Dearbhail McDonald: Great care is needed if flag of hard-won peace is to keep flying
I WISH that acute embarrassment during the high-profile visit to Dublin and Belfast of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the only consequence of the unholy flags row.
Instead, the ever-fragile peace process – and the new democratic era heralded by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement – is itself under attack following death threats against East Belfast MP Naomi Long, the deputy leader of the Alliance Party.
Earlier this week, the Alliance Party tried to broker a compromise between nationalists and unionists on Belfast City Council when it voted to limit the flying of the Union Flag at Belfast's City Hall. The Union Jack flag had previously been flown every single day.
The Alliance Party, SDLP and Sinn Fein members on the council voted to limit the flying of the flag on 17 designated days – the same policy as Stormont, home of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The DUP and Ulster Unionists opposed the move.
The 29-21 vote sparked outrageous scenes of violence by loyalists at City Hall; an Alliance party office was later destroyed and the home of two of its councillors attacked – including that of Christine Bower, whose house in Bangor, Co Down, was 'paint-bombed'.
Then came the death threats against Mrs Long and others.
It is easy (as many do) to dismiss the importance of flags, or "flegs" as we northerners call them. At one level, they're just pieces of cloth on a pole. But these enduring symbols and emblems matter as they go to the heart of our history and nationhood as well as our cultural and political identity.
In the past, flags of all hues have been used as tools of oppression and division and, all too often, blood has been shed over them.
Politicians north and south, as well as in Westminster, have basked for more than a decade in the international acclaim of doing what others could not: securing peace in Northern Ireland.
The Good Friday Agreement was a landmark achievement worthy of such global plaudits, but the real challenge lies in sustaining it.
The architects of the agreement promised not just an eradication of violence and bigotry but a lasting peace followed, in subsequent phases, by economic prosperity and equality.
Stormont has been unfortunate that the path to economic prosperity has been floored by a worldwide recession, one felt even more acutely in the North because of the bailout in the south.
But it is frightening to think that the very social and economic conditions that gave birth to the Troubles in the 1960s, including high youth unemployment, are haunting the North again.
It was members of the Catholic community in the 1960s that were under siege.
But now, as population trends shift – Catholics are poised to become the majority in the North in the not too distant future – it is Protestants (especially young, unemployed ones) who feel their identity is under threat.
That population shift is reflected in the composition of Belfast City Council, where nationalists, Sinn Fein and the SDLP combined, outnumber by 24 to 21 the unionist bloc that once dominated that chamber.
The Good Friday Agreement maintained the constitutional supremacy of the Union in the North, supported by political power sharing.
But the agreement also contained a provision for a border poll on Irish unity if, at some point in the future, the majority in the North desired a United Ireland. Catholics are edging towards that all-important majority, presenting the British and Irish governments with a potential constitutional headache.
At heart, however, the Good Friday Agreement was about ending a 30-year campaign of violence and is not (as many suspect) a "carve-up" of resources between Sinn Fein and the DUP.
The citizens of Northern Ireland, its still-segregated communities scarred by the conflict, need time to heal, forgive, integrate and thrive.
The peace process is ever fraught and that is why the handling of the flags row has, in political terms, been unspeakable. There have been ill-advised acts, bordering in my view on recklessness, by some of the parties democratically elected to represent all (and not some) of the communities in the North.
One is the recent decision by Newry and Mourne Council to support the naming of a children's playground in my hometown after Republican hunger striker Raymond McCreesh.
Belfast City Hall needs, of course, to reflect the diversity of that city and compromise is key.
But Sinn Fein knew or must have known that its calls to remove the Union flag (it says it wanted a neutral flag, no flags or a joint Union Jack/Tricolour combo) would be viewed by many as an act of provocation.
Equally, DUP and UUP activists must have known that the distribution of more than 44,000 leaflets claiming that the Alliance Party had sided with Sinn Fein and the SDLP to stop the Union flag flying would stoke tensions.
Party president Gerry Adams recently threatened to intensify a campaign to hold a border poll. This move, bolstered by the referendum on Scottish independence – and a battle to wrest control over the 1916 Rising centenary celebrations – has served only to anger northern Protestants who feel their worst fears could be realised.
If the North's political leaders are serious about the Good Friday Agreement, they must fight for and respect the rights of the "other" community as well as their own and tread carefully on symbolic sensitivities like our "flegs".
The price paid for peace was a heavy one: we can't afford to pay it again.