Council Wars continue as Belfast steps up to the plate

It’s clearly ‘wind up the catholics’ time at Belfast City Council as the Council’s unionist majority have voted to fly the flag of the British Armed Forces on June 27th (or ‘Armed Forces Day’.) Perhaps appropriately amidst the flag-waving and wrapping fervour precipitated by an imminent visit to the polling booth, the DUP’s European election candidate, Diane Dodds, was put forward to ‘welcome’ the development. Conveniently, it does put into context the objections to the proposal by an independent group- the Irish National Gymnastics team- to fly the Irish National flag from council-owned premises in Newry and Mourne, where a strict policy of ‘no flags nor emblems’ forbids such a development- a policy, it is worth noting, which is found across most (if not all) of the power-sharing majority nationalist councils in the north.
From a republican/ nationalist perspective, it does once again raise the dilemma of whether or not to advocate policies which either promote ‘equality’ between expressions of the two national identities in the Six Counties, or ‘neutrality’, with all that entails for the suppression of outward manifestations of political/ cultural/ national identity. The campaigns by republican councillors in Banbridge and Limavady, in particular, have exposed the unwillingness of some unionist representatives to view civic premises as ‘shared’ facilities, either reflective of both traditions or free of political symbolism.

However, the fact that proposals to promote the concept of civic premises as being centres in which expressions of our differing political and cultural outlooks are equally cherished and on display for one and all to observe and celebrate have not either been forthcoming nor accepted, is not only a disappointment, but is a fault which must be laid at the doors of the two nationalist parties in places like Newry and Mourne, where they have, seemingly, opted for the safer- but less satisfactory- option of political-cultural suppression through promoting ‘neutral’ premises, even on Councils where nationalists hold a clear and decisive majority opinion.

It is also a source of regret that neither Sinn Fein nor the SDLP could anticipate the likely development which arouse at Newry and Mourne Council during the week, when effectively local nationalist representatives were forced to oppose the policy of neutrality to which they have been advocating on that and many other local councils across the north. Supporting a more liberal policy with regard to the display of flags and emblems could only be an advance for Irish nationalists in terms of further legitimising the Irish National flag within the north whilst also sending a more positive message to unionists through respecting the right of that community to express their political, cultural and National identity within and from shared civic premises- even if that meant the British Armed Forces flag having its day from the mast.

Personally, I would be a strong advocate of the this position, and am of the belief that the symbolism brought about by Alex Maskey’s decision to retain the Union Flag- alongside the Irish National Flag- in his mayoral office during his term as Belfast Mayor was a powerful statement of the willingness of Irish nationalists/ republicans to respect expressions of the Protestant/ Unionist identity, even when representatives of the latter refuse to reciprocate (and the evidence to confirm the latter is depressingly overwhelming.)

It is interesting that Newry and Mourne Council, an overwhelmingly majority nationalist council, was the venue for the decision which failed to allow the breakthrough development of a council premises in the north of Ireland legitimising the flying of the Irish National flag from its premises, something I do not believe has occurred to date, in spite of the fact that Sinn Fein and the SDLP hold the majority on just shy of a dozen local councils across the state. It does suggest that neither party is particularly sure about how best to proceed in spite of its clear numerical advantage there and elsewhere- which brings me back to an earlier thread.