A century on, tide of change is irresistible

By Máirtín Ó Muilleoir

A decision at last week’s top committee at City Hall means we are moving inexorably to a place where Belfast City Council will be compliant with the law by removing the union flag from the Dome. There should be two flags, no flags or a civic flag flying from City Hall, but sadly only one flag has dominated the skyline in the century-plus since that imposing building went up in 1906.

Of course, that’s a barrier to ensuring everyone feels part of the city and takes ownership in its future.

The one common denominator among all the people of New York, regardless of colour, creed or politics, is that they’re proud to be New Yorkers.

Indeed, love of Belfast unites us all, but for us to really enthuse our citizens and encourage them to take a stake in the city’s future we have to end the petty humiliations heaped on our nationalists. Chief among those is flying the union flag from the Dome of Delight, from the Ulster Hall and from, ah, the Duncrue cleansing depot.

Of course, fair employment law prohibits the flying of the union flag 365 days a year but does permit the lesser ‘special days’ display which is, to me, not acceptable but should be viewed as a staging post on the road to equality.

A public consultation on the proposal to take down the flag and remove a lot of the imperialist and royalist clutter from City Hall itself will now begin. Let your voices ring out.

 

NONE of which is to say that the unionist tradition in Belfast shouldn’t be accommodated and, indeed, celebrated as that community wishes. Those from that other great Belfast tradition – republicanism – would ask for nothing other  than mutual respect and parity of esteem. That’s why the same meeting permitted a special Festival of Fools carnival in the grounds of City Hall to coincide with the Twelfth parade through the city centre. We even avoided making the obvious joke during discussion on the proposal which was put before us by traders keen to transform what has been a drink-fuelled, intimidating atmosphere – forcing shops to pull down the shutters – into a jovial and welcoming atmosphere.

That’s a big, some would say impossible, task the city is setting itself when the loyal orders continue to set the tone for the Twelfth by walking past the homes of nationalists, but we travel in hope.

However, the recalcitrant unionist minority must reciprocate. Last week, a proposal to have bilingual branding placed around Belfast City Council investment projects in the Gaeltacht Quarter (St Comgall’s School, Raidió Fáilte, a spórtlann at Beechmount) was backed by Alliance, SDLP and Sinn Féin – but unionists lined up to vote agin. If unionists want to ban Irish in the very heart of the Gaeltacht Quarter, one has to ask what they have really learned from the past 40 years.

Not a lot in the case of one councillor, who declared that he was against All-Ireland football or the Republic of Ireland’s Euro 2012 soccer matches being shown on the City Hall lawn big screen this year.

The good news: we will have bilingual branding in the Gaeltact Quarter and you can bring the family along to YOUR City Hall to see the the Republic of Ireland and the All-Ireland games.

 

FINALLY, I journeyed out to Lisburn last Friday to meet with the ebullient Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson to discuss proposals to rejuvenate the Lagan Canal and get boats and barges once again travelling from Belfast harbour to Lough Neagh (thence to Shannon). Jeffrey’s offices are in the old Lisburn Town Hall, which is a fascinating building (you will recognise it in Castle Street from the two union flags outside, just opposite the union flag in the park).

Jeffrey has kept it as it was back in the day – though I’m not entirely sure they had TWO Union flags in the room back then – complete with pictures of the glory days of the council. The welcome from Jeffrey and his team was warm and some good business was done. My only complaint is that Jeffrey, like Naomi Long, no longer sits in the Assembly, meaning that we are losing his drive and peacemaking experience to a Westminster Parliament which probably doesn’t even know he’s there.

And I do rate Jeffrey as a consummate peacemaker, not least because our meeting took place below an image which spoke of our dark and divided past: a photo of RUC officers who lost their lives in the conflict – including two cousins of Jeffrey and his father’s best friend.

Suaimhneas síoraí go raibh acu.

 

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