Liz O’Donnell: Removal of Union flag wrong and provocative
How many hearts sank at the sight of loyalist rioting in Belfast? The scenes were all the more depressing because they coincided with the Clinton visit complete with press entourage. For this writer, it was infuriating because what prompted the riot was so unnecessary and ill-judged.
The agreement reached on Good Friday 1998 was a historic compromise; there was parity of pain and parity of gain for both communities. The outcome was a new society, which respected equally the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves as Irish or British, or both, if they wished to so choose. It has taken more than 15 years to roll out all the changes, including a devolved power-sharing executive, assembly, prisoner releases, a new police and justice system and the decommissioning of paramilitary arsenals.
But like it or not, a fundamental part of the deal was that the status of the North as part of the United Kingdom was unchanged and would remain so unless decided on freely in referendum by the people at a later date. The outcome of any such referendum would be honoured by both governments. This is the principle of consent.
In return, Articles 2 and 3 of our Constitution, which constituted an aggressive territorial claim on the North were removed. Ironically, those constitutional issues that had for so long stymied political progress in theory caused little difficulty on the ground. This was an identity-based conflict and not about territory.
Allegiance to one's State is a highly emotive concept, it's about cultural identity, connectedness and a shared sense of history of grievance, and of victory. Before the Northern Ireland peace process nationalism and loyalism were concepts locked in a state of irreconcilable stand-off.
A flag is the key symbol of nationality and identity. Republicans and nationalists know this perhaps more than most. It was highly predictable, therefore, that any proposal to remove the Union flag from Belfast City Hall, except for 15 designated days, would ignite strong passions.
Despite a formula that has been a success in public buildings such as Stormont and others, the nationalist-proposed motion – supported by the Alliance – was, in the absence of agreement, wrong-headed and provocative. At its most basic, it runs contrary to the essential deal in the agreement that the North remains part of the UK. It is to use the equality agenda as a weapon to take away a potent symbol of the British identity in Belfast City Hall. It is vexatious.
Some 15 years after the agreement, there has been huge progress, but sectarianism is still a reality at community level. The peace is fragile and, as lamented by Mo Mowlam, it is not a people's project. So, while the parties can work together in government, on the street the mood is volatile.
Loyalist paramilitary groups have, in the main, been dormant and pose nothing like the security risk of dissident republicans. However, they are politically unevolved, since the premature death of PUP leader and visionary David Irvine. Disaffected from traditional unionist and DUP politics, there is a large cohort of Protestant working-class people alienated and rudderless. They see republicans in government in the North and thriving in the Republic, while they slide into long-term unemployment and underachievement.
Whereas the peace has empowered republicans, for loyalists it has been an incremental sell-out. David Trimble was always under such electoral pressure from the DUP that even though the union was maintained, he could never "sell" the agreement as a victory for unionists. Essentially, he was perceived as negotiating down, with each concession being characterised as an act of surrender.
Remember, the DUP only bought into the agreement long after the event, when they could be in control. Memories of their rejectionist rhetoric are fresh in loyalist hearts and minds and can easily ignite into violence.
The Alliance Party is now on the receiving end of the white heat of loyalist anger because of its role in the compromise vote on the union flag. But it was local DUP and other unionists who raised the temperature by distributing 40,000 leaflets blaming the Alliance for siding with Sinn Fein. The unintended consequences of such base politics have been horrific, ranging from riots to attempted murder.
Consider this as a game changer. What if Martin McGuinness were to transcend his tribe and concede that, without cross-community agreement, the time is not right to remove the Union flag from Belfast City Hall? It would demonstrate respect for a community who need reassurance from nationalists, not triumphalism. It would be recognition that "parity of esteem" and "equality" are for unionists too. It would be a dignified act of reconciliation.