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

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  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    The GFA only papered over the cracks that go to the root of NI. The Union flag is the symbol of the tribe who fought tooth and nail to keep NI from being a democracy - that's why there was a Civil Rights movement. Any interference in the "tradition" of this tribe is an unwelcome reminder that the taigs now have rights.

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    @106 Annie & @119 coleraine 89 show that people in NI are still as bitter & twisted as it ever was. Sadly the mentality regarding nationality & "Britishness" will never go away.
    Politicians hounded out of their homes, ineffective policing & deplorable party politics from the main Unionists parties shows NI in a clearer light as opposed to sorting out its mounting domestic issues.

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    Its funny how Irish people get on great with British people in the mainland and British people get on great with Irish people in the south. Its only when we get home that the problem arises. 2 great nations, whats the problem with being part of both?

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    I think Coleraine 89 would suggest you were born in 1989, or that you IQ is somewhere between 8 & 9?

    Either way, there is little chance that you know anything of the dark days. The darkest days you would have experienced (quite recently as well) was indeed your mummy's womb.

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    re: coleraine89
    I take it your name has no link to the University in Coleraine. Your post is a perfect example of human devolution.


Comments 5 of 129


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