Flags – Can we now have a sensible debate?

Last night at Platform for Change‘s Flags – Can we now have a sensible conversation? event, 120 or more people crammed into a room in the Holiday Inn to hear from nine local political representatives and to pose their questions.
Platform for Change flags panel
The two hour event, chaired by Robin Wilson, started with each panellist being given the opportunity to outline their position on the flag debate.

In order of speaking:

  • Chris Lyttle, Alliance
  • Claire Hanna, SDLP
  • Steven Agnew, Green Party NI
  • Chris Stalford, DUP

  • John Kyle, PUP
  • Trevor Ringland, Conservatives NI
  • Gerard O’Neill, Sinn Fein
  • Rebecca Hall, NI Labour CLP
  • John McCallister, UUP Independent

John McCallister: Unionism has a great ability to draw a line in the sand at low tide and then wonder why they can’t keep the tide back.

It was very unusual for the DUP and Sinn Fein to speak at a Platform for Change event: perhaps an indication of how crucial the flags issue is that two councillors agreed to be on the panel.
Platform for Change flags audience
This was followed by questions from the floor, taken three or four at a time, addressed to individual panel members. (As a format, and with an enormous panel, it worked well and got through a lot of questions in a relatively short space of time.)

Questions came from members of parties, those working in specific communities, from at least three people people who identified themselves as flag protesters. There was discussion about identity, the need for the Civic Forum, the role of the Irish flag (taken up by Chris in his post this morning), the naming of the Raymond McCreesh playpark in Newry, the need for education about democracy to start earlier, working class representation in parties, …

Finally, the panellists were given just over a minute to sum up their ideas on resolving the flag issue for the eleven new merged councils. No surprise that there were no easy answers to the issue around the flying of flags.

You can look back at the tweets from the evening which will give you a lot of quotes/snippets of what was said by panellists and questioners.

As an event it worked well. Amazingly, there were few raised voices amongst the diverse panel. There was an atmosphere of listening in the room. Unlike some other community political Q&A events, whenever the self-identified protesters made their points, they sat down and listened to the answers, rather than immediately storming out of the room. That in itself was progress.

John Kyle probably best summed up the background issues in loyalist communities that were rumbling under the flag protests.

There were moments of humour, particularly when John McCallister remarked that he didn’t have permission from UUP HQ to be there, and when Claire Hanna commented that picking a political party was like picking a partner: you’ve got to get involved and make them something you can live with!

However, to answer the organiser’s question about flags: Yes we can have a sensible debate; but we’re unlikely to agree on a shared policy until fear is abated and is generosity in abundance.

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  • Morpheus

    The only shocking thing to come out of the BBC poll was that they managed to find ANYONE who would agree to a United Ireland TOMORROW. In 2010/2011 NI generated £12.7b in taxes and it cost £23.2b to run the place – a deficit of over £5000 for every man, woman and child in the 6 counties. I don’t think even the most hardcore Republican would inflict that economic burden on an RoI that already has deep financial problems. NI’s extremely poor economics ensures the Union for short/medium term at least but the generosity of the 4 English regions who are footing the bill will only last so long – sooner or later The Chancellor will decide that he needs to start working on the £1,347.4 billion national debt and saving over £100 billion over the next 10 years in Northern Ireland could become appealing.

    The BBC poll, with it specifically worded question, was nothing more than the BBC throwing the loyalists on the street a bone in an attempt to calm the whole situation down.

    Moving on, if the Union is secure for the foreseeable future then the only option is to make Northern Ireland the best it can be and we already have a framework in place for that in the Good Friday Agreement. The agreement states that:

    “…the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions and shall be founded on the principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities”.

    So there must be just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities. Have we seen much of that in the 15 years since the Agreement?

    That said it was in this spirit of equality that The Alliance party made their decision in Belfast City Council and made SF/SDLP change their policy. Flying the flag on designated days – in line with Stormont and the rest of the UK – does not give the equality required by the GFA but it does bring a sense of neutrality while still acknowledging the fact that Belfast is still a UK capital city. So The Alliance party’s policy was a strong and brave one – especially when you consider the notorious DUP/UUP leaflet drop in Parliamentary constituency of East Belfast targeting Naomi Long who isn’t even on Belfast city Council or leader of The Alliance Party. I wonder why that was done? It was about seats/salaries/pensions and they didn’t even have the nads to put their party logo on them.

    In short, the Good Friday Agreement states there must be equality for both communities. In the absence of equality then go for neutrality. Simple.

  • iluvni

    It looks awfully nice.

  • Barry the Blender

    The short answer to this thread is ‘no’. When have we ever been able to have a sensible debate, on slugger, let alone in Northern Ireland?

    A slightly longer answer is that regarding the flags issue, ALL SIDES are wrong.

  • @Barry,

    I’m more optimistic, I think we can have a serious discussion once the DUP has recaptured the East Belfast seat in the next election–then the issue will suddenly be irrelevant and forgotten.

