By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)
It took nearly one hundred years for democracy and equality to arrive in Belfast City Hall in Ireland’s second largest city. And it arrived courtesy of democratic parties, Sinn Fein, SDLP and Alliance using their combined electoral strength to sweep away the suffocating stranglehold that unionist parties held over the council since 1921 when this country was partitioned.
The removal of the Union flag brings this unionist pretence to a dramatic and democratic full stop.
The removal of the flag removes the veil of unionist supremacy and now the DUP and the UUP stand bare before their electorate and the rest of the people of Belfast and it is a good thing for both parties. It is also a good thing for the people of Belfast, the people of the north and the people of this island.
In its desperation to maintain the pretence (and try to unseat Alliance’s Naomi Long from her seat in East Belfast) the flailing DUP is dragging a dignified and respected site - the Cenotaph - onto its squalid and narrow political ground by proposing the council support the flying of the Union flag there all year round. The DUP’s attempt to hijack the Cenotaph is crass sectarianism and an insult to the memory of the dead of the First and Second World War and deeply offensive to the sensitivities of many people including nationalist and republican families who lost loved ones during both wars.
Monday night’s decision is a ‘win-win’ situation for everyone.
Political domination leads to an abuse of power, corruption, alienation and resentment by those who are denied respect and their rightful place in political life.
In the case of the north of Ireland and many other places in the world it led to violence.
Unionists on Belfast City Council are learning the lesson that their counterparts have had to learn at the assembly and it is a simple lesson brought to them through the democratic expressions of the electorate at the ballot box.
At assembly elections the electorate voted for the DUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP, UUP, PUP and Alliance and it is around that democratic outcome that the political system functions.
I believe in circumstances where political allegiance and political space are contested, as we have in the north, then in terms of a community’s political and cultural emblems those emblems should be publicly recognised, respected and displayed.
My personal preference is to see the Irish tricolour and the Union flag flying simultaneously on government buildings on politically agreed days - agreed by all the political parties.
If that is not possible then no flag should be flown, or a new agreed neutral emblem, associated with the new democratic institutions should be displayed as exists at the assembly. Its motif is the linen and flax plant long associated with Irish industry.
It is quite obvious from the behaviour of unionist councillors on Belfast City Council on Monday night, in their doomed attempt to block democratic change, that they are still in denial about their new place in northern society.
Despite overwhelming evidence in front of their eyes unionist behave as if they are still ‘the majority’.
It would be better for them and for their followers if they embraced the new reality that they are a minority political expression, a sizeable minority but a minority nonetheless.
It would be better for them and their followers to be advocates of these new political realities because such an approach would lead unionists in a different direction when it comes to issues such as flags and Orange Order marches.
Unionists are using such emotional issues to cling to the remnants of their once unchallengeable power.
And in the process they are poisoning politics with sectarian emotions.
In the long march towards a national Irish democracy Monday night’s decision is an important milestone.
There are opportunities in it for everyone and maybe, just maybe, on reflection unionist leaders will grasp that fact and act accordingly.