Sunday, 9 December 2012

Here I am stuck in the middle with you

Ayn Rand said of compromise that, "one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil." I think the idiocy on display in Northern Ireland this week, in particular against the Alliance Party, has been proof positive of her theory.

I’ve been debating whether or not to write a blog post about this whole flags debacle since the decision was taken on Monday night and all hell broke loose. Not that anyone cares much what I think, I’m sure, but sometimes when your head is full of bewilderment and rage, it helps to write it all down and try to make sense of things.

I’ve spent a lot of time during the last 6 days on Twitter, where the somewhat derisive #flegs hashtag has been attracting the more liberal social medialites but a general search for Belfast has revealed the darker side of what has been going on in the underbelly of our society since Monday.

It has also revealed what seem to be many common misconceptions about what actually happened in Belfast City Hall that night. These misconceptions were unarguably initiated by the DUP and UUP members distributing anti-Alliance propaganda to an already riled up crowd at the back of City Hall before a single vote had even been cast. Whether they’ve been further propagated by plain old sectarianism or by paramilitary organisations taking advantage of the situation to further their ridiculous agenda is hard to tell. But regardless, the violence, destruction of property and death threats that have arisen from it all are just inexcusable.

The first myth seems to be that the vote was to remove the flag from the City Hall permanently. In actual fact the compromise Alliance put forward (which passed 29 to 21) was that it fly on designated days instead. I could understand Unionist qualms about that idea more if the exact same thing wasn't in place throughout much of the mainland UK council buildings and indeed if it hadn't already been implemented for Parliament Buildings at Stormont. Of course if Edwin Poots and his ilk get their way perhaps that won't be the case for much longer... like kids taking their ball home when they don't get their own way.

The second myth seems to be that Alliance have become some kind of pseudo Nationalist party now. My understanding of Alliance’s policies is that they have always been anti-sectarian, working towards an actual shared future for this complicated little country, rather than the smiling, nodding-headed, entirely superficial commitment to “cross-community” work that the big parties do (sorry folks, we’re not fooled).

Of course finding a middle ground means compromise – making difficult decisions that will undoubtedly offend someone, especially when it’s someone who has historically had their way most of the time. I’ve always voted Alliance in Northern Ireland for this purpose. My hope (which might be realistic given some recent articles) is that others start to genuinely consider Alliance as a “real” party, who could actually make some headway in moving this country forward. My worry is that voters will be swayed by the fear-mongering propaganda of the tribal parties and stick with them out of panic that “the other side will get in.”

One last myth (amongst the many) is that reducing the number of days the flag flies above the City Hall is somehow threatening the right of Unionists to consider themselves British and express that Britishness. Firstly, the decision isn’t going to impact on the usual overt displays of Unionism, like hanging flags from every lamppost and house during marching season.

Secondly, I’m sorry but if the only way you can identify with your nationality is to look at a piece of material flapping about in the wind, perhaps you’re not as intrinsically associated with that nationality as you think. After all, wasn’t Peter Robinson preaching about “confident unionism” to his fellow DUP members the very day the flag decision was made? I’m no behavioural therapist but running around that same evening distributing leaflets undermining a perceived threat doesn’t seem very self-confident to me.

Lastly, and to me this is the kicker, only 13 years and 1 day before the flag vote, the Good Friday Agreement came into force in Northern Ireland. Granted the DUP weren’t fans, but people spoke democratically at referenda and it was subsequently agreed regardless. The Good Friday Agreement states that the participants,

“recognise the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose, and accordingly confirm that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both Governments and would not be affected by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland.”

So if it was democratically agreed that the people of Northern Ireland can consider themselves Irish as well as British, isn’t it understandable that some might be a little peeved that only one of those countries is represented officially, e.g. flags hanging on official buildings? Now yes, you can say, tough luck, Northern Ireland is officially part of the United Kingdom, therefore our flag is the Union flag and that’s all there is to it, and it should be flown on public buildings. That’s correct. And indeed, that’s exactly what the Council essentially agreed to... even the Sinn Fein and SDLP members who voted for the proposed amendment. The only compromise was to reduce the number of days the Union flag flies, in line with equality advice and the precedent already set by the policies for other official government buildings. When you still get to maintain that “your” flag is the “real” flag, and also get “the other side” to officially agree with you on record, is a little compromise such a bitter pill to swallow?

Regardless, in the same way that the crazy, rioting loyalists who I've seen write on Twitter and Facebook have a “tough luck” attitude to those who don’t want the Union flag flying here at all, I’m afraid it’s “tough luck” to them too: a democratic decision was made by a Council that they helped to vote in. You might not like all the decisions they make but that, my friends, is how democracy works.

For my part I think Alliance’s compromise was fair. I appreciate the individual’s right to peacefully protest if they disagree with a decision made by their representatives, but to me shouting about a lack of respect for your flag whilst simultaneously burning someone else’s is not a truly peaceful protest. I personally resent the fact that these trifling issues are still a problem to be solved in this country, not to mention of course that many out there somehow think that thuggery will help them get their way.

Naomi Long has said that Alliance will remain strong and continue to make decisions based on the party’s principles, not being intimidated by threats or violence. I for one hope that they do, otherwise the future of this country is not one I want to be a part of. We need to move on, and what better way to do so than good old fashioned democracy? Now if only we can get the rest of the country to respect that.

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