as much by political/electoral considerations as it was by principle. What they did last Monday will cost them votes.
As is so often the case, though, the unionist parties were guilty of a spectacular mismanaging of the situation. If there had been any chance of Alliance being willing to reconsider their position or look at other options then it was blown out of the water when 40,000 leaflets started plopping through letter boxes.
At the very moment when skilful negotiation and a thought-through media campaign were required it looked as though unionists were bullying the smaller party. What they should have been trying to do was get Alliance voters to ask Alliance councillors why they seemed to be backing Sinn Fein. Instead, they went for an attack dog strategy which would have made it impossible for Alliance – even if it had wanted to – to shift from what they had said they would do.
As I said, the flag does matter to unionists: albeit that most of them don’t need to fly it from their houses or see it every day at City Hall or the Assembly. The vast majority of unionists are probably quietly confident about the future of the Union, so confident that they don’t feel the need to push their flags and symbols down anyone’s throats.
But they don’t like it when symbols are removed and interfered with to suit a political agenda. They don’t understand why the tricolour flies across west Belfast and over Connolly House 365 days a year (and I haven’t heard Gerry Adams argue that the Union Flag should fly alongside them!) but the Union Flag has to be removed or restricted.
They don’t understand why the Sinn Fein leadership spends almost every weekend at one commemoration or another for IRA terrorists, yet wants to restrict the symbols of unionism.
It hasn’t been a good week for community relations in Belfast or across the Province.
Neither side can claim to be on a moral high-ground since both, through a mixture of political mischief and downright stupidity, managed to put new barriers in place.
As for Alliance: it was played for a sucker by one side and harangued by the other.
No one has come out of this with anything to boast about.
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