City Hall #Fleg Riots: “This argument over the Union Flag has been divisive and unnecessary from its outset…”

The dark seam of comedy running through last night’s vote at the Belfast City Hall is such that this morning, few ordinary citizens of Belfast will notice whether there is a flag there or not. The councillors obviously will. Nationalism’s delicious revenge will be as one moderate nationalist put it that “unionists will now just get to stare at an empty pole”.

Rushing the City Hall after the vote was announced, and then taking it out on St Mathews Church in the Short Strand appears to have been the worst outcroppings of the violence. BBC are reporting that 15 police officers have been injured

At 11.56 last night, Peter Robinson issued the following statement:

“The scenes of violence in and around Belfast City Hall and the wider vicinity are totally unacceptable and must be unreservedly condemned.  There is no excuse or justification for attacks on police officers, council staff, and property.  Such behaviour is not representative of those who campaigned to maintain the Union Flag flying over Belfast City Hall.  My thoughts are with those police officers and security personnel who have been injured as well as those whose property has been damaged and I would appeal to the community to remain calm and not to get drawn into confrontation.

Violence such as that witnessed completely detracts from the debate in the Council chamber and shifts the focus away from those Councillors who were responsible for pursuing this motion to remove the flag completely from two Council buildings and ensure it would not be flown at City Hall other than on designated days.

The decision to pursue the removal of the flag from City Hall and other Council buildings, despite warnings of the likely consequential impact on community relations, was foolish and provocative.  Those who talk most about building community relations have by their actions in the Council substantially damaged relations across the city.”

There you go, he manages to neatly apologise (not!) for the disruption, the injury caused to the cops and then put the blame on those he claims decided to stir up this hornet’s nest.

Is there any truth in this line of reasoning? Well, a decision to remove the flag completely (something not directly recommended by the Equality Commission) had already been taken by the policy and resources committee:

It should also be noted that no one has produced any evidence that flying the Union flag has been identified as a problem that any real person in Belfast shares. Though as Equality Commission notes, there is likely to be a freezing effect on Protestant workers.

But, and this is where, I suspect, I fall into line with most of Slugger’s other commentators, what on earth is wrong with designated days? As IJP points out, it’s what Lisburn does, and most other councils the length and breadth of the United Kingdom.

It is also official Alliance policy. So in that respect, if not in all others, the deal-maker’s hands were tied from the beginning. Carpet-bombing east Belfast with anti Alliance leaflets was unlikely to make a positive difference to the outcome.

However it was also clear from the very earliest point in the negotiations that Sinn Fein would have gone for this kind of compromise. The party which pushed for a zero tolerance position for the Union flag in Belfast was the SDLP.

As my old, if now Tory, friend Trevor Ringland notes this morning:

“This argument over the Union Flag has been divisive and unnecessary from its outset. It was brought to fruition completely disregarding the results of a consultation. Those who initiated the action, motivated by political gain, were irresponsible to do so and those who used the issue to stir up emotions and mobilise protests, which ended in violence last night, could be considered reckless in their response.”

“None of the parties at City Hall has come out of this episode with credit, but the strongest condemnation must be reserved for the people who resorted to violence last night. The important task is now to pick up the pieces, repair relationships and continue building the Belfast we can all be proud of, which is the city the vast majority of its citizens recognise and want to live in.”

So, here’s the result of a survey of people visting the City Hall and their responses to the flag:

You can find it here on the BCC website, along with the submissions of all the parties, legal advice and a whole bunch of stuff around this issue [must have cost a bleedin’ forture – Ed].

But arguments over symbols is what the City Council do best, especially in the run up to Christmas. Last year, Sinn Fein won a nice little plus sum game over (wait for it), Irish language Christmas signs. This year the DUP have lost a zero sum play (albeit, not of their making) over a flag no one who’s ordinary had ever objected to.

Aside from doing my usual Christmas recommendation that all Belfast unionist councillor’s read Cllr O Muilleoir’s classic, Dome of Delight on how Republicans in the 80s and 90s used unionist reactions to deepen and further the objects of their own cause.

The one bright spot in a very dark evening for the DUP was how the young DUP Mayor stayed calm and collected in the Chair, not least in the firm way he dealt with agressive contraventions from his own side. Definitely one to watch for the future.

Returning to the broader issue, perception, of course, is king. The flag is important as a symbol of sovereignty, of course. But so is cutting a reasonable deal that people more broadly can buy into (if that’s truly what you want).

Dying in the ditch is soooo 1970s/1980s. As Brian has noted of our broader political leadership, “it’s quite a shock for them to realise that the age of poltical romance is over”.

Our age of political romance got a lot of people killed. And for what? Power-sharing institutions inside the United Kingdom, and a disingenuous riot over the ordinary regulation of #flegs.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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