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Flagging up a shared future

(Editorial, Irish News)

A fortnight ago, to remarkably little fanfare, the direct rule administration published an important policy document called A Shared Future.

For the first time since partition it committed government – any government – to addressing the fact that Northern Ireland is a deeply divided society.

Alongside it was published research, from the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen's University, on an emotive issue: flags.

Flags say much about who we are.

They can symbolise a civic-minded patriotism, which need not be in opposition to other nationalities.

But in Northern Ireland flags all too often say who we are not.

They become mere ethnic boundary markers or, often worse, emblems of paramilitary defiance.

They constrain where we can live, where we can work and where we feel secure.

In so doing, they reduce the life chances of those who are already most disadvantaged.

For too long government departments and agencies have passed the parcel of responsibility to one another.

The Queen's researchers recommended a partnership approach and protocols on when and where flags can – and cannot – be flown. This was echoed in A Shared Future.

Yesterday the police, the Housing Executive and four government departments launched such a joint protocol on the flying of flags.

The aim is to work with community organisations to take down paramilitary displays; remove flags from arterial routes and town centres; control displays in particular areas, such as at interfaces or near public buildings; and limit flag-flying to particular times.

This would not solve the problem. As one astute community worker pointed out, it could be seen as freeing the middle class from experiencing unsightly flags while leaving the poor confined to ghettoised neighbourhoods to face them still.

But it would represent a clear step towards a more normal society.

The research has also highlighted the uncertainty of the law.

It pointed out that what was wrong with the infamous Flags and Emblems Act – repealed in 1987 – was not that it regulated flags but that the Union flag was exempted.

New legislation which would put different national flags on an equal footing would clarify the position.

A forward-looking solution would be a new regional emblem for Northern Ireland.

The assembly had no difficulty agreeing on its flax-flowers logo and all departments now use another based on the Giant's Causeway.

Such a flag could be flown alone, or alongside the Tricolour and the Union flag – but only if both were flown – or along with the European Union emblem.

Now that would be a positive statement about who we are.

Yesterday, the Republic's minister for foreign affairs, Dermot Ahern, said it was time to move beyond 'the comfortable dichotomies of British versus Irish, unionist versus nationalist' which deepen division.

This would be a good start.

April 6, 2005
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This article appeared first in the April 5, 2005 edition of the Irish News.


This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News



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