Flying the flag for the last time…

A NEW protocol agreed by the police, Housing Executive and other authorities aims to tackle the controversial issue of flags in Northern Ireland, particularly paramilitary flags and emblems.The PSNI said:

“The main aim is to work proactively, with communities, to address the removal of flags and emblems from arterial routes and town centres and the removal of all paramilitary flags and displays. It also seeks to control displays of flags and emblems in particular areas – for example, interfaces, places of worship, schools and hospitals.

The protocol also states that a popular flag flying should also be limited to particular times and dates and flags displayed for cultural festivals should be time bounded.

A cynical Newton Emerson ponders how our ‘community representatives’ will view this ‘partnership’ approach:

Mostly though I just want the authorities to beg. I want them to come down here to my little street, summon as witnesses all of my neighbours, get down on their knees in the gutter before me and plead for my kindly cooperation.

The SDLP’s Dolores Kelly states the obvious when she says that the new scheme to tackle the flying of paramilitary flags in public areas will make little difference unless the political will is there to support it.

She is spot on – there has been little effort made to deal with this issue in the past. Complaints about paramilitary flags and emblems have mostly led to a buck-passing exercise between different agencies, none of whom want to do anything.

However, Dolores seems to be confusing the new protocol with the “legislation” she refers to – the Terrorism Act (2000). The legislation was not specifically designed to deal with paramilitary flags, but the law’s reference to soliciting support for a terrorist organisation was successfully tested in court last year.

It could be argued that even the creative use of the Terrorism Act is using a legal sledgehammer to crack a nut. More specific legislation may ultimately be necessary if the new protocol fails to produce results, as the current law has more loopholes that your granny’s knitting when applied to many of the flags and emblems that do not easily fall into the ‘paramilitary’ category.

The new protocol follows research done by the Irish Institute at Queen’s University, Belfast. There’s an executive summary here and the full report is here. This thinking was reflected in the new Government policy of ‘A Shared Future’.

The Irish News cautiously welcomed the new protocol in its leader column:

Yesterday the police, the Housing Executive and four government departments launched such a joint protocol on the flying of flags.

The aim is to work with community organisations to take down paramilitary displays; remove flags from arterial routes and town centres; control displays in particular areas, such as at interfaces or near public buildings; and limit flag-flying to particular times.

This would not solve the problem. As one astute community worker pointed out, it could be seen as freeing the middle class from experiencing unsightly flags while leaving the poor confined to ghettoised neighbourhoods to face them still.

But it would represent a clear step towards a more normal society.

Interestingly for a nationalist newspaper, the same editorial also suggested a new flag – or “regional emblem” as the leader column euphemistically puts it – for Northern Ireland, an Alliance policy, which the BBC covered a couple of years ago:

A forward-looking solution would be a new regional emblem for Northern Ireland.

The assembly had no difficulty agreeing on its flax-flowers logo and all departments now use another based on the Giant’s Causeway.

Such a flag could be flown alone, or alongside the Tricolour and the Union flag – but only if both were flown – or along with the European Union emblem.

Now that would be a positive statement about who we are.

Yesterday, the Republic’s minister for foreign affairs, Dermot Ahern, said it was time to move beyond ‘the comfortable dichotomies of British versus Irish, unionist versus nationalist’ which deepen division.

This would be a good start.