Tuesday, June 5, 2012

You can’t eat a flag

Having lived under the yoke of several desperately inefficient London local authorities, I have a huge amount of respect for Belfast City Council. I love the parks, the events, my compost bin and the City Matters magazine. I know the Council is genuinely committed to promoting the city and creating jobs through economic development. I also respect the work that’s been done on good relations. In general, I’m a very happy little ratepayer.

However, the Council has now decided to get cracking on the issue of flag-flying. Following a meeting last week, it is most likely that the Union flag will no longer be flown every day from City Hall, or if it is then it may be joined by other flags. Six options are to be put out for consultation (although as yet the consultation document is not available):

  1. Continue to fly the Union flag every day
  2. Fly the Union flag on designated days such as the Queen’s birthday
  3. As above plus extra days ‘when appropriate’
  4. No flag at all
  5. A new, ‘neutral’ flag
  6. Both the Union flag and the Irish tricolour flying alongside each other (unclear for how many days a year)
I’m not saying the issue doesn’t matter. The Belfast Telegraph story has attracted 185 comments so far, and the Facebook page around 150. I also do believe it’s time to look at the possibility of change and I appreciate the chill factor element embodied for some in the Union flag – in fact, as an English person who lived in London during the 1980s, I have my own instinctive recoil due to its use by the far Right in those days.

What I object to is the consultation element. Apparently we are to have 16 weeks to make up our minds what we think about this, and the Council will make a final decision on November 1st. Well, how about I predict the results?

  • Unionists/ loyalists: Option 1
  • Liberal unionists: Options 2 and 3
  • Middle ground types such as Alliance supporters and myself: Options 4 and 5; majority of civil society groups also here. CRC offers to run competition for schoolchildren to design new flag
  • Liberal nationalists: Option 5 (amendment: and 4)
  • Nationalists and republicans: Option 6; republicans as a transitional stage to Option 7, Tricolour only.
No doubt there is a legal reason why there needs to be consultation, but I would like to see some leadership here. Belfast City Council includes elected representatives from all the groups listed above. Councillors should have the courage to debate this difficult issue and come to a decision themselves. To present the public with a series of options is an abdication of responsibility.
Not only that, it’s also expensive. How much does it cost to run the consultation process, including an analysis of the responses, the writing of another committee report and the time taken to debate the issue all over again? At the current time, economic development should be the Council’s top priority and the decision on flag-flying should be the one that contributes the most to making the city feel safe and attractive for investment as well as for those of us who live here. Make a decision, councillors, and then get out and sell it to us.


Anonymous said...

Would it be too simplistic to fly the Belfast coat of arms? Perhaps this would ease some tension around the subject, or then again it wouldn't be contentious enough for some of the locals hell bent on winding 'the other side' up!

Jenny Muir said...

Anon - I like it! But unlike your rather optimistic view of why it wouldn't be popular, I suspect someone will find something contentious about it

Anonymous said...

In truth Jenny I find your naivety in expecting tribal councillors to find compromise over a devisive issue, which in effect is all to do with the constitutional arrangement of the six counties, quite irrational.

In almost all issues such as this the Equality Commission or some such body are required so as to have a level of legality or force of law behind it so as to impose an outcome.

In reality unionist councillors would settle for nothing other than the union flag flying 1690 days a year.
Compromise must be foisted upon such intransigence and the only possible means of doing so comes from an outside body with leagally binding judgements, which can ofcourse be challenged in law.

A quick check of how other councils have dealt with similar issues would have informed you of this.

You may well summise from my response that I am a nationalist/republican and you would be correct.

But the facts are that it is nationalist/republicans who are open to compromise and welcome the intervention of outside bodies to force, yes force, compromise from the unionist partys.

Jenny Muir said...

Anon - What nonsense. I see no evidence that either side is more interested in compromise than the other. I could rewrite your comments substituting 'nationalist' for 'unionist'; 'Irish flag' for 'union flag' and 'unionist/ loyalist' for 'nationalist/ republican' and the post would still have expressed the views of a substantial proportion of the population.

However I am interested in the examples you say I have missed and it would be useful to include them in a further comment - are they in NI or elsewhere?

Anonymous said...

Not nonsense at all Jenny. The data is actually easy to find for those that care to take of the blinkers and recognise that the 'one side is as bad as the other' is a cliche that is wrong on many occasions.

Here is a breakdown of the flags protocol for other council areas.


In unionist controlled councils the union flag is invariably flown every day and in some cases from many council building aswell as the council chambers.

In nationalist controlled councils invariably the union flag is flown on designated days, or indeed they decided no flag should be flown.

In conclusion, your contention that you could rewrite my post "substituting 'nationalist' for 'unionist'; 'Irish flag' for 'union flag' and 'unionist/ loyalist' for 'nationalist/ republican'" is patently untrue.

Especially as not one nationlist/republican controlled council flys the Irish Tricolour.

I suggest you email the DUP and ask them how often the union flag should fly from Belfast City Hall, then do similar with Sinn Fein.

