What new beginning?
BY JIM GIBNEY
The letter and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement is facing yet another body blow this weekend. This time the blow will be personally delivered by Peter Mandelson, who in recent times is proving himself quite adept at acting for and understanding the fears of unionists and thereby undermining the Agreement as a result.
On behalf of David Trimble and others in the ever increasing unionist `no' camp he, in a display of little Englander jingoism, will order the flying of the Union Jack on several government buildings across the Six Counties to coincide with Armistice Day on 11 November.
Mandelson has intervened over the flags issue but he quickly dismissed the argument that he should intervene to save the Agreement following Trimble's illegal ban on Sinn Féin ministers
In what can only be viewed as a deliberate act of provocation, he will also instruct officials to fly the Union Jack from government buildings housing the Sinn Féin Ministries of Education and Health.
Mandelson's primary motivation in flying the flag is to save David Trimble from himself and those in the Jeffrey Donaldson camp. Flying the flag is just the latest issue that Mandelson sees fit to intervene on. He has been over this particular course before on demilitarisation and policing. Yet he quickly dismissed the argument that he should intervene to save the Agreement following Trimble's illegal ban on Sinn Féin ministers attending meetings of the all-Ireland Ministerial Council.
Sinn Féin is challenging Mandelson's decision in the courts and earlier this week lodged papers in Belfast's High Court seeking a judicial review of the decision. A decision on whether the judicial review will be granted is expected today, Thursday, 9 November.
In its submision, Sinn Féin argues that Mandelson assumed the power to make the decision on a flawed basis, namely that the Executive Committee of the Assembly had not been able to reach agreement on the issue.
The legal action also cites that the issue of flags and other emblems is a matter for the Executive to decide, not the British Secretary of State.
It was no accident that Mandelson assumed this power on 17 May 17 when the institutions were suspended and made the decision only days before a crucial Ulster Unionist Council meeting. He clearly set out to sweeten the pro-Trimble camp in advance of the meeting.
Whatever the outcome of the court case, it is important that Sinn Féin has acted in this manner. The party has to be seen not only to stand up for the rights of nationalists but also to defend the Agreement at a time when there is a full frontal attack on it by the British government and the unionists.
Sinn Féin's position on the issue of flags is clear-cut. If the Union Jack is to be flown, then the Tricolour should also fly alongside it. Or else no flag should be flown. To fly only the Union Jack is a continuation of the status quo, is discriminatory and a breach of the Good Friday Agreement.
The section of the Agreement dealing with symbols and emblems makes it clear that all participants (and this means the British government as well as nationalists and unionists) recognise the ``sensitivity'' of the use of symbols in public and that their use, particularly in ``creating the new institutions'' should promote ``mutual respect rather than division''.
Mandelson's decision will have the effect of not only deepening the divisions but flagging up that once again what was promised in the Agreement in terms of equality for all and a new beginning is to be put on the long finger.
Mandelson cannot hide behind the argument that the Six Counties are constitutionally part of Britain and that only one flag can be flown. In Scotland and in Wales their flags fly alongside the Union Jack.
The issue here is that the British are kow-towing to a unionist veto. They are making decisions on issues over which they have supreme authority through a unionist prism.
d as a result in this specific instance, the message to nationalists is your cultural identity remains where it has always been - outside government institutions.
In other words, it's OK for the Tricolour to fly on the Falls Road or in Crossmaglen Square but not on ``new institutions'' which tens of thousands of nationalists voted for. Is it any wonder republicans are asking what new beginning are you talking about?