You know summer is on the way in Northern Ireland, when we get 3 straight days of sunshine, prompting an outbreak of ‘taps aff’. Anyone unfortunate to witness the sight of some local men wandering the streets half naked, knows that a row about flags is just around the corner.
A few weeks ago, just off the Ravenhill Road, a part of the world I call my home, four loyalist paramilitary flags went up on lampposts overnight, near a shared housing estate. They were removed the next day by local loyalists. But this also came on the back of IRA D company flags and symbols being put outside the main entrance to the Royal Victoria Hospital on the Falls Road.
Let’s call them both for what they were, attempts to create division and stir up hatred and fear. Ceasefire soldiers trying to make themselves feel important.
We are now 20 odd years on from when we collectively decided that slaughtering each other wasn’t quite working out, and that a new political landscape had to emerge.
But as much as we try to develop a new politics, old remnants linger.
Look at it this way – in the next few weeks in the Lower Ravenhill area, a predominantly working class loyalist community, Union flags will go up on the lampposts, as they will across other other parts of Northern Ireland.
Now as someone who lives close by, and who isn’t a loyalist, how do I deal with that?
If I believe in the concept of tolerance, do I have to accept that this display within this community, whilst not my thing, is something that is longstanding and of value? And as long as paramilitary emblems and images are nowhere to be seen, then this is fair enough?
I would rather not see any flag on any lamppost, and it is down to the individual to choose to put them up on their own property. And it definitely should not be the case that local boys are telling everyone they have to have a flag outside their house.
I also believe that in much more mixed and diverse areas, things get difficult. And that local agreements have to be to the fore. With protocols in place and stuck to. If the overwhelming opinion of a local area is that it wishes to remain free of political symbols, then this must be respected.
No doubt some will object to any kind of flags and emblems, seeing them simply as the marking of territory. But we’ve been doing this for the past few hundred years, and it’s part of our heritage, especially in working class areas.
So maybe the question should be – not how to we make it all stop. But instead, where do we draw the line? What is the correct response to demand the removal of murals that are genuine expressions of republican and loyalist cultural identity? Do we ask the local GAA or Irish League team that have reached a Cup final to remove their flags too?
I keep hearing terms such as ‘shared future believer/advocate’ thrown about, and I’ve an objection to this myself…
I don’t want a shared future, I want a shared now. And I want one that is comfortable with the many rough edges we have. I can think of nothing worse than a bland, sterile and insipid society. One that sneers at our working class communities, because they hold views that go against ours, and challenge our own personal norms.
Many of us live in bubbles and echo chambers, alongside opinions similar to our own. We carry this through to social media, and move in circles where we only hear what we find acceptable.
But how about this – for anyone on Twitter – go and follow five people who are the polar opposite of your political opinions. As long as you’re not exposing yourself to the promotion of bigotry or violence, try and put yourself in their shoes.
I’ll finish by going back to that word ‘tolerance’. The Oxford English dictionary defines it as; the ability or willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions or behaviour that one dislikes or disagrees with.
There is also a great Northern Irish term. ‘Suck it up’. Maybe tolerance is about sometimes sucking it up, knowing that it doesn’t float your boat, but as long as it’s peaceful, you should maybe try to roll with it.