Saturday, August 10, 2013

Flags, Symbols, Parading and The Past

September sees the beginning of all party talks to be chaired by US Diplomat and former US Envoy to Northern Ireland Dr Richard Haas. A set of recommendations will be brought forward before the end of the year on contentious issues such as Flags, Symbols, Parading and The Past.

The starting position on the Nationalist side in relation to the official flying of flags from public buildings is likely to be a demand for equal status for the Tri-Colour to that of the Union Jack. There are two communities in the North. The Irish Tri-Colour is the flag of the Irish Nation (32 counties) and represents the Nationalist Community in the North in the same way as the Union Jack represents the Unionist Community. If we are to have equality, the flags of both communities must be officially recognised. If flags are to be flown from public buildings then either both flags, no flags or an agreed neutral flag should be flown.

There should be strong regulation against displaying flags from lamp posts and street furniture.

The Unionist line will that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom. The Union Flag is the official flag of the UK and should be flown proudly over all public buildings 365 days a year. The Irish Tri-Colour is the flag of a foreign country and has no place being flown from official buildings in Northern Ireland. Unionists will object strongly to any suggestion that the Irish Tri-Colour should receive official recognition.

They will also resist any attempts to place restrictions from hanging flags from lamp posts or street furniture.

Possible outcomes include:

1. The Union Jack should be flown from all public buildings 365 days a year.

2. The Union Jack should be flown from all government buildings on designated days only.

3. It will be at the discretion of the Local District Council whether the Union Jack will be flown 365 days a year, on designated days only or not at all.

4. Where votes cast for designated Unionists in each Local District Council election are twice that of votes cast for designated Nationalists, the Union Jack should be flown 365 days a year. Where votes cast for designated Nationalists in each Local District Council election are twice that of votes cast for designated Unionists, the Union Jack will not be flown. Where neither scenario has occurred the Union Jack will be flown on designated days only (or something to that effect).

5. Either no flag or a neutral flag should be flown from all government buildings.

6. The Irish Tri-Colour will receive official recognition and should be flown from all public buildings along with the Union Jack

The independent adjudicators led by Richard Haass will conclude that official recognition for the Union Flag is required given that the North is currently part of the UK. They will also conclude that as we do not have a joint sovereignty situation it is not appropriate to officially recognise the Irish Tri-colour (much to the annoyance of Nationalists). The adjudicators will also try to avoid a zero sum solution with one side the clear 'winner' and the other side the 'loser'. This leaves options 2, 3 & 4 as realistic recommendations.

Given the Unionist and Loyalist reaction to the democratic decision to fly the Union Jack from Belfast City Hall on designated days only and the traditional "not an inch", "No Surrender" and "chipping away at our Britishness/cultural war" mantra, it is difficult to envisage Unionists accept anything other that option 1.

No side can get everything they want, that's why it's called a negotiation. Unionist won't get option 1 and will push for option 2, relishing an opportunity to have the Union Jack forced upon CRN communities on designated days even if it means it will not be flown 365 days a year in PUL dominated areas.

The independent panel will not recommend option 2 as it would be unacceptable to Nationalists who have majorities in half of the Local District Councils. The Unionist side will draw the line here and I predict that they will walk from the talks.

They may come back to the talks if concessions can be made in other areas as part of the overall negotiations (disbandment of the Parades Commission?). Option 3 may then be a runner or some variation to option 4.

As for displaying flags from every lamp post, god only knows what solutions will be on the table and how any determinations can/will be enforced.

The same arguments used in the flag debate will be used when discussions turn to symbols. The argument that there should not be official recognition for the Irish flag as the North is part of the UK might work for flags but this will not wash in terms of symbols. Stormont, City Halls, County Councils, Street names, hospitals, bridges, statues etc. are almost entirely Unionist. To reflect the cultural diversity of the six counties this is going to have to change.

The best thing to do with Parades is to ban them all. Unfortunately this scenario is unlikely. Nationalists as a minimum will look for parades, which seek to march through areas predominantly inhabited by residents from the another community to be prohibited. People's right to assemble should not over rule residents rights to live in peace and free from sectarian coat trailing exercises.

The main area of contention is likely to be the issue of parades in 'shared spaces' such as town centres. The independent Parades Commission should be retained for rulings on contentious parades in shared spaces.

Of course the Unionist position will be that the Orange and Loyal Orders should be able to march where they want, when they want. It is the "Queens Highway" after all! They will demand the Parades Commission is disbanded.

Other than accept that a new body made up of residents and parading representatives to make determinations on contentious parades, I cannot see Unionists compromise on parading. Nationalists may have to concede here if they can achieve concessions on flags, symbols and The Past.

The Past
Are there two narratives on the past or is there one? Both sides will disagree but can they agree to disagree? Unionist views on Republican commemorations of their dead are perfectly clear. This despite the completely hypocritical position they hold in relation to Remembrance Sunday (honouring British army dead responsible for as many acts of 'terror' and atrocities as any militia) and even UVF commemorations in Bangor and Colraine or in fact most Orange parades which have bands named after Loyalist paramilitaries.

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