Holding up a copy of a 1995 book on the topic of NI flags, Paul Nolan reminded the audience gathered in QUB’s Riddel Hall that the issue was not new. Nor was the issue unique to Northern Ireland: “anywhere you’ve got conflicting identities you’ll have disputes around symbols” explained Paul Nolan, citing the recent example of Charleston, South Carolina.
In his introduction, Dominic Bryan noted that “the lack of debate by some of the political parties about this is extraordinary”.
What then would help solve the problem of flags on district councils? Our survey provides evidence that shows the largest share of preferences would be for a package that comes in three parts.
Firstly, it would be for the Union flag to be flown on 18 designated days.
Secondly, it would be rolled out across all of Northern Ireland.
Thirdly, the package would not come top down from Westminster, nor is there any expectation that it could be negotiated bottom-up by each council: rather, it would be led by an agreement amongst the main political parties at Stormont.
The first part of this, the endorsement of the 18 designated days policy may seem like an attempt to reverse the law of political gravity in Northern Ireland. That formula was, and remains, anathema to a section of unionism when applied to Belfast. If we take that to be a fact, then we have to balance it with another fact: flying the Union flag at all in nationalist councils was, and remains, anathema to a section of nationalism. There is symmetry in the degree of hostility on both sides that – however paradoxical it might appear – makes the problem amenable to this form of conflict resolution.
At the report launch, Paul Nolan explained that the original notion of 18 designated days was originally a compromise. However when adopted by non-unionist parties, it became an anti-unionist position and no longer a compromise.
LucidTalk’s Bill White detailed some findings from polling. [1422 respondents to allow breakdown across the 11 new super council areas, error +/- 2.8% at 95% confidence.]
60% would extend the flags legislation introduced by Peter Mandelson in 2000 to cover council headquarters. A majority would “support, accept or agree” the flying of the Tricolour on occasions of a visit of an Irish government minister or President.
Following the evidence, the most popular (53%) of the options they polled was for the Union flag to be flown on 18 designated days on all council headquarter buildings. [Ed – if ever there was a circumstance when prioritised multi-option polling – like STV – was needed, this is it.]
Whilst “flying against political gravity”, sharing the pain equally – unionists wanting the Union flag in Belfast 365 days a year while nationalists don’t want it at all west of the Bann – would satisfy the majority of people. It was time for “firm government”.
Paul Nolan illustrated the change in political sentiment by imagining someone suggesting to a 1980’s Sinn Féin ard fheis that they should support flying of the Union flag to celebrate the birthday of minor Royals.
Support for legislation is beyond the party support for Alliance and NI21 (who are both promising to bring forward legislation) and would bring clarity.
Polling showed that 35% of people felt that the issue of unofficial flags on lamp posts was “very annoying/don’t agree with their display”. Broken down further, that option was chosen by:
- 25% of Protestants 25%
- 29% of ABC1 “middle class” Protestants
- 10% of C2DE “working class” Protestants
- 49% of Catholics/Others
The highest support for unofficial flags was found in urban working class Protestant areas.
The related problem with the flying of unofficial flags on lamp posts is more complex. At the heart of the problem lies the quandary that now confronts many western states: how much tolerance should be shown to cultural practices that many find offensive?
Our poll shows that 7 out of 10 people want to see more regulation of flags in public spaces. The existing legislation appears inadequate to deal with the problems as they manifest themselves, and so we have looked at how new legislation might be framed, and outlined the key provisions. At some point in the future that may be necessary, but it is not something we are recommending at this point.
Three questions undermine the practicality of legislative-backed regulation.
- Who would issue the licences? Neither PSNI nor councils are keen. Setting up a new body – and it would be natural to also give them the regulation of bonfires – would sound like another Parades Commission … and there’s no enthusiasm for that.
- Who would apply for licences? Flags are erected by individuals and organisations? During focus groups, the frequent refrain was “That’s never going to work”.
- What penalties would be levied? Even for small fine, Paul Nolan noted 377 cases of custodial sentences for non-payment of fines under £50.
“The criminalisation of cultural expression is almost always a bad idea” said Paul Nolan.
[Voluntary protocols and local initiatives] should be encouraged, but they need to go beyond the local arrangements that have been trialled to date.
The approach needs to be standard across Northern Ireland, and must ultimately work to broad societal norms. If the police and other agencies find it difficult to manage and control flags on lamp posts, the answer is not to surrender the situation to a jumble of local arrangements.
A set of guidelines needs to be produced which can act the template for communities across Northern Ireland, and which can form the reference point for discussion between those who wish to put up flags, the local community where the flags are to be erected, representatives of neighbouring communities, the PSNI and other interested parties – this should be a totally open and transparent process. It could be that local Policing and Community Safety Partnerships are the most appropriate vehicle for delivering these local agreements.
“It would take minutes to go from here to find tatty flags that are not being respected” said Dominic Bryan. In the years when
the Institute of Irish Studies monitored flag display in Northern Ireland (2006 to 2010) “the ratio of unionist flags to nationalist flags was approximately 13 to 1 in that period”. Dominic counted flags
He insisted that not recommending legislation around the flying of unofficial flags was not simply taking the easy option as it still asked for changes to present practice.
Three people were invited to respond to the report before discussion with the fifty people in the room.
