This week the news was dominated by two events, the vote on reducing the number of days that the union flag is to be flown at Belfast City Hall, which has been flown at City Hall since it opened on 1906 and the visit of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The vote brought an angry call from the unionist community which led to people protesting on the streets which consequently turned violent. This has caused damage across various parts of Northern Ireland. There is damage to not only souring community relations in the long term, but also the damaging affect this could have on the credibility of the peace process in the eyes of the unionist community. One only has to combine the decision of the flag at city hall with the naming of a play park in Newry after an IRA operative.
To unpick the whole situation which took place in Belfast City Council is difficult, unionists would argue that the taking down of the union flag has been a long drawn out campaign by nationalists, in particularly, Sinn Fein. While nationalists would argue that Belfast is a changing city, something which has been repeated by many nationalist politicians, and that the decision represents equality. Interestingly, Sinn Fein’s position is to take down the Union flag altogether, though they are claiming they compromise, It would have be interesting to know if they had an outright majority would they have compromised and offered to fly the flag on designated days? It is interesting to find out that across the 26 councils in Northern Ireland, 11 do not fly the flag at all.
Violence, criminal damage and death threats were rightly condemned by all quarters. People do have the right to a peaceful protest but we all should stand against any actions which threaten lives and property. As John Hume famously said “You can’t eat a flag”, there are more important issues we need to address. However, emotions are running high because this is more than an issue of a flag being flown, it’s the insecurity created by the feeling of their british identity being stripped back. This needs to be addressed, Declan Kearney the unionist outreach officer for Sinn Fein certainly has a huge task on his hand’s if he is serious about addressing the relationship between nationalists and unionists. As Ruth Dudley Edwards rightly stated “while the culture wars persist, there will always be an uneasy peace.”
This week also seen the visit of the outgoing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. She was given a warm reception in both Dublin and Belfast and referred to as a friend of Northern Ireland. The events surrounding the flag issue at City Hall dominated her visit and indeed her remarks calling for calm. The visit was very much like the welcoming of an old friend, her husband Bill, of course, playing a crucial role in creating the peace agreement and has recently be suggested as a candidate for the US Ambassador Role to Ireland. Hillary will leave her role with high opinion ratings, indeed she has a higher rating than President Obama, having carried out her role efficiently and claiming plaudits from all quarters Clinton will leave office on a high and maybe looking towards 2016.