A few months ago I was in Belfast when a colleague told me his wife had rung to ask him to pop into a Flag Shop and pick something up. This may seem a little stupid but I had to ask what a Flag Shop was. The incredulous but obvious answer was, “it’s a place you buy flags! Don’t you have them in Liverpool?”
Of course we don’t have them in Liverpool except as part of places like chandlers at the Marina. By and large I would not know where to buy a UK or English flag except when there is a Royal Jubilee or a wedding. I am very proud of being both English and British but I have never felt the need of a flag to express this. In fact I have never ever bought an English or British flag.
So for people many indeed most people who live outside Northern Ireland the current problems are hard to understand. “How can people get so hung up about a piece of material?” we ask. Well the answer is that a flag is, of course a symbol and symbolism means a lot to some people and not just in Northern Ireland. I was touched at a recent citizenship ceremony in Liverpool how our new UK citizens wanted to be photographed with their new flag. When I lived in Turkey I was aware that every school day started with the raising of the flag and the singing of the national anthem.
So I accept that these things do matter and that the way to handle issues that arise from them needs careful handling, an open mind and compromise.
These three points seem to have been amply demonstrated in Northern Ireland by the Alliance Party but those qualities seem to have not been taken up by other groupings.
DUP and UUP have condemned the fact that two Alliance offices have been ransacked; that two councillors have had their homes trashed and that the Alliance MP, Naomi Long was advised to leave her house. What hypocrisy given the 40,000 inflammatory leaflets that they put out.
What Alliance tried to do, as they have tried so often before, was to provide a way in which two communities could work together. Nationalists on Belfast Council wanted no Union Flags; Loyalists wanted Union Flags every day. Alliance suggested a compromise in which the Union Flag would be used on a given number of days which, if I remember correctly, are the same days that it can be flown at Stormont.
But flags are not really the issue here. A group of people on the extremes see their power base eroding. More and more electors in NI are turning to the Alliance precisely because it is a move away from the old ways of violence and sectarianism. Alliance has never been stronger and the thought of moderation becoming the norm is just too scary for some people to accept.
The Alliance Party was nearly extinguished 10 years ago but they fought hard to keep alive the spirit of moderation and liberalism. Life has not been easy for them. Lib Dems know it is not easy to be a third party. They are a fifth Party and a Party which moreover runs to standards which are the norm in the rest of the UK but not in NI. There never was a paramilitary branch of the Alliance! They have always believed in the gold standard of democracy with people of all religious denominations and not amongst their membership.
So will you do two things to help them?
- E-mail the Party Leader David Ford MLA care of firstname.lastname@example.org and let him know that we are thinking of him and his colleagues.
- Log on to their website on www.allianceparty.org and make a small donation. They urgently need money to re-establish the two ransacked offices and to get back out on the campaigning road.
Remember they are fighting desperately for democracy not in a remote province far away but in a part of the Country which boats that it is the ‘Mother of Democracies’.
Do these things today and show that we know that they are fighting our battles and that we are so, so proud of them