You couldn’t throw a stone where I grew up and not hit a piece of graffiti or a wall mural with some message or another. “Brits out” screamed white capital letters on street corners, “Victory to the Blanketmen” on others — images of long-haired skinny men with ribs poking out, terrifying then, to this child who took them under her notice.
“What’s the IRA, Mummy?” I asked one day, after seeing big green, white and orange letters, to the consternation of my mother. Spare a thought for my friend’s mum, though, who was even more perplexed when her six-year-old wanted to ask about graffiti on a wall she had seen, which stated; “Santa is a British Agent.” Nothing was sacred in west Belfast.
Tricoloured kerb stones were not frequent where I lived, though they did exist in some estates, where a half-mile down the road, they became red, white and blue. Tattered old flags fluttered on poles most of the year round, threads unravelled by winds exposing little white lines which ate into the “t” of the ironic UDA phrase, “Quis Separabit”; making moveable shadows on tarmac on sunny days in concrete jungles, where territory was marked during the Troubles, and communities were insular.
We are supposed to have moved on from those days. Northern Ireland is a changing place, with much to be hopeful about. There are cross-community sporting teams, an Irish language centre on the predominantly Protestant Newtownards Road, a revival of Ulster Scots culture, and there are growing numbers of people who are comfortable reaching across traditional divides.
And yet, for all of our shared identity, it is also the issue which divides a significant number of people. Just over 80 so-called “peace walls” exist; large monstrosities which physically keep communities apart, and partition minds.
Politicians have consistently failed to reach consensus on contentious issues, and in 2016 Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness announced the establishment of the Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition Commission, to attempt to find a pathway through these unresolved matters, despite decades of “talks”.
“I commend those who are taking an active role in shaping a Northern Ireland free from segregation and division,” Foster said when announcing membership of the commission.
The Executive office received its report in July, though it took until last Wednesday for them to release it. And so, after five years of work, £800,000 of public money, and 168 pages of writing, most would expect it to have achieved what it was tasked to do. Instead? Woolly language, and nothing we didn’t already know.
It wasn’t all bad. The commission agreed 44 recommendations which for the most part were sensible, like legislation to compel the Department of Education to “be placed under legal duty to implement UNCRC Article 29.1; Article 30; and Article 31 in a manner appropriate to our society which is one emerging from conflict”. It also recommended that “bonfires are an important aspect of the culture, identity and tradition of communities and are therefore a legitimate form of celebration or commemoration, provided they are compliant with the law”.
It isn’t exactly rocket science, yet it was a step too far for the Executive Office — which, incredibly, failed to agree an implementation plan, effectively rendering the report destined to gather dust on a Stormont shelf.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the commission, although reaching agreement on some issues, failed to find consensus on a number of areas which it titled, in lyrical understatement, “where challenges remain”. Among these: legislation on where to fly flags, mechanisms and enforcement on paramilitary flags, and mural guidelines.
Where it could not agree, it helpfully listed suggestions for the NI Executive to consider: effectively, whether intended or not, bouncing responsibility back on to the office which commissioned it in the first place. Only in Northern Ireland, eh?
Sinn Féin blamed the DUP, stating it was “unwilling to confront sectarianism”, and “doesn’t do equality". The DUP’s Christopher Stalford said: “Sinn Féin in 2021 denied unionist MLAs the opportunity to mark Northern Ireland’s centenary by laying a simple stone or planting a rose bush in Stormont.” The SDLP condemned both parties, and Alliance Leader Naomi Long called it a “very expensive can-kicking exercise”.
Such is life here, unfortunately. Twenty-three years post Good Friday Agreement, and our Executive Office governing parties have still not grown up. Has nobody realised that in order for NI’s society to reach a better place, it might be an idea to practise what you preach? Trading tit-for-tat blows may be de rigueur at election time, and SF and the DUP have benefited in the past by playing to their electoral base. Running a country is different, though, and both have so far failed to grasp this.
Abdicating responsibility for delivering for the ordinary person on the street, by failing to reach consensus on any contentious issue, is an abnegation of leadership. Farming one of those issues out to a fig-leaf commission, spending almost £1m of public money, to then not implement anything, takes some brass neck.
If SF and the DUP were serious about truly moving society out of segregation, they could start by effectively doing the jobs they are paid substantial amounts to do. The electorate is savvier than Stormont gives it credit for and the Covid pandemic has starkly exposed its dysfunction.
A recent Ipsos Mori poll for the University of Liverpool found that just 7pc believe the Executive performs effectively as a government. Last week’s flag report fiasco won’t give voters any comfort.
The brilliant Newtonards poet Paula Matthews, in her poem Aphrodite Emerges from the Sea Again, once imagined what would happen if the Greek goddess came to Northern Ireland.
“... ‘Aphrodite,’ they would ask,
‘Can you tell us your position
on the flag situation?’”
After Aphrodite tells them her mind is “too high for flags”, her questioners respond:
“...We’re afraid it won’t work.
You’re the evocative female who
might distract us from our task.
We are dealing with the past.”
More Eris than Eros, the Executive Office’s problem is that it isn’t even dealing with the past, or anything else deemed “difficult”, as it consistently passes the buck on decisions — a risky strategy for weary voters who wish to give NI’s children a better life than they had.
John Hume once famously said, “You can’t eat a flag,” in an effort to move people from their political silos. Perhaps Sinn Féin and the DUP should learn that you can’t hide behind reports on them forever, either.