The flags issue may appear to everyone outside of Northern Ireland as a minor issue which simply needs a quick amendment to the law, followed by swift enforcement by the PSNI. I can assure you, as someone reared on a small housing estate in Northern Ireland, this is one of the most highly emotive, deal-breaking, dangers to peace in the province.
We need to break down the flags issue into a number of particular spheres of influence to properly see how and why these will affect peace and why the NI Assembly will need to tread very carefully in their attempts to resolve a situation most of the population don’t recognise as a problem in the first place. There is strong public support for the flying of flags, particularly around the annual parade season, the differences appear regarding specific aspects surrounding the issue.
The flags issue can be split into three individual sub-issues:
- Flags on government buildings
- Flags on lampposts & other state property
- The sovereignty surrounding current flags & the potential for a new NI flag
In this article, I am going to focus on flags on lampposts, given it may be the most important, if not dangerous, issue in the debate. I’ll also refer mostly to Loyalist flags, since that is my background/upbringing, but the Nationalist flags issue is not dissimilar.
Basil McCrea tables amendment to the Justice Bill regarding flags on lampposts
Basil McCrea, MLA for Lagan Valley and current leader of NI21, has been vociferous on the flags issue for many years. It led to his party whip being removed in December 2012 and ultimately to divisions which drove him away from the UUP to set up NI21 (a new Unionist party) alongside John McCallister. The final nail in the coffin of Basil’s relationship with the UUP came in the dispute over the Mid Ulster by-election, 2013. Basil would be seen as a more Liberal-minded Unionist and the further co-operation between the UUP and DUP over this by-election was a step too far for his progressive beliefs.
Basil McCrea is a crucial voice for Unionism in NI. His open-minded approach, coupled with his willingness to actually talk/debate issues head-on, offers potential for compromise and progress which is sadly lacking in the rhetoric and stubborn attitudes displayed by the other main Unionist parties (DUP & UUP). As with any NI MLA, he doesn’t speak for everyone, but there is increasing support among the populous to open meaningful debate and to reach some level of compromise.
Basil has signalled his intention to introduce an amendment to the Justice (No 2) Bill currently coming before the NI Assembly, dealing specifically with the issue of flags on lampposts.
I discussed this briefly with Basil, one of the few MLA’s who is always open to debate, on Twitter. This conversation, coupled with his focus in his own video, suggests to me that his main point of opposition to flags on lampposts is that they tend to be left up for too long, disintegrating into tattered remains, which he found disrespectful and generally an eyesore.
I have to agree totally with him on this, it is disrespectful to leave a tattered remnant of a flag flying when the whole justification by those flying them in the first place is to respect their sovereignty, show support and pay respect to their culture and history, regardless of which side of the divide.
Where will this lead?
Where I would slightly part company with Basil McCrea on this issue is on how to deal with it. To legislate and ban the flying of flags on lampposts would cause uproar in NI, on a scale many times worse than the previous protests against the restrictions introduced regarding the flying of the Union Flag on government buildings.
Basil has said he doesn’t intend to ban the flying of flags, merely introduce some restrictions. He has realised the emotive issue this would become and how much it would detract from other important Assembly business, whilst highlighting the fact that something needs to be done to address these eyesores, blotting the beauty of NI’s many pockets of housing. It is how this is brought forward and communicated to the people who control these flags which is crucial, if anything is to be addressed at all.
If those in control of erecting the flags are not consulted properly and the PSNI try to enforce any restrictions on the flying of flags on lampposts, the country will descend into chaos very quickly. The moment it is decided restrictions are unfair, or there is disagreement over details, there will be an immediate surge in flags erected on a mass scale throughout the province. To ask the PSNI to enforce restrictions will place an impossible drain on resources and will lead to direct confrontation, further endangering the fragile peace on streets throughout NI. There are always calls for the PSNI or Council workers to directly remove flags, but this causes too much friction and should be avoided if any compromise is to be reached.
Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not suggesting it would descend into a rekindled ‘Troubles’, but it would almost certainly lead to mass civil disobedience throughout the province. This, as we all know, would conclude with violence and destruction of property on a level which can only harm the reputation of NI and any attempts at economic recovery. The flags issue would become more pressing as the sheer numbers and their increased paramilitary-nature would be a feature of any protests.
Who controls these flags?
It is important that we understand who actually controls the flags which are mounted in large numbers throughout the province.
Firstly, these are decided upon at a local level, amongst prominent local representatives for particular areas – mainly individual housing estates or rural villages.