He criticised public building aspects of the report as “a Belfast-focussed answer” to councils across Northern Ireland. The report was right to link issues, flags, bonfires, graffiti as the approach to constructive progress is similar.
He suggested that the existing regulation of unofficial flags “could be used more and better”. And a legislative base is needed to drive work on the ground as the existing protocols haven’t achieved that much.
There was a “positive obligation to uphold the law”. Currently it looks like laws are not being used and enforced: trespass, criminal damage, harassment, behaviour likely to lead to breach of the peace, the clean neighbourhood and environment act …
Peter Osborne highlighted examples from the news that happened in the same week that drivers in Belfast were warned that they would be prosecuted for driving 10 seconds in a bus lane.
- Graffiti on DRD property on the Donegall Road said “Taigs will be crucified”. A DRD spokesperson said that removal of graffiti could only be carried out with the support of local community.
- On a retail property in North Belfast, graffiti said: “If you’re a hun don’t come in because you won’t get out”.
- The Chobham Street bonfire in Clandeboye led to reaction that the department “doesn’t approve or support unauthorised use of its property … bonfire management is dealt with on an interagency basis … the department remains actively engaged with partner stakeholders to achieve an amicable outcome”. More than £10k of public money was spent.
- Irish flags appeared on a new Felden shared housing development in North Belfast.
He restated that there are existing laws that apply around all of these issues. “The laws are clear” he said, before listing three consequences of the lack of enforcement.
- The vast silent majority ask What’s going on? Who runs this place? Who’s in charge? Can we only upload the law so long as there’s not a riot?
- When police call for information from communities when investigating racist attacks in the same areas, why would people come forward when the issue of graffiti was ignored weeks before?
- Lack of enforcement encourages further bad behaviour.
Difficulty wasn’t an excuse for not looking at legislation. Political consensus was important as was clarity in legislation and enforcement of current legislation. New legislation may not be required, but if required it’ll need political consensus.
Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin said it wasn’t for the police to comment on the public buildings section of the report. In general he argued that solutions to problems created by flags will be found in the political and civic arena, and a criminal justice approach is not the long term answer.
He first tackled Peter Osborne’s comments before reverting to his prepared speech in response to the report. The PSNI had offered to support DRD if they wanted to reduce the height or remove the Chobham Street bonfire, but DRD chose not to intervene in that way without the support of the community.
He noted that historical incidents included in the report showed that “even in the 1950s, police actions in respect of flags were subject, quite rightly, to a great deal of public scrutiny”. The ACC added “even then, in what is cited as a seminal incident near Lurgan, it appears that the approach adopted by the police was to seek a negotiated solution”.
The PSNI was a signatory to the 2005 “flags protocol” (The Joint Protocol in Relation to Flags Flown in Public Areas) and …
… attempted to apply it consistently, however, our experience was that our partners often felt unable to act in support of it. It was quickly established that the Protocol was not having the purchase that was hoped. didn’t have the purchase that was hoped and other partners failed to play their part.
He stressed that the context in which flags are displayed is key and articulated some of the complexity of balancing human rights, adhering to the Code of Ethics (section 4 requires that the PSNI “takes all steps, when planning and controlling police operations, to minimise the likelihood of force being used”), a society that is emerging from conflict but has not fully normalised, as well as the benefit of community support.
Would it always be right for the PSNI to take flags down when it could be foreseeable that the public or police could be injured? Where life is at risk action is taken. Where there is substantial risk of disorder, the particular police action taken mitigates that risk
Overall he welcomed the report as a “a very serious and welcome piece of work, which can provide a basis for further developments around this issue”.
Louise Little (Beyond Walls) works in community development in some of the areas raised by Peter Osborne. She spoke in more detail about the lead up to the problems over flags and the bonfire in Chobham Street – local community worker Aaron McMahon added his perspective during the Q&A – Regenerate’s initiative in Portadown. The group hadn’t been told or forced to do it, they hadn’t been offered money as an incentive. Rather it was an authentic reaction to their work on the ground.
But she cautioned that the pilot protocol would only be sustainable if political leadership was forthcoming, and if there was buy in from the council and agencies.
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It’s clear that while the police analysis is unique to each situation, they are sometimes more willing to act than the government departments and agencies that they would be supporting. Political masters need to show leadership in tackling individual incidents as well as changing the mood around flags and symbols from one of abuse to one of respect.
In the run up to an Assembly election, it is asking a lot for political parties to swallow hard and all agree to pass legislation to allow the Union flag to flutter over council headquarters on 18 designated days. In particular, the DUP would fear the backlash from the TUV, and Sinn Féin would have lost an easy stick with which to poke unionists in west of the Bann councils.
Yet somehow the volume has to be turned down on culture wars. Real lives are affected by intimidation. Real property is threatened when tensions are not contained. Taxes that could be spent on any number of other good causes like health or education are spent on police overtime when the PSNI find themselves on streets and in communities acting as human buffers.
This report is just in time to feed into the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition that A Fresh Start says must be up and running by March 2016 (to report back by September 2017). Perhaps the commission will be able to audit existing local voluntary arrangements around unofficial flags, assess their sustainability and judge whether is any merit in adding any more legislation to the stature books, or whether action would speak louder than written words.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about, reports from, live-tweets and live-streams civic, academic and political events and conferences. He delivers social media training/coaching; produces podcasts and radio programmes; is a FactCheckNI director; a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland; and a member of the Corrymeela Community.