Flag row distracts from real financial problems

Posted By: June 29, 2015

Claire Simpson. Irish News ( Belfast). June29, 2015 

There is no money. It’s official. The whole of the north is completely broke. Finance minister, the DUP’s Arlene Foster, has looked down the back of the sofa and found only a bit of fluff, a bent paper clip and a piece of Lego. 

There was some excitement when a work experience student found a few coins rattling around an old piggybank at Parliament Buildings. But on closer inspection these were a few Irish pennies left over from a shopping trip to Dublin in the 1990s.

When times are hard, teenagers and immature administrations often turn to the bank of Mum and Dad: so why not ask London? Those Tory grandees with duck houses and swimming pools and flats in Chelsea are bound to have a few extra pounds knocking about. Except when Mrs Foster asked the British Treasury, they opened the big file marked ‘Northern Ireland’ and found a note saying “don’t give them any more cash”.

The last month has seen dozens of reports about the effect of the financial squeeze. Waiting times for breast cancer patients are rising, almost a quarter of our children are living in poverty, and by winter we can all look forward to pitch-black streets (no money to fix broken streetlights) and flooding (no money to regularly clear gullies). It sounds like we’re heading for a terrible dystopian future, or at least a return to the Thatcher-dominated 1980s. Things have got so bad that our assembly members have agreed a fantasy budget that is based on the unlikely event of them reaching agreement on welfare reforms.

So with a long cold winter of discontent ahead, what better way to take our collective minds off all our problems than a long hot summer of ridiculous rows about flags? To be fair it is not the flags’ fault. There they are, happily sitting in a warehouse, until someone orders 100 of them off the internet and insists on tying them to every lamp-post along a half-mile stretch. “Don’t drag me into this,” the Falklands flag says as it’s hoisted over a suburban street in east Belfast, “I have enough problems of my own”. 

What is it about a bit of coloured cloth that gets us all so exercised? To outsiders, the north’s obsession with flags and symbols may seem disproportionate. But then, we only have to look at our politicians to see how ostensibly trivial things cause a row. 

Rather than lead by example, some of our assembly members lead by pouring a can of petrol on the problem and setting it alight while dancing around the flames. 

Take the flag row at Stormont. Earlier this month a group of people decided to raise the tricolour, and a Republican flag that had not been in general use for almost a century, over Parliament Buildings. The two flags were on the building for a maximum of fifteen minutes. Few people would even have noticed they were there, and fewer still would really have cared. 

True, those who hoisted the flags should not have been able to access the roof. But it was a stunt, later claimed by republican group the 1916 Societies, nothing more. A proportionate response would have been to hold a brief investigation and then move on. 

Except in the north, nothing is straightforward, and no investigation is brief. Unionists thundered about ‘breaches of protocol’ and ‘rogue actions’. Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly then fanned the flames by accusing unionists of “hysteria”. The police were called in to investigate, the assembly is to hold its own inquiry and in the meantime bizarre security measures have been put in place.

New locks have been put in the doors leading to the roof, the pulleys that hoist flags have been temporarily put out of service, and CCTV cameras monitored by Stormont security have been set up close to the flag poles. It is as if Stormont is protecting a hoard of Aztec gold, not two ratty poles.

All of these measures cost money, our money, that could be better spent on…well anything else. But what’s a serious discussion about budget problems compared to a good, nonsensical row about pieces of fabric? Perhaps our politicians should remember this, come the dark, penniless days of winter.