Sunday, September 15, 2013

NI21 call for flags to be respected, ministers to pledge a flag commitment; councils to regulate; but flags aren't the only issue?

Tonight, NI21 have launched an intervention into the debate around flags.

There’s a statement from Basil McCrea, a position paper and even a video – all focussed on a call for flags to be respected. It’s notable that the video is very careful to balance shots of Union flags and Irish tricolours. The messaging is not aimed at just one community – though perhaps one community is where the strongest reaction and criticism will come from.

The statement takes a middle of the road, perhaps even middle class position on identity and quotes a “silent majority” in “the Life and Times Survey [showing] that 74% of the population do not support the flying of flags from lampposts in their neighbourhood”.

Does the Union flag represent the United Kingdom or is it a marker in a sectarian battlefield? When the flag of the country hangs tattered from a lamppost, so does our society. When it is wrapped around someone during a riot or used to attack the police, it is defiled. In no other country would this be allowed.

The Union flag and the flags of all states should be treated with respect by Governments, politicians and individuals within society – the Union flag and the flag of other states are not and should not be used as tribal symbols.

This year there are more flags, bigger flags and more overtly challenging flags on the streets of Northern Ireland. The flying of UVF flags with the simple expedient of adding the number 1913 does not make them historical artefacts. What happened to the loyalism which took many risks to deliver peace?
The statement goes on to say that the “the flying of flags in such a manner is a form of intimidation, it is sectarian and yes, it does deter investment, it does destroy business and it does make a house harder to sell”.
It is time for such flags to come down … We have lost control of our public spaces to faceless individuals with no interest in a common future. When it is deemed acceptable to burn national flags and let them be used as markers of segregation, our society and democracy are in a bad place …

There is a need to reclaim the streets and help bring genuine civic pride back into disaffected communities. As Northern Ireland slides towards the hard-line the potential consequences of doing and saying nothing continues to grow. To live in a modern, tolerant and peaceful democracy is a privilege. It is not guaranteed. It is worth defending. It is worth voting for.
The Position Paper on the NI21 website contains more detail and thinking from the fledgling party.
NI21 believes the Union Flag should be flown on designated days on Government Buildings.

NI21 believes the Union Flag should be flown on main council buildings on designated days.

NI21 believes that the manner in which Politicians and Ministers talk about, use and reflect upon official flags and symbols has a direct impact upon the way groups and communities within society use flags and symbols. For example when political representatives say things like, ‘it is ok to burn a national flag on a bonfire’, it calls into question the legitimacy of all national flags and suggests to others that it is ok to use a national flag as a tool to divide.

So NI21 suggest that a “flag commitment” is added to the ministerial pledge of office, proposing the wording:
Despite differing and legitimate political opinions and objectives, Ministers of the Northern Ireland Executive pledge to publicly recognise the Union flag as it represents the current constitutional status of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland’s place within it. Ministers of the Northern Ireland Executive further pledge to publicly respect the regional flags of England, Scotland and Wales, UK standards and ensigns, the flag of the Republic of Ireland and all other national flags.

Around festivals and sporting events, NI21 feel that “local councils are the most appropriate and legitimate body to manage the use of flags”.
Organisations should make an application to a local council to place identified flags or emblems on public property in association with a given official festival, public event or sporting event. Such flags should be attributable to a specific organisation or individual as per regulations pertaining to election posters.

In the case of legal festivals, flags and emblems, the local council should be minded to accept applications; however, they should take into consideration any specific advice from the PSNI.

Councils should make all approvals time bound and if the applicant organisation does not remove their flags on the deadline the council should employ an agreeable third party to remove the flags with the relevant organisation being billed for the cost.
Very much following the example of how election posters are regulated and removed … though ignoring the potential personal security implications for anyone caught taking down a flag.

When I read the initial statement earlier this afternoon, my instinct was that the danger of attacking flags (or suggesting that they be respected and not left up to rot) is that it ignores one of the few sources of pride and value that remains in some communities. It needs to be joined up with positive intervention and listening to how working class communities have been left behind.

Flags aren't the underlying issue that needs to be fixed. They're a symptom. Admittedly a tatty symptom. Respecting flags won't immediately fix social deprivation.

Where is the early years focus? An education system that isn’t skewed to favouring the top end. Welfare reform that can be coupled with training and the hope of jobs? Finding ways of valuing health? While NI21 may not expect a flurry of working class votes, as a party seeking to be progressive they should never fear serving and improving the lot of communities outside their catchment or electoral clique.

Then at the end of the NI21 position paper I spotted the beginnings of an admission that the road to flag respect is paved with many other issues …
In this regard NI21 believes that a more proactive approach must be taken by politicians and lead Government agencies to bring down permanent flags from the main thoroughfares of Northern Ireland.

NI21 recognises that for many communities which are facing significant social problems such as unemployment, health inequalities, and educational underachievement, association with flags and symbols can be a source of pride and security.

NI21 is committed to working with all communities to help address these socio-economic issues. However, NI21 believes that the removal of permanent flags and paramilitary emblems will help communities develop. NI21 believes in and supports the positive development, celebration of local identities and community history which can help build civic pride beyond an association with a single flag or symbol. [emphasis added]
It’s good to see that after a few regional meetings and after their summer school NI21 have finally started to articulate some policies. Other parties will scoff at the approach.

I’m not sure Alliance will be able to find much to fault – other than the impracticality of following through with any of it without DUP and Sinn Fein support. NI21 will need to work hard if they choose to go beyond words in order to become champions for the other issues that the “faceless men” who put up flags - and their families - care about. That's when they'll really challenge the other parties.

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