Seamus Heaney has questioned the wisdom of removing the Union Flag from Belfast City Hall.
The Ulster-born poet, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995, also dismissed the idea of a united Ireland in a candid newspaper interview.
In yesterday’s edition of The Times, Mr Heaney said he thought there was “no hurry on flags” and that Sinn Fein “could have taken it easy” in addressing any issues with emblems.
“It’s very dangerous indeed,” he said. “Somebody made this remark, and it made me alert to a new possibility – they said if this goes on until the marching season, everything is, in a sense, lost.”
There have been eight weeks of street protests – with sporadic outbreaks of violence – since Belfast City Council voted on December 3 to fly the Union Flag at City Hall on designated days only.
Heaney added: “There’s never going to be a united Ireland, you know. So why don’t you let them fly the flag?”
Having spent his childhood in Castledawson and Bellaghy, one of nine children in a nationalist family, Heaney has lived in Dublin for many years.
He caused controversy in 1982 when he objected to being included in an anthology of British poets. At the time he wrote: “My passport’s green/No glass of ours was ever raised/to toast the Queen.”
He also turned down the opportunity to become the United Kingdom’s Poet Laureate, later saying: “I’ve nothing against the Queen personally: I had lunch at the Palace once upon a time.”
In The Times interview, Heaney said loyalists “perceive themselves as almost deserted. And right enough. I think Sinn Fein could have taken it easy. No hurry on flags. What does it matter?”
He went on to say: “But – it matters utterly to them. And now there’s no way they’re going to go back on it, of course. As someone who knows something of prejudice, from early on, I can understand the loyalists.”
Although Heaney has been occasionally criticised for not always engaging directly with the troubles of his home country, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter uprising he wrote a poem commemorating the rebels of 1798.
He later clarified that the romanticised portrait of the United Irishmen in Requiem for the Croppies wasn’t a way of saying “up the IRA or anything”.
In Monday’s interview he also said: “Loyalism, or unionism, or Protestantism, or whatever you want to call it, in Northern Ireland it operates not as a class system, but a caste system. And they [the loyalists] have an entitlement factor running: the flag is part of it.”
As the flag row continues towards a ninth week of protest, Castlereagh Street in east Belfast was blocked for around one hour on Monday night during a flag protest but there were no reports of any disorder.