The DUP and loyalists have announced that they have agreed a new flags protocol for the flying of loyalist flags in the mixed residential area of Ballynafeigh. They have decided, between themselves, that their flags will be flown from lamp posts in these mixed residential areas for a quarter of the year, going up and being taken down on dates that they have independently determined for the benefit of all else residing in these mixed areas.
Proclaiming the good news ahead of this year’s loyalist Marching Season, DUP MLA Christopher Stalford stated his belief that “shared space” should not have to be “neutral space.”
Cue the first bang of the Big Drum.
The arrogance of declaring this to be an ‘agreement’ betrays the residual supremacist mindset that continues to bedevil unionism and frustrate efforts to foster good relations across this society.
On yesterday’s BBC Radio Ulster Talkback programme, Christopher Stalford readily conceded that unionists were a minority in the area, yet still brazenly felt comfortable declaring that the same loyalists should be indulged by the majority in bedecking the area for a quarter of the year in loyalist flags.
It is not surprising that the announcement was widely ridiculed as but the latest effort by loyalists to lay claim to mixed communities. The DUP has a track record of seeking to provide political cover for loyalists engaged in such bully boy antics, so their endorsement has not come as any surprise.
In this area alone, loyalists fought a battle for years to continue being allowed to march through the nationalist Lower Ormeau district before being forced by the Parades Commission to abandon the provocative and contentious route.
Whether it is the routing of parades or flying of flags, political unionism has a problem accepting the idea of a shared and equal society because it necessitates conceding the existence of Others (those pesky others can come in many forms, demanding language rights, same sex marriage and even control over their own bodies these days.)
The very fact that loyalists and the DUP thought it acceptable to chat exclusively amongst themselves to come up with an agreement to impose upon a majority in a mixed residential area is revealing in itself.
Perhaps surprisingly, the South Belfast Green Party MLA Clare Bailey welcomed the announcement on Talkback, though her reasoning was far from clear. Clare’s first mistake was in suggesting this was an “agreement,” descending into farce when she positively cited the suggestion that there would be only one loyalist flag (Union Flag or the ‘NI Flag’) per lamp post and that they would all remain up for three months. She then implied that people were “demonizing” loyalist working class communities by speaking against the erection of loyalist flags in mixed residential areas, which certainly is a novel angle to take.
What is clear is that the loyalist/DUP objective is to roll out this protocol across mixed residential communities beyond the Ormeau Road.
Part of the motivation for the loyalists- and DUP- is to continue to assert the superior position of Britishness within mixed residential communities and shared spaces in general.
This has been the defining feature of unionism’s approach to parading, an approach which caused considerable instability in society until the establishment of a regulatory body (in the form of the Parades Commission) finally led to a consistent approach which has improved community relations markedly.
Having failed to prevent the establishment of that regulatory body for parading, the DUP and loyalists are desperate to prevent a regulatory approach to both the flying of flags and management of bonfires. Their short-sightedness in this regard has been pointed out by many, so far to no avail. Those with most to gain from the regulation of bonfires are the working-class protestant communities who annually play host to these spectacles.
The flags issue is important because it highlights how, geographically, Northern Ireland continues to be sharply divided into two types of residential areas: single identity and shared. As an aside, many of our cultural and sporting experiences can be organised under the same two headings, which is why the playing of the British national anthem at the shared event that was the Irish Cup final proved to be contentious earlier this month. Our interfaces are many and varied, existing in concrete and abstract form.
In the early 1990s, David McKittrick produced a report illustrating the extent of segregation that then existed across the state. The overwhelming majority of people, Catholic or Protestant, resided in areas which could confidently be labeled as being of one community or the other.
In spite of the almost quarter of a century of peace that has followed, the north continues to be a place in which people prefer the relative sense of comfort and safety of residing amongst their own.
Within such single identity communities, the flying of flags or hosting of parades does not warrant comment on grounds of offence caused to neighbours as the overwhelming number of residents share the same religious or cultural background. This is why, for instance, a loyalist parade to remember deceased loyalist paramilitaries was able to take place in Ballysillan at the weekend without any public comment.
Mischievously, Christopher Stalford attempted to justify the flying of loyalist flags in Ballynafeigh on the grounds that republican flags and murals can often be seen in the Lower Ormeau district, a deliberate apples and oranges comparison which fools no one in a society where people instinctively know that a more appropriate comparison for the overwhelmingly nationalist Lower Ormeau district would be loyalist Ballysillan.
That said, the demographic profile of many residential areas has changed in a pronounced manner over the past two decades. South Belfast, in particular, has always been a place in which the two communities co-existed. This played a central part in attracting people from many other backgrounds to choose to make this part of the city their home.
How we manage cultural and political expression in shared spaces (both residential, town centres and elsewhere) will be crucial to persuading people to make the move from single to shared, as the (to date) minor attempts at cultivating shared residential communities have shown.
In the absence of a political consensus on how to achieve that, it is likely that there will continue to be flashpoints and incidents which accumulatively have the effect of discouraging people from making the decisive move, unless and until voices are raised in unison from within such communities- with support from the PSNI- to frustrate those seeking to cause discord.
Alternatively, parties could devise what could genuinely be described as a protocol for shared living in conjunction with existing mixed communities, recognising that shared space can be either neutral or reflective of all traditions. People know the difference.