In a Loyalist area, these local representatives would be people such as prominent Orange Lodge members, current/ex-Paramilitaries or community workers. Whilst outsiders have always looked upon these people working together on a local level as some sort of orchestrated collusion, this is not necessarily the fact, it is more a hierarchical approach brought about amongst people who live together in a small area, people who have been reared alongside one another, grew up together, and who share similar views on where NI should be in terms of sovereignty.
Nationalist Estates are similar, obviously without Orange Lodge members, but with a strong influence from current/ex-Paramilitary members and locally-respected community workers.
Control of things such as bonfires, flags, arches, etc. is completely within the remit of these local representatives and they tend to be responsible for the collection and purchase of flags erected annually on lampposts.
Nationalist areas have their own policy on flag display, choosing mostly to have the Irish Tricolour flying all year round in specific areas, with a cyclical increase in certain months to coincide with Hibernians Day, St Patrick’s Day and suchlike.
Loyalists make more of a fuss over flags, most areas having something on display all year around (some have flagpoles specifically for this, some just use lampposts at main intersections) with all areas erecting the bulk of their annual flags to cover the period from early July to late August (the July 12th and August Black Saturday parades being their main drivers).
The Union Flag and Ulster Banner would make up the majority of flags flown in Loyalist areas, peppered with specific flags which would pay homage to specific Paramilitary groups (mainly UVF or UDA related) and historical events, such as Battle of the Somme, etc. You could even see the Israeli flag on display as a show of solidarity, Nationalists would display the flag of Palestine in similar fashion.
The non-Paramilitary flags can be controlled by local representatives who do not necessarily have any links or even love for Paramilitaries, but the Paramilitary-related flags will always be controlled by those with some sort of links or sympathies for these organisations. Nobody outside this group can touch or move these paramilitary flags without the say-so of the local representatives.
Local representatives co-ordinate each year, directly or indirectly, to ensure there is some level of cohesive plan for flag erection and for local celebrations (bonfires, festivals, etc.). You could often see groups working together in their area to erect flags, arches, etc. – again I would stress this is a local and informal arrangement, between people who grew up and live together and who have some influence on local events, each with their own aspect and sphere of local influence.
The one thing all of these local representatives have in common is – they will erect their flags, regardless of how much pressure is applied to them by authorities and the PSNI. Local authorities can talk to them, but their influence is limited if they cannot gain local agreement and direct confrontation tends to lead to more problems.
The moment legislation offends these local representatives sense of tradition, there will be a massive call to flood each area with flags and protests, ultimately lawlessness, will result.
What can be done?
If Basil is serious in his desire to focus on the removal of tattered flag remnants or to try to gain some sort of agreeable regulations/restrictions on the flying of flags from lampposts, he needs to do this via local representatives or his attempts will fail.
Local Councils currently have schemes providing a forum for Loyalist Bonfires throughout their borough, engaging directly with local representatives from each area, alongside PSNI, Fire Service and Council Environmental Health representatives. These have been running for many years in some Council boroughs, less time in others.
These forums have led to discussion and compromise on a lot of issues surrounding the annual Bonfires, such as:
- The reduction of tyres and other toxic material
- Material collection times
- Local fire safety issues
- Event stewardship and policing
- Festivals and community bonfire-related events
How these bonfire forums have worked so well is because they are open discussions, with representatives from each area of influence, sat around a table and thrashing out agreeable compromises which can be adhered to and which are mutually beneficial to all involved.
A similar approach would be required if we are to address the flags on lampposts issue. A local Council-led forum is required, inviting representatives from each estate/village to meet with relevant authority representatives on a regular basis to discuss and progress gradual improvements surrounding the flags issue.
Once local representatives were consulted, I have absolutely no doubt that progress could be made on some of the key problems immediately, including:
- The numbers and make-up of flags flown
- Dates for erection and removal
- Replacing and removing tattered flags
Without the agreement of the local representatives who actually have influence over the erection of flags, there will be no peaceful way to make any forward steps regarding the issue. The moment the Assembly tries to force legislation upon them, they will react and protest.
What the NI Assembly needs to understand is that these local representatives do not only wield influence over their own areas, they retain massive support on this issue in those areas and can count on this support in the event of mass flag-related demonstrations.
Nationalist representatives could be approached in a similar fashion, maybe even some sort of cross-community discussions could be provided too, to reach compromise over the contentious areas – though these would be more difficult and slow-moving discussions.
Basil has raised the topic, it certainly should be addressed, but an Assembly-level legal intervention will not bear any fruit other than provide ammunition to those who would see continuation of the status quo and dissuade compromise.