The British government’s announcement late last week that the Union Jack must be flown over government buildings on 17 days of the year spells trouble. Though the Nationalist reaction has so far been surprisingly low key, it is known that many are disturbed by what they see as yet another dilution of the spirit of the Good Friday agreement.
The agreement, of course, was an attempt to neutralize the political structures and their emblems in the North so that Nationalists could be comfortable with the new arrangements. The state, after all, does not belong to one political party or entity. But the new proposal, by making flying the flag mandatory, insists that it does. It is a reminder that the state is based on a Unionist political position, whether Nationalists like it or not.
Sinn Fein has a point when it claims that either the Irish flag and the Union Jack fly together or that none should fly. It would be preferable perhaps if a neutral symbol could be found that both sides could agree on, but that seems farfetched at the moment. Unionists, of course, would have none of that, and the Northern Ireland secretary of state, Peter Mandelson, supports them. The issue has gone before the assembly for consideration, which has to be concluded by Oct. 20.
The flags controversy will now go on the list of grievances that Nationalists are drawing up in relation to Britain’s current managing of the implementation of the Good Friday agreement. It will join their complaints over the slow pace of demilitarization and the failure as they see it to fully implement the Patten recommendations on police reform as yet more proof that Britain is once more appeasing Unionist demands at the expense of a fair and balanced approach.
It is no coincidence that Mandelson’s flags proposal comes just before the Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, faces a crucial by-election test. The UUP candidate for the vacant South Antrim seat, David Burnside, is confronting stiff opposition from the Rev. William McCrea of the Rev. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party. McCrea is virulently opposed to the Good Friday accord, and to prove it once joined loyalist terrorist leader Billy Wright on a public platform in County Armagh.
Unfortunately for Trimble. Burnside is also opposed to the accords, though in a more nuanced way. But Trimble cannot afford a DUP victory. Once more, Mandelson has come to his rescue, at the risk of alienating the minority.
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The really damaging aspect of the British decision, however, goes beyond internal political moves. The Irish government was not consulted about the British government’s flags proposals, a throwback to the pre-Anglo-Irish Agreement days.
It might delight Unionists, but in the eyes of Nationalists it will be seen as another step backward from an approach based on a recognition of the absolute equality of the two traditions.