Irish Republican News · April 19, 2004
[Irish Republican News]

[Irish Republican News]
Legislation needed, not lighthouses

By Brian Feeney (for the Irish News)

Does Easter kick off the ‘marching season’ or is it the Somme on the first Sunday of July? It used to be the Somme, but the kick-off seems to be getting earlier each year. It’s no longer marching feet that signal the beginning of the season, but other, more symbolic evidence of ownership of the north: flags, graffiti, bonfire preparations.

Yes, in recent years preparations for Eleventh night bonfires have been noted in early March, a full three months before they are to be lit. Flags begin flapping from lamp posts and telegraph poles around the same time and slogans are scrawled or sprayed on any available surfaces. Alongside these phenomena you can hear the plaintive wail of the middle classes appealing to the flag wavers, bonfire stackers and spray-can artists to consider the environment, think about the shameful impression on visitors to Norn Irn, have pride in their community. Hah.

You may as well appeal for good weather on St Patrick’s Day. Guess who runs those communities? Why the very people who send out the flag wavers, bonfire stackers and spray can artists, principally the UDA and LVF with the UVF in Co Antrim bringing up the rear.

Do the hand-wringers believe for a moment that if the local UDA/LVF/UVF boss didn’t want flags, bonfires and graffiti there would be any? What do they think would happen to guys festooning the place with flags contrary to instructions from the local boss?

Naturally the local boss is impervious to considerations of the environment or tourism. He knows that the local council and DOE are equally impervious to environmental conditions on the estate he runs and that no tourist ever catches a glimpse of it, loyalist Bushmills being the exception.

No, the only way to deal with these manifestations is legislation. Isn’t it remarkable that after almost 40 years of persistent sectarian violence the first time people were convicted for an offence connected with loyalist flags was last month? It’s indicative of an attitude that has dominated the pro-union thinking in the NIO for the whole period of that office’s existence. Their concern being that somehow you can educate people out of sectarianism, that bringing in legislation to deal with the unique and specific circumstances of the north would perhaps be to admit that this really is a place apart, not like, wait for it, ‘the rest of the UK’.

Do you realise that the Incitement to Hatred Act was brought in in 1970? Yes 1970. You may not realise either that it covers all the aspects of bigotry that bedevil the north including using words or publishing anything threatening or abusive or insulting on the grounds of ‘religious belief, colour, race or ethnic or national origins’. It might have nipped things in the bud. Only one snag. It doesn’t work because you have to prove intent. Although this flaw was obvious since 1971, nothing whatsoever was done to plug the gap.

The thinking was similar with fair employment legislation. Introduced in 1976, it was like a lighthouse in a bog: brilliant but useless. A decade later there was no difference in the ratio of unemployed Catholics to Protestants. The US and Irish governments had to drag the NIO kicking and screaming to sign up to real anti-discrimination legislation in 1989.

The evidence across the world points in one direction only. In ethno-political conflicts like the north it is fanciful to believe that you can educate people out of bigotry and sectarianism and racism. The only approach that begins to work is legislation with stiff penalties. It was the huge fines and compensation powers in the 1989 Fair Employment Act which brought offenders to heel. It was only after the 1954 instruction from the US Supreme Court that states had to act ‘with all deliberate speed’ to end segregation that brought governors in states like South Carolina and Virginia into line.

The only way to deal with the intimidation and threat that oceans of flags and graffiti and bonfires present to the community at large is by prosecution and jail. They’re not merely a claim to ownership of a particular captive estate. Due to the blind eye the authorities turn to loyalist bonfires and flags, these manifestations of extreme unionism represent a claim to ownership of the north of Ireland, a unionist place where symbols of unionism, however extreme, threatening or offensive, are allowed special licence to disfigure the public thoroughfare, and in the case of gigantic bonfires, to endanger property.

The legislation is in place. It remains to be seen whether the police and NIO have the will to enforce it or whether unionists will be allowed to flout it for the next six months until they decide the marching season is over.

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© 2004 Irish Republican News