New foundation at the City Hall

By Staff Reporter

We’re not sure who first said, “I have seen the past and it doesn’t work” but we suspect the author knew a thing or two about Belfast.

For here, what was marketed as the glory days of Belfast was a divided, unequal and dysfunctional city.

For most of the 20th century, those of a unionist persuasion – even if only marginally better-off in material terms –  were top dog and nationalists were treated like aliens in their own land.

It serves no purpose to rehearse the whole litany of second class citizenship, but suffice to say that the union jack on the dome of City Hall signalled a city where unionists ruled the roost.

Indeed, when the balloon went up in 1969, leading all our people into a bleak and bloody cul-de-sac for three decades, it was that searing feeling of injustice which fuelled nationalist anger.

No surprise then that the peace deal of 1998 was underpinned by a guarantee that no-one, ever again, would have to ride in the back of the bus. Yes, there would be acceptance of the need to get the consent of a majority in the six counties for a united Ireland, but the quid pro quo, as articulated eloquently by Nobel Laureate John Hume, was to be parity of esteem for the nationalist identity.

As is well-known, in the years since the Agreement the British Government and much of unionism’s leadership reneged on that deal, taking every opportunity to undermine, stall or otherwise stymie the prospect of a shared and equal future.

Nevertheless, the thirst for change, among both nationalists and unionists, has meant that much has been achieved to build the peace and heal the wounds of war.

Orange and Green share power in a new regional government which can exist only because it is knitted into North-South institutions, former combatants work together across the peacelines to boost the prospects of both communities, and the once war-ravaged city of Belfast is enjoying a new lease of life. Much remains to be done – the economic drift towards East and South Belfast, for example, needs a counterbalance towards the North and West of our great city – but we are undoubtedly in a better place.

And in getting to this staging post, the rejection of the use of violence to effect political change has been crucial.

That’s why this paper has spoken out passionately against the activities of the small groups of militants who recently took the life of prison officer David Black.

But within the loyalist community also, there remains an active and toxic paramilitary rump which has an a la carte attitude to the peace process.

And, as in the past, some unionist politicians are content to use these paramilitaries as their stooges – bringing them out on to the street to create havoc and then washing their hands of the aftermath.

And that is how the demonstration at City Hall played out on Monday night as City Fathers and Mothers gathered to take the monumental decision to remove from the union flag from City Hall.

In 1906, when the flag first went up on the newly-opened City Hall, that type of intimidation and mob law would have succeeded in stopping change. But this isn’t, despite what the thugs who stormed the seat of the government of Belfast may wish, 1906. It is 2012. And while democracy was sorely tested in an orchestrated attack which left police officers and Council security staff badly injured, democracy prevailed. The woefully outnumbered community police officers on duty in City Hall who fought back the baying mob, the Council workers who risked life and limb to secure the Council chamber and also the DUP Lord Mayor of Belfast who acted wisely and calmly throughout, are all to be commended for ensuring that the rule of law was not usurped.

Nationalist political representatives shouldn’t be allowed to lose the run of themselves: the flag which will fly on City Hall for a limited number of days in the coming year does not reflect the identity of their constituents, so there is still work to do to achieve a truly shared city. However, the City has taken a giant leap forward.

Indeed, let there be no doubt but that this is a watershed moment – today at the premier civic building of Belfast our citizens can witness a sight never before seen by a living person: the City Hall flagpole without the union flag.

And, in our view, whatever about the failures of our past, that’s the foundation for a future which will work.

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