Just what is it about flags and emblems that generates such heated debate in North?

Story by Tom Kelly

Wednesday, 9th January, 2013 4:57pm

Just what is it about flags and emblems that generates such heated debate in North?

A few years ago, I participated in a cross-border conference in west Cork aimed at creating a dialogue between nationalist and unionist/loyalist factions from the North.

As part of its proceedings, the conference broke up into workshops and I agreed to act as interlocutor at one of the sessions.

In organising the group, I tried to create a semi-circle of participants in which all opinions would be represented, but without identifying any particular faction. That didn't work. People preferred to retreat into their own tribal enclaves and, to be fair, felt most comfortable there. It was a big deal to get them to the conference in the first place.

For many of them, this was their very first trip outside of Northern Ireland and the organisers were expecting them to shed some of their inhibitions about mixing with "the other side". So they lined up in the room, nationalists down one side of the room, loyalists on the other.

This side conference got off to a good start and there were some tentative attempts to get to an understanding of how "the other side" might feel about certain issues. The fact that they all came from lower income groups in Belfast, and shared many of the problems and privations endemic in those areas, failed to create a common bond.

The session deteriorated into the normal (for them) process of delving into 'whataboutery', ie, "What about this atrocity conducted against decent loyalist people?"; "What about that awful thing you did to decent republican people?"

As a Southerner trying to understand the dynamics of Northern society, I suggested that people should try to rise, even slightly, above their own immediate tribunal outlook, to take a global and objective view of the situation.

I got some support for the idea from an Orange Order leader from Derry/Londonderry, but I have to be honest, it didn't get much traction from the other participants. They much preferred to 'rise up' rather than rise above - and the session ended in recrimination and abuse. I didn't consider it a failure because those of us trying to effect reconciliation between the factions felt that we might, just might, have planted a little seed which might bear fruit further down the road.

The current 'flag row', for want of a better phrase, is a case in point. On one side, you have a unionist people who feel they are under siege from the "dark forces" of nationalism who are certain that tribal demographics will deliver the united Ireland they have always sought. This business about what flag flies where doesn't seem to permeate other parts of the British Isles, even from the wilder extremes of Scottish and Welsh nationalism.

We haven't seen any marches there calling for the union flag to be withdrawn from view on public buildings.

Of course, the most ludicrous suggestion of all was that under the 'parity of esteem' movement towards better understanding between the two main factions (a pretty nebulous concept in the context of Northern Ireland), the tricolour ought to be flown alongside the union flag. Now there's a recipe for a real riot.

I heard the writer and commentator Eoghan Harris saying just before Christmas that, in relation to the flag dispute, we must walk in another man's shoes to understand how he feels.

Those of us who live in a pluralist, outward-looking, independent republic would still find it hard to fathom the depths of reasoning among those who feel they need to fight to the very death over the flying of a coloured piece of cloth.

Perhaps they should get a sense of humour and take a lesson from the Groucho Marx School of Ethics: "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them.....well, I have others."

Meanwhile, the retail traders of Belfast and Dublin must sit on the sidelines to await the next interruption in business.

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