A call has been made for nationalists to accept the display of the Union flag on designated days at council buildings right across the Province.
The Alliance Party insisted that politicians of all stripes should now grasp the “obvious compromise solution” to the intractable problem of flag-flying, after academics at Queen’s University Belfast recommended a standard 18-days-per-year display of the national emblem across the 11 Northern Irish councils.
However, Sinn Fein has effectively scuppered the idea by insisting that it still wants the Tricolour to be flown alongside the Union flag.
The report – titled Flags: Towards a New Understanding – also recommends a set of voluntary rules which it hopes will be adopted to reduce the number of flags being flown on lamp-posts; including the idea that they should only be displayed for two weeks around major events like the Twelfth, and only then after a community consultation has been carried out.
The report was published on Wednesday. Afterwards the UUP, DUP, Sinn Fein and Alliance were all asked to comment.
The Alliance was the only one of the five main parties to issue a statement hailing the report’s specific proposals; the others noted its publication without explicitly endorsing or rejecting any of its ideas.
It had been suggested that the 18-day limit would involve “symmetrical” levels of pain, with unionists sacrificing the idea of a 365-day display on councils which they dominate, and nationalists accepting the display of the national flag at nationalist-controlled premises that have never flown it before.
The idea is likely to be debated by an official panel being convened soon (see bottom).
ALL MAIN PARTIES RESPONSES:
Gregory Campbell, MP for East Londonderry, said: “Academics are entitled to put forward their views and they will undoubtedly form part of the wider debate.
“Many people would be keen to see in more detail the survey findings that 70% of people feel the issue of flags on public buildings is either important or very important.
“We know that many of the problems we now face on flags stems from the politically driven decision by Belfast City Council to remove the Union flag except on designated days.”
Statement: “The SDLP welcomes the contribution to the discussion on flags that the Institute of Irish Studies has made.
“This work will be valuable to the Commission on Flags, identity, culture and tradition which is due to start its work soon.
“The status quo that sees flags flown to demarcate territory or to intimidate others cannot continue. We need to have more ambition for public space than the divisive display of flags and emblems.”
An Ulster Unionist spokesperson said: “We acknowledge its publication as a contribution to the debate that will form the core of the work of the Commission on Flags and Identity that was agreed at Stormont House.”
North Belfast MLA Gerry Kelly said: “Sinn Fein will study this report. The flying of flags in public spaces can generate a sense of fear and division.
“This is clearly at odds with the wishes of the majority of the population to develop a peaceful, progressive and shared future.
“We believe that any proposal contained within this report should be submitted to the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition for consideration.
“In terms of the policy of flying of flags on council buildings Sinn Féin’s position is very clear. There should either be a policy of equality or neutrality.”
East Antrim MLA Stewart Dickson said: “These proposals are similar to Alliance’s Celebration, Not Demarcation consultation document, which is a bid to help resolve this issue because statutory agencies have so far failed to do in a fair and respectful way,” he said.
“The unofficial display of flags is often used to mark territory, create tension and stop public space being shared. This report, Alliance’s consultation and the responses we have received so far show there is a pressing need for a clear, transparent framework to give a time-bound, respectful approach which could create a fairer balance between the right to celebrate events with legal flags and the right of everyone to be safe and welcome.”
“Alliance has shown leadership around the issue of designated days for all councils by proposing it as part of the Haass talks and Local Government Bill but unfortunately other parties rejected our suggestions. This is particularly disappointing given the UUP and PUP are previously on record as supporting the policy, as did the DUP in several councils and the Assembly.
“If nationalist parties can support designated days at City Hall, they should also be able to support the position across Northern Ireland. I hope this report will prompt other parties to stop playing games with this sensitive issue and graps the obvious compromise solution for the good of everyone.”
As part of the Fresh Start political deal, agreed late last year by the DUP and Sinn Fein, an official 15-strong panel on “Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition” is to be set up – including seven members drawn from the DUP, UUP, SDLP, SF and Alliance.
This is due to report back with proposals on all these issues within 18 months.
It is on course to be established next month.