Three-year trial suggested for plan to limit flying of flags on NI streets

Dr Dominic Bryan, left, and Dr Paul Nolan from Queens University Institute of Irish Studies, co-authors of Flags: Towards a New Understanding

Dr Dominic Bryan, left, and Dr Paul Nolan from Queens University Institute of Irish Studies, co-authors of Flags: Towards a New Understanding

  • Report says unionist flags outnumber nationalist ones 13:1
  • A blanket ‘designated days’ policy would hurt everyone equally – so may be acceptable
  • Suggest plans for flying lamp-post flags should be published in the press by organisers

Flags on lamp-posts should only be displayed for a fortnight at a time – and only after a community consultation.

That is the verdict of an academic report published today, which recommends solutions to the long-running issue of unofficial public flag-flying, including a proposal that all councils – whether unionist or nationalist – should fly the Union flag on 18 days a year (see below).

Belfast City Hall, January 2013

Belfast City Hall, January 2013

The academics from Queen’s University Belfast recommend that, when it comes to public displays on things like lampposts, flags should only be flown to mark significant dates.

Such fixtures in the calendar would include the Orange Order’s Twelfth of July commemorations, or the anniversary of the Easter Rising, and the flags should only be displayed for two weeks at a time around these specific dates.

It is suggested this scheme should be tried for three years – and if it does not work by then, new legislation may be passed with a view to enforcing the removal of such flags.

The researchers hope that these proposals will influence an official panel which is set to be up-and-running by March.

This panel was originally agreed as part of the Stormont House Agreement, and was then re-invigorated in last year’s Fresh Start deal.

It is supposed to come up with the way forward as to how the Province should handle such flags within 18 months.

The researchers behind today’s report (titled Flags: Towards a New Understanding) recommend that no paramilitary flags be flown.

But when it comes to the like of Union flags or Tricolours, the researchers recommended the following:

:: In residential areas the views of all the people should be given consideration, including those in a minority.

:: Flags should not be placed outside homes in any way that could be considered intimidating or threatening.

:: Places which deliver public services are not suitable for the display of flags for celebratory or commemorative purposes. Flags should not be placed outside hospitals, health centres, schools or community centres.

:: Flags should not be placed at interfaces.

The guidelines also stress the importance of communication, recommending:

:: Utmost courtesy should be shown to those who might feel uncomfortable with flag display. Residents can reasonably expect to know who is putting the flags up and how long they will be displayed. This information should be communicated to the police, community leaders and advertised in the press.

Report author Dr Paul Nolan said that while flying flags on lampposts is “technically unlawful” there has been a “custom” that the Roads Service will not act unless they pose a traffic hazard – with the police also taking a laissez-faire approach.

His whole set of voluntary guidelines would require considerable will, both from parties and individuals.

For instance, when it was put to him that people may get around his a voluntary code on the flying of flags on lamp-posts by simply finding innumarable “celebrations” around which they can erect flags for two weeks, he said: “People may do.”

The report refers to a survey of 1,421 residents across Northern Ireland’s 11 council areas. Key findings from the survey, undertaken by Lucid Talk polling agency, include:

:: 70 per cent of people felt the issue of flags on public buildings was either important or very important, with 18 per cent saying it was not.

:: Seven out of 10 people polled want to see more regulation of flags in public spaces.

:: 53 per cent of people support the flying of flags on council buildings on 18 designated days.

Co-author Dr Dominic Bryan said that “due to links to bonfires, murals, kerb-painting and other forms of cultural expression, any legislation aimed solely at flags would achieve little on its own”.

He added: “Therefore, rather than recommending legislation we are proposing a set of guidelines we hope will provide a template for any group of people who are trying to agree a way forward for the display of flags in their community.”

However, the report concludes that “this type of voluntary arrangement should be tried over the next three years, and if in that time it has not shown a sufficient degree of success then it may be necessary to look again at legislative approaches”.

UNIONIST FLAGS OUTNUMBER NATIONALIST ONES ‘13-TO-ONE’

The report cites research which highlights that the vast majority of flags being unofficially displayed are unionist ones – by a huge margin.

The Institute of Irish Studies (based at Queen’s) had set out to count the number of flags on main arterial routes from 2006 to 2010, and found “the ratio of unionist flags to nationalist flags was approximately 13 to 1 in that period”.

The study found that the number of flags displayed on main routes in July each year is roughly 4,000, Province-wide.

When referring to this 2006-2010 study, today’s report notes that it also found “around one third of the flags being put up on main roads in Northern Ireland during the summer months remained flying in October, and many flew as tatters right through the winter”.

Dr Paul Nolan, one of the author’s of today’s study, stressed that these findings only referred to main routes, and does not include any of the Province’s smaller streets.

DESIGNATED DAYS WOULD SPELL ‘SYMMETRICAL PAIN’

One of the key proposals from the report’s authors is that the Union flag be flown on council buildings on designated days – as it currently does at Belfast City Hall.

Dr Paul Nolan, a research consultant at Queen’s Institute of Irish Studies (to which Dr Bryan also belongs) said: “There is a package which could be agreed quite easily on that, which is for the 18 designated days [to be] rolled out across all 11 councils in Northern Ireland. We’re talking about the Union flag here.

“Now that seems to be going against political gravity because you unionists are kind of sworn to defend the 365 days...

“It’d very difficult for unionists to accept the 18 designated days.

“But equally it’d be very difficult to accept nationalist councils having the union flag flown, where it is never flown.

“So there is sort of equal pain on both sides. It’s a fairly symmetrical deal.

“So if we do want to get out of the stuck position we’re in that’s what’s going to make it happen.

“The thing that would really make it happen is if there was political leadership.”

Dr Nolan said that despite the intractable nature of the flag-flying issue, he and his colleagues set out with the mindset that “there is no problem that won’t be solved eventually”.

He said: “We didn’t set out to find the solution to the flags to the flags problem, because there isn’t any simple solution. But what we set out to do is see how we can make progress. That’s what we’re aiming to do with this report – to inch forward a little bit...

“Essentially the political parties had got into their trenches after the Belfast City Council vote [to limit the flying of the union flag above City Hall in 2012, prompting rioting]. There has been no movement since.”

Asked what he feels the chances are of having any of his guidelines adopted, he said: “We can only hope. We put it out there, I hope, that there’ll be discussion of it – serious discussion.”