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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