After yesterday’s rantier post about the trouble at Belfast City Hall I thought I should write something more in depth.
First, the background. The Belfast City Council (BCC) policy committee voted to remove the flag. The Alliance Party proposed an amendment that would continue to see the flag flown, but only on so-called “designated days” – the same policy used at Stormont. The vote took place last night and the Alliance amendment was accepted by a margin of 29-21 (Sinn Fein, SDLP and Allaince for, DUP and UUP against). (As has been pointed out by others, this technically means that Sinn Fein and SDLP voted in favour of flying the Union flag.)
There was a protest out the back of City Hall that is reported to be approximately 1000 people unhappy with the decision to reduce the number of days the flag flies. Fair enough. They’re entitled to their views and right to free assembly is an important liberal principle. Something that isn’t a liberal principle is the right to violence toward property and people. By Tuesday morning the injuries included “fifteen PSNI officers, two City Hall security staff and a press photographer” (from Slugger O’Toole).
For what it’s worth, I think the Alliance Party took the correct decision. They proposed a compromise that allowed the flag to continue flying without imposing it all year round. After the abuse and underhanded tactics from unionists in the run-up to the vote they could have decided to take the easy (and somewhat petty) choice and abstain, thus having the flag completely removed to spit the Unionists for their tactics. Instead, they stuck by their principles (and Party policy) to support flying the flag on designated days. The fact that they suffered abuse and intimidation for taking a political stance is disgraceful. Any group or individual that attempts to use violence or intimidation to get their political way not a democrat.
Today, we’ve had Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt issue statements condemning the violence. That’s great and is only appropriate that the our politicians support the rule of law. However, they both went on to essentially say that it was the fault of having the debate/vote that caused the problem. Mr Robinson also said:
”The decision to pursue the removal of the flag from city hall and other council buildings, despite warnings of the likely consequential impact on community relations, was foolish and provocative.” [emphasis mine]
It’s the second half of that quote that I have a real problem with. It’s basically saying that “we told you there’d be trouble if we didn’t get our way”. If we took that attitude to every contentious issue that arises then we’d never get anything done. The potential of upsetting one portion of the population isn’t enough to bury certain issue. I don’t think the flag issue needed to be debated now but nor do I think it should have caused as much disruption as it did. Those who took part in the violence should face consequences the deserve for breaking the law.
Once again Belfast has sent out the image that, while better than before, it is still a place with the risk of violence. If that was any other city in the world that I saw on the news then it’d drop way down my list of places to visit or invest. With rising unemployment (to take just one issue of many) how can we afford to send out that image? The Continental Market round the front of City Hall had to close. This isn’t just a bad image for any tourists to take away but it’s bad for the traders. They lost out on time to make money and pursue their livelihoods.
Flags are important in Northern Ireland. Many people from Nationalist and Unionist backgrounds feel that they symbolise an important part of their culture and heritage. I completely understand that. However, that feeling of identity does not give you the right to violence. Sometimes I wonder if the violence we’ve seen last night and at parades isn’t just for the sake of having a bit of a fight.
Personally, I don’t identify with any flag. I don’t think I would even if I lived in a country without all the baggage they bring – flags, patriotism and the like aren’t part of my personality. If we’re going to move forward as a society then we have to find a way to deal with issues like this without erupting in violence every time. That requires leadership in the communities from politicians and community groups. It also requires further links and interaction between both political traditions at the level of ordinary people. Only by interacting and engaging in sensible debate can we move on. Sensible debate requires people to be willing to engage with each other. We’re never going to get everyone to agree on everything. That’s fine. But we should be getting people to talk to each other on the ground because it seems to me that some of our political leaders are unwilling to make that step. How we do that is a harder question.