Monday, 3 December 2012

Flags? I don't care, but can see why others do.

Tonight, Belfast City Council will decide if the Union Flag, currently flying all year round, should come down except on designated days. A protest has been organised outside of Belfast City Hall by those opposed to the flag coming down at all. It should be a fairly large protest and all Unionist parties have rallied their members and supporters to the cause.

Now, as the title says, I don't care if the flag is up or down. I put any notion of loyalty to the country of my birth firmly behind my loyalty to people of the communities to which I belong, wherever they might be. However, it's not hard to understand why others feel so much for the flag. It's not so much the flag they like, but what it represents. In this instance it represents, clearly and without question, that Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom and governed as such.

No Loyalist or Unionist can agree with that definition of what it represents and then, in the same breath, wonder why Nationalists find the flying of the flag offensive. They're Irish Nationalists, for Pete's sake, how could they not find it offensive? The real question that should be asked (and the DUP would argue it has been) is just how offensive they find it and how much of an issue is it for them?

Dubious equality impact assessments aside, the truth is that it's not as much of an issue as Nationalist parties would like us to think. Sure, if you asked any Nationalist would he like the flag to be down, of course he'll say yes, but if you ask him if the issue of taking the flag down should be the dominant issue of the last few weeks and the next few weeks you're more than likely to get a completely different answer. It doesn't mean they don't care though.

But this issue has been bought to the forefront for political purposes, and political purposes only. There's nothing particularly wrong with that providing there's a certain amount of honesty about it. That honesty has been sadly lacking. Sinn Fein and the SDLP have been less than honest about the level of feeling from their communities about the issue (and the SDLP, in particular, have tried to play both sides on this: "you can't eat a flag so lets debate about flags") and the DUP have seen this as a perfect opportunity to demonise the Alliance party amongst unionists.

Alliance, on this issue, were always going to be losers. Their policy position is perfectly valid, but they've been played with relative ease by both Sinn Fein and the DUP, no doubt the latter looking to regain a certain parliamentary seat they've never been too happy about losing.

So, as it's clear that despite their protestations to the contrary, the parties want the debate, let's have it: let's talk about whether bringing the flag down weakens NI's place in the union (it doesn't), whether Sinn Fein are against all symbols of Britishness (they are) and whether a new civic flag, with neutral symbols will solve the problem (it won't). But, for the love of all things, can we stop with the pretence?


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