No mainstream party can wash its hands of flag dispute

Loyalists in flags and face masks Alliance accuses unionist councillors of blatant attempts to ramp up tensions over the flag issue

Over the summer the UK government, in the shape of the former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson, was accused by unionists of acting like Pontius Pilate, washing his hands of decisions on parades.

Now, as the winter bites, those same unionists are themselves facing charges of trying to "wipe their hands of any involvement".

This time the accusers are the beleaguered Alliance party, whose offices and councillors have come under attack over their decision to vote in favour of flying a Union flag on designated days only over Belfast City Hall.

The two main unionist parties have condemned the carnage in Carrickfergus and the attack on the family home of two Alliance councillors in North Down as "legally and morally wrong".

But Alliance politicians continue to question these statements, pointing to the decision by both DUP and UUP councillors to distribute 40,000 Alliance-style yellow leaflets as a blatant attempt to ramp up tensions over the Union flag issue.

The unionists respond by arguing that Alliance and the two main nationalist parties are themselves to blame. The unionists argue that the flag has flown for decades above Belfast City Hall and the other parties should have left it alone.

According to the East Antrim DUP MP Sammy Wilson, Alliance was dangerously naïve in not realising that its vote would "open a Pandora's box".


Both Alliance and Sinn Fein claimed the flag dispute was stoked up as part of a campaign to oust the Alliance MP Naomi Long from her East Belfast seat.

Unionists denied this, insisting their defence of the Union flag was a matter of principle.

Whatever the truth, there's no doubt that with the involvement of loyalist elements, and others using social media, the protests have taken on a life of their own, spreading well beyond central Belfast.

Now unionists at Stormont are calling for the Union flag to be flown 365 days a year over Parliament Buildings - a proposal that seems destined to divide the cross-party commission that manages the Assembly building.

The image of an MLA's constituency offices and politicians' homes coming under attack would be shocking at any time.

It's even more embarrassing on the eve of a visit by the outgoing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Like her husband Bill, Mrs Clinton has frequently pointed to Northern Ireland as an example to other trouble spots around the world, evidence there can be a peaceful negotiated way forward.

But the violence this week shows how easy it is to stoke latent tensions, and this time the Stormont politicians can't entirely blame a small unrepresentative minority.

In contrast to the activities of dissident republicans, this is a dispute in which, one way or another, the main Stormont parties are deeply embroiled.

Mark Devenport, Political editor, Northern Ireland Article written by Mark Devenport Mark Devenport Political editor, Northern Ireland

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  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    While I have no issue with what flag flies above the City Hall or Stormont for that matter, what I do have a problem with is 'mainstream' Unionists marching their followers up the hill but not being prepared to march them back down again. This harks back to middle class Unionism not being prepared to get their hands dirty!

    If you light the touch paper then be prepared for the consequences!

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    @62 I know what you mean, but important, national and constitutional decisions have to be made from time to time, regardless of the state of the economy/jobs etc. at that moment. Economies rise and fall over history but key decisons can last a lifetime and beyond and should treated as such.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    Most working class people in N.Ireland, are living in segregated communities. They dont communicate with people of the other religion, their children attend different schools. In some areas they live in fear of attack from the other side, they read and listen to a sectarian media obsessed with blaming the other side. Their choice of political party is based on religion..r u surprised?

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    Funny how when these so called 'loyalists' don't get their own way they revert to their old ways, democracy is a two way street. The other parties agreed to fly the flag on a set number of days throughout the year just like they do in other parts of the UK. These people are a just a mob wanting to impose their will on everybody else. Surely they have bigger things to worry about than a flag?

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    So tell me, if you were a overseas business considering investing in Northern Ireland, and you'd been watching the scenes unfolding in Belfast, would you want to relocate there? No is the answer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    I came to the conclusion that this was a stunt just to get us not to look at what is going on in our society. People in general have been getting on better and rifts appeared to be closing. Not at all what our politicans want. Where there is conflict there are votes, where there is division there is security of tenure. The vast majority were happy and that can't be good for tribal politics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    @40 Aisi..... id be fairly certain the Happy Christmas sign in Irish will be coming down....surprise surprise.... after Christmas!

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    Is this the best we can do?
    We're in a recession; Northern Ireland's economy is, at best, extremely fragile and could fall over. The place is losing jobs and the austerity is set to get worse. And are our politicians working to help the people here keep their jobs and the economy going? Are they helping young people get employment? No, they're arguing over flags. Shame on all of them - wasters

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    The main issue in this article is the blatant attack on democracy. Protesting is one thing, violence and intimidation is another.

    These 'rioter' are criminals they should be arrested and dealt with.

    Supposedly educated politicians calling people onto the street, then washing their hands of the consequences need to take a good look at themselves,

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    Northern Ireland does not have democracy in the normally accepted meaning but "power sharing". Power sharing involves restraint and showing respect in sensitive areas. The status quo only gets changed through balanced deals to which all parties sign up to. Peace in N Ireland was hard won and so easily thrown away. What the Alliance Party did was thoughtless and reckless.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    Are these the same people who put up tens of thousands of flags illegally on public roads throughout the country ? Well, what sums it up for me was that a number of those with their Union Jacks in Carrick the other night had the Swastika adorned on them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    The thing to look at is why this is such a contentious issue. The removal of the Union Flag (or at least minimal use of it) is portrayed as wishing to unite the major factions in NI. However, I suspect it is more to gradually get the people of NI used to the fact that they are heading for a unified Ireland.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    On reflection my previous comment could be perceived as lacking balance, therefore I propose flying half a flag by way of a compromise?

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    The whole thing is so stupid.

    Yes, there is lots of history, but people need to move on, otherwise you end up with this rubbish.

    So your neighbour believes in a slightly different version of your religion. And your other neighbour would like you to be part of a different country.

    So what? is that really what matters? I couldn't care less if I live in Britain, Ireland, United States of Europe...

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    I would just like to say that the Union Flag should of NEVER even come up for discussion about taking it down..Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and is British..I'm very proud to be British and proud of the Union Flag..Sadly the Minority in Northern Ireland don't realise yet how lucky they really are as we could not survive without the help from the mainland.."Rule, Britannia!"

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    I'm a firm believer in democracy. Why can't the people of the UK have a vote regarding whether or not to eject Scotland & Northern Ireland from the union. I think the majority would be reluctant to lose Scotland but it would be a no-brainer in the case of Northern Ireland.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    "a symbol of nationhood and unity." is exactly what it isn't.

    I was half expecting "if you don't repost this you are part of the problem".

    It means nothing to me; I'm more worried about my paying my mortgage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    You claim that republicans are minority which first they are not in NI it's extremely well balanced and secondly how can you say someone who doesn't support unionism should not be living in a country that is their own. Should all republicans be kicked out even though our grand parents and great grand parents and great great grand parents had lived in Belfast for centuries. Purely bigoted statement

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    What's really needed is a second flagpole where symbolically the British flag isn't raised to fly alongside the existing flag..........everybody's happy, simple.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    #47 "It shouldn't make a damned slight bit of difference what minorities live there. The flag is a symbol of nationhood and unity. If you are opposed to its flying, you shouldn't be living it that country."

    I can see you are all about the unity and togetherness of a nation!


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