Another issue flying in the face of change


By Brian Feeney (for Irish News)

The present kerfuffle about flying the Union flag over Belfast City Hall is a reminder of how long it takes to change anything and of the obstacles in the way of change. It used to be that the Union flag was flown 365 days a year from anything vertical a unionist could find - at police barracks, courts, council offices, libraries, hospitals, education offices,schools and, more surprisingly, Protestant churches, never mind unofficial efforts on lamp-posts and pylons.

Until about a decade ago St McCartan's Church of Ireland Cathedral in Clogher used to fly four, yes four, Union flags, one from each corner of its tower every summer.

Since the Good Friday Agreement official manifestations have dwindled. Most unionists accept that flying the flag on 'designated days' as elsewhere in the UK is enough to satisfy honour. Even so, the flag would have been a lot less evident if it had not been for the foolish and misguided machinations of Peter Mandelson when he was Tony Blair's proconsul here.

In a futile attempt to placate unionists he reneged on understandings about royalist regalia at courts and flags at Stormont. The unionists got their flags but Mandelson got nothing from the unionists.

Mandelson's mistakes show that if there is no legislation imposed on them, unionist politicians will resist change no matter what it is, even if it is for the general good. Not, mind you, that removing a flag will make a difference to general welfare but it does make a difference to demonstrating parity of esteem and equality of status, concepts no unionist politician has ever subscribed to. After all, what was Norn Irn devised for except to provide an exclusive enclave for the diminishing minority on the island?

Legally that position has been abolished but in practice it continues and there is no provision to change the practice. Unionists know they're on a hiding to nothing legally which is why they've been resorting to dirty tricks in Belfast, distributing leaflets dressed up to look like Alliance ones.

In the end it will come down to a vote despite all the spurious consultations unionist councillors have tried to fix. In the end the unionists will lose as they always do, not necessarily this time, but in the end. They're on the wrong side of history and of demography.

You'd think some of them would stretch out a hand, meet Fenians hallway, but no. Look at any proposal for change at Stormont. Even if it's a motion in the impotent assembly unionists invoke a petition of concern, probably the most abused and misused procedure provided for in the Good Friday Agreement. True, Sinn Fein does it too, but that's mainly to defend its own members or, recently, special advisers from unionist attempts to contravene the spirit (and sometimes the letter) of the agreement or to score some point about an IRA incident a generation ago.

In the case of petitions of concern there's no chance of the Alliance Party throwing their votes behind change. Alliance don't count since, although they're unionists, they refuse to designate themselves as such. They pretend they don't take the position of either nationalists or unionists when it's perfectly obvious they are a liberal version of unionism and oppose national diversity in this society as assiduously as anyone in the DUP.

Unlike the DUP, Alliance won't even admit there are two politico-ethnic groups. The result is of course paralysis not just at the executive on any matter that counts such as housing or education but on the most trivial sectarian items.

Meanwhile the two governments are completely disengaged - the Conservatives because they have no votes and no interest, the Irish because the tanaiste for the whole of his chequered career from Stickiness to Labour has never exhibited the slightest interest in the north. Indeed at the height of the Troubles he seemed more concerned with East Germany or North Korea than the Falls or the Bogside. At the present time the man who is supposed to keep a watching brief on nationalist concerns in the north is more concerned about keeping his sinking poll ratings above those of Sinn Fein in the Dail than advancing change.

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© 2012 Irish Republican News