A paramilitary-backed loyalist umbrella group has issued a new protocol on flags and bonfires with the stated intent of reducing tensions and ensuring respect around the often contentious issues.
The Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), which was set up last year with the support of the three main loyalist paramilitary groups - the UDA, UVF and Red Hand Commando - has also unveiled a new Battle of the Somme centenary flag which, it hopes, will be the main flag flown in unionist areas through the summer months.
Flags and bonfires have long been the source of community tension in Northern Ireland.
The annual proliferation of flags on lampposts across the region is riven with controversy, especially when the flags are left to become tattered in the elements or when flags carrying paramilitary motifs are erected.
Contention also surrounds the building and burning of bonfires to mark significant events in loyalist and republican narratives, such as the Protestant ‘eleventh night’ celebrations in July. Scores of homes were evacuated around a huge loyalist bonfire in east Belfast last year amid safety concerns.
The burning of tyres and symbols associated with the other side of the sectarian divide, such as flags or even effigies, has also attracted fierce criticism.
At an event in Belfast to launch the new LCC initiative, UDA leader Jackie McDonald stressed the need for the younger generation of loyalists to help make it work.
“We have been trying to get our message home about a better way forward and better focus and hopefully to move everybody on in a way where we are first class loyalists, not seen somehow as second class unionists, we want our people to be first class loyalists,” he said.
Winston Irvine of the Progressive Unionist Party, which has links to the UVF, said he believed the new Somme flag would limit the erection of paramilitary symbols this summer.
“That’s not to say this protocol is going to completely eradicate the use of paramilitary flags,” he added.
“That’s not the purpose of this initiative - this initiative is designed to ensure we progress the issues around flags. We know this is a hotly contested and contentious issue and we believe this is a very positive and constructive step forward in progressing that issue.”
East Belfast community worker and former loyalist prisoner Jim Wilson stressed the protocol was voluntary and the council was “not telling” people what to do.
“We are suggesting to people that loyalism needs to get the monkey off its back and the monkey on its back is the lack of respect sometimes that some of our people show to people who live in those areas,” he said.
“It’s important that our young communities out there understand that loyalism needs to get our good name back as opposed to the name we have had over the past five to 10 years.”
David Campbell of the LCC said: “Since the new year, the LCC has been consulting on the need to adopt protocols for the flying of flags and the erection of eleventh night bonfires in an attempt to demonstrate best practice in our communities and mutual respect for those of differing opinions.”
Tony Blair’s former chief of staff at Downing Street Jonathan Powell was instrumental in establishing the LCC.
In summary, the LCC protocol states:
:: The Union flag and Northern Ireland flag should be flown in a respectful manner, in places where they will command respect and not be used for provocative purposes. Flags should also be maintained in good order.
:: The LCC will erect the new flag commemorating the sacrifice of the soldiers from the 36th Ulster Division at the Somme in 1916 on arterial routes in loyalist communities, subject to respect being shown in the vicinity of churches, schools and cross-community buildings.
:: The flag will be erected in June and taken down at the end of September.
:: LCC emphasises it has no responsibility for any bonfire sites. But it appeals to bonfire organisers to ensure the siting of bonfires, choice of combustible material and any adornments added, should at all times have respect for public safety, security of homes and business and safety of those attending.