  • Barry the Blender

    I’m not convinced Belfast East will go DUP again, and even so a not discussed issue is hardly the same as an sensible debate.

  • ThomasMourne

    I agree with Barry. Some of our political ‘leaders’ thought it OK to kill their enemies over a related issue not so long ago while some today encourage sectarian thugs in their equally mad campaign which will get them to a similar end point – nowhere.

  • JoeBryce

    The effect of #flegs on this PUL (who in truth was drifting away anyway) has been to encourage a positive re-orientation toward nationalism. This episode has been so humiliating, so debasing, so shameful, that it has caused me to look at the roots and origin of partition and ask: what real sense is there in going on with it? Time to negotiate a new, secular Ireland, new flag, constitution and anthem, and leave all this demeaning baggage behind. From Scotland, it appears that the price that PUL community is paying for the Union just isn’t worth it any more.

  • Joe Bryce. You have sussed it out that the irony of these flag protesters is that if they believe in a healthy political entity in NI, they have just spent three months ensuring it will never be a normal society as it was bitterly sectarian before the last troubles period even began. Robinson tried to claim in a speech last year that the troubles caused the deep divisions here but he knows well that all the troubles did was remove the thin veneer of psuedo-normality prevailing to the late 60s. It’s Robinson who we have to thank unintentionally for exposing to the world the sickness that was there and with the whipping up of the mob, that the ‘new NI was really the old one continuous from before 1968. and will never recover as long as it exists. Britain is stuck with us.

  • David Crookes

    Joe and Daniel, I get some comfort from your postings. Once enough of us on the PUL side realize that our present state is terminally ill, we’ll stop shouting REMEMBER PILTDOWN MAN, and start looking for something better.

    At present we’re digging holes in a forgotten battlefield, and trying to make incompatible pieces of bone fit together. Look at the ‘Queen’s highway’ nonsense. I must be allowed to march down the Queen’s highway in order to beat a drum, but you may not walk along the Queen’s highway in order to visit your terminally ill wife.

    The violent loyalism which underpins unionism is already dying from its own absurdity. Many of us are profoundly grateful for the union, but the union is mortally wounded, and its most fervent advocates are combining to administer the death-blow. Let us not wait for the exPULsion that will follow a change in the status of Scotland. Let us make a move in our own right.

  • @Barry,

    My point is that #flegs is a phony issue that is manipulated by the DUP to rev up loyalists who in 2010 apparently forgot temporarily that THE UNION IS IN DANGER! If you are right, and Alliance retains control of the seat in the next election, then the issue might persist. Or the DUP might come up with another way of revving up their electorate.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Joe Bryce :

    Time to negotiate a new, secular Ireland, new flag, constitution and anthem, and leave all this demeaning baggage behind. From Scotland, it appears that the price that PUL community is paying for the Union just isn’t worth it any more.

    An interesting perspective. I have to say you have probably given more thought to what a united Ireland might look like than most nationalists have.

    I agree with the comments on the thread, all sensible, that this has been whipped up into a frenzy. The DUP apparently, quite sincerely, believe that the way to reinvigorate a flagging electorate is by trying to scare them into believing that their cultures/value/traditions are under attack. Aside from the fact the DUP (as usual) have no strategy and no plan about how to control and direct that anger after having spent so much time and effort stoking it, the lesson of the past five or six years should be that Protestant voters are more sophisticated than that.

    The DUP’s strongest ever vote and their final defeat of the UUP came not on the back of a hardline, uncompromising vote but on the back of a renegotiated deal to share power with Sinn Féin. This endorsement has now come several times over and it should be as clear as day that ordinary DUP voters have things that they aren’t happy about but they by and large want powersharing and agreement to work. The DUP seem to be busy sabotaging their own good progress – it makes no sense.

    BTW I am reliably informed that Alliance recently gained a handful of new members from the parts of North Belfast and Newtownabbey which have recently been experiencing rioting and disruption due to flags protests. I wonder how many new members the DUP has.

  • BarneyT

    Joe Bryce :

    “Time to negotiate a new, secular Ireland, new flag, constitution and anthem, and leave all this demeaning baggage behind”

    As someone who is attached to my flag and Irish identity (something I felt I needed to recapture in adulthood – having had it stripped from me under the guise of understanding and compromise) I would advocate a rethink as Joe suggests. I get great comfort knowing who and what I am and I believe I can do this without causing offense or being made to feel that I have to become something that I am not.

    With all this in mind, I would be prepared to look at the possibilities of a new flag, anthem and a new start for the Island. However, how can we have a Republic (as it exists in the US and other parts of the world) given the distaste that modern “republicanism” in Ireland has left in many a northern mouth?

    There unfortunately cannot be a platform for a formal democracy and by that I mean a society without a monarchy. With the need for subjugation being a contingent factor for many, I can’t see how we can arrive at a common flag and anthem.

    If someone can tell me how we can have a solution for All-Ireland with a British monarch as head of state (which I believe would be the requirement for most unionists?) please do tell.