I have no doubt from the DUP you will get intansegence and from SF suggestions for compromise.

Anonymous said...

Apologies, for the link please see pages 32 and 33 for the relevent breakdown of flags protocol for each council.

Also, although I am a republican, my posts here are not an attack on unionism, rather statements of fact on the unionist position regarding the flying of the union flag from govt building.
One of pure intransegence.

Anonymous said...

I see you have gone quiet Jenny.
Perhaps a wise decision.

Lets see what the Newsletter has to say on the matter shall we ?

"UNIONISTS in Belfast’s council chamber have not given up hope of keeping the Union Flag flying at the City Hall, according to the DUP.

The issue of the flag – which has split unionists and nationalists along traditional lines – has given Alliance representatives the deciding vote when the council reviews its policy in the coming weeks.

At present, Belfast City Council flies the national flag every day of the year but nationalists are in favour of it only being flown on a few designated days.

Writing in today’s News Letter, the leader of the council’s Alliance grouping, Maire Hendron, says the position of her party has not changed since the matter was referred for an Equality Impact Assessment in 2002 and again in 2011 – when the recommendation both times was that the flag should only fly on certain days such as the Queen’s birthday."

The leader of the Sinn Fein grouping in the City Hall said........."Our suggestion is that we fly a civic flag that unites everyone in the city "


I see you agreed earlier with the Belfast coat of arms/ a civic flag, just as SF have suggested.

Sounds like you should leave Labour and join SF.
If you decide to stick with Labour atleast educate yourself and your colleagues.

Jenny Muir said...

Anon - you misunderstand my silence - it's been caused by (i) having to work for money (ii) writing Labour's response to the NIO consultation document on the future of the Assembly (iii) thinking about your previous comments so that I can give them the response they deserve. You will get something, probably at the weekend, which addresses the issues you raise and ignores the personal comments, which I think is the correct way to proceed.

Anonymous said...

Many thanks Jenny and apologies for the tone of some of my comments, perhaps I took the dismissive 'nonsense' initial reply from you to heart.
I think we can both learn from that.

I sincerely look forward to hearing your views.

Jenny Muir said...

Anon - hew, that was a busy week.... so let’s start with the final point. I think a civic flag would be a great idea, but the implication of your tongue in cheek conclusion is that the proposal is a nationalist proposal and that everyone who supports it is a nationalist. I am in the position of recognising that both unionists and nationalists sometimes have good ideas but that I don’t accept our politics has to be undertaken on the fundamental basis of which country we want to be part of. For those of us who don’t care, a civic flag makes even more sense as it doesn't force us to recognise any national allegiance.

Now let’s turn to the question of which tribe is the least tolerant of the other – which is what we’re really talking about here. And thank you very much for the Limavady document. The information in Appendix 3 is also used (updated to 2004 I think) here http://www.ofmdfmni.gov.uk/flags.pdf which includes a review of flag flying in GB and the RoI. The document I wrote the post about is an updated EQIA: http://www.belfastcity.gov.uk/equality/impact.asp This shows the position has polarised since 2004, with as you say more unionist councils flying the flag every day, and national councils in general flying no flag, although see this post by Ian Parsley: http://ianjamesparsley.wordpress.com/2012/06/12/the-tricolour-northern-ireland-and-salami-tactics/

Should the Irish Tricolour fly in NI? Yes on St Patrick’s Day, alongside the Union flag, to represent our dual heritage. No doubt there are a few other days where it could be agreed, even today, such as the President’s birthday (can’t think of any others!). No to acknowledge events that offend the other main community, in the same way that the Union flag should not fly to commemorate events internal to NI on that basis such as 12th July (which is not proposed except by default by unionists who want to fly it all the time).

So are nationalists more tolerant than unionists because they don’t propose a parallel flying of the Tricolour every day of the year in councils where they have control? No. They know perfectly well that they wouldn't get support for it and that the logic would puzzle many including those visiting and seeking to invest in NI. Whether you like it or not, the two arguments are not a mirror image of each other. I need to state clearly here that I'm no unionist (and Labour is not a unionist party, which I know some people have an interest in trying to prove), but in NI we are still part of the Union at the present time and polls indicate that’s likely to be true for a good while yet.

But a major reason why I think a new flag (or no flag at all) would be preferable is that we as a society need to find a way of not spending any more time on this when welfare reform and other government cuts loom.

Anonymous said...

Shall we let the DUP/UUP speak for themselves re tolerance ?

"The Alliance Party has said its staff have been subjected to "many abusive and nasty" calls after the distribution of a leaflet about Union flag policy.

The leaflet claims Alliance has sided with Sinn Fein and the SDLP to stop the Union flag flying at Belfast City Hall on all but a few days each year.

Up to 40,000 of the leaflets have been distributed in a joint operation carried out by DUP and UUP activists."


Have as many twists and turns as you like.
Nationalists are open to compromise.

Unionists demand "the union flag to remain on city hall 365 ays a year" (see link)