    Do we need to fabricate or install a separate Irish monarchy to meet a particular need, or is this simply about maintaining ties with Britain? Would Northern Ireland Unionists and in particular loyalists still enjoy a relationship with the Republic of Great Britain?

  • David Crookes

    “Do we need to fabricate or install a separate Irish monarchy to meet a particular need, or is this simply about maintaining ties with Britain? Would Northern Ireland Unionists and in particular loyalists still enjoy a relationship with the Republic of Great Britain?”

    Powerful questions, BarneyT. Let me take the second one first. NI’s unionists would have no emotional, or visceral, or spiritual affinity with a Republic of Great Britain. Any union that survived the advent of such a republic would be based on merely economic facts.

    Do we need to fabricate a separate Irish monarchy? Well, ‘fabricate’ is a pejorative word. It isn’t a matter of fabricating something that will take account of what you call ‘the need for subjugation’. It’s more a matter of creating something with which most people on both sides of the present border will be happy.

    Subjugation doesn’t come into it. People in Spain are not subjugated by their present king. The monarchy has been a stabilizing factor in the growth of Spain’s parliamentary democracy.

    A separate Irish monarchy wouldn’t need to be a copy of any other monarchy. It would bring dignity and cohesiveness to the newly unified nation. It would also declare that all of us — the present NI, and the present RoI — were embarking on something new together.

    Whatever the UI project turns out to be, it will need to be exciting, and it will need to have a bit of mystery at its heart. An all-PC neo-Weimarian constitution designed by clever academics and political theorists won’t work.

    It may be that in time ordinary people will begin to say what they want. There’s no point in clever political theorists telling ordinary people what they ought to want.

    Many thanks for your important posting, BarneyT. The idea of a separate Irish monarchy takes the discussion into a new dimension.

  • BarneyT

    The irony is that most Irish are perhaps not naturally republican…but believe they are as a direct response to the history between Ireland and England (and its monarchy)

    Equally, many Unionists are anti-republican based on their experiences in NI.

    We have to ask questions to find out how we can share this island as respectful occupiers….or ensure we clearly understand the barriers to achieving people unity.

    Quite often there are issues that remove the border and force us to look at how we all live and exist on this island. If you take the issue of corporation tax for example, NI is united I believe in its desire to have this devolved to the executive…so they can do what exactly?

    Diverge from Great Britain and gain some level of corporation tax harmonisation with the ROI?

    This has only become an issue because we are on the same island and it emphasises how it must work for us all. Perhaps ecomically we can see a shared and common existence but choose more often than not to ignore it.

  • JR

    There has been alot of talk coming from the flag protesters about the underlying issues of deprivation in loyalist areas. Looking at the child poverty statistics announced today a different trend seems to emerge.

    Belfast West 43%
    Foyle 36%
    Belfast North 36%
    West Tyrone 26%
    Newry/Armagh 23%
    East Londonderry 23%
    Belfast East 21%
    Upper Bann 20%
    Mid Ulster 20%
    South Down 19%
    North Antrim 19%
    Fermanagh/S Tyrone 18%
    Belfast South 18%
    Strangford 15%
    East Antrim 15%
    South Antrim 14%
    North Down 13%
    Lagan Valley 13%

  • BarneyT

    The picture does indicate that “the haves” and “have nots” in NI remains as it largely has done for some time.

    The difference between East and West Belfast is stark

  • David Crookes

    Thanks, BarneyT.

    The royalist loyalty of NI’s unionists may be amenable to transmutation if a modest Christian queen is replaced by a voluble high priest of Gaia.

  • @Barry T.,

    The problem with republicanism in Ireland is its unique Irish meaning as in the term “physical-force republicanism.” While most unionists are probably not republicans because they perceive the British monarchy as part of their culture. In fact traditionally monarchism is stronger among “colonials” i.e. British subjects or citizens not living in Britain than it is among those living in Great Britain. But if republicanism on the island of Ireland could be stripped of its historical connotations of support for political violence then there would be more support for it. Conor Cruise O’Brien said that republicanism was the Irish English term for fascism just as in Britain trucks are called lorries.

  • IJP

    I made a proposal, here on Slugger in about 2005, for a United Ireland exactly on the same basis as Australia.

    The “Commonwealth of Ireland” would recognise the British monarch as “Queen of Ireland”, and would be federal, with the Union Flag appearing top left in its State Flag.

    For all that, like Australia, it would be wholly sovereign.

    It was laughed out of town. Nationalists would not even contemplate it – not even as a starting point of negotiation, far less a conceivable end point.

    Yet I detect that’s changed?


    PS: See also: http://ianjamesparsley.wordpress.com/2012/08/12/you-can-have-any-kind-of-majority-rule-as-long-as-were-the-majority/

  • David Crookes

    Many thanks for that posting, IJP. I must have missed you in 2005.

    There are precedents for the the kind of flag that you envisage. If you have a moment, copy and paste the following line into Google images.

    Royal Cork Yacht Club Ensign [1:2]