Posted By: August 28, 2013

Haass talks challenge for NI parties

Ulster TV ( Belfast).Tuesday, 27 August 2013

As local political parties prepare to meet the American diplomat Richard Haass, UTV examines the controversial issues which are on his agenda.

Haass debate

Former US envoy Dr Haass will fly in to Northern Ireland in just over two weeks.

He was chosen by the Executive to lead all-party talks and will be examining issues such as parades, flags and emblems and dealing with the past.

It comes on the back of a contentious marching season and the unrest which followed the removal of the Union Flag from Belfast City Hall in December – a decision which cost millions to police and proved how divisive flags and emblems can be.

Billy Hutchinson, PUP leader, said: “The way the flag came down at City Hall has certainly hardened people’s attitudes and I think it probably damaged good relations in Belfast.

“It probably put it back 10 or 15 years, but people need to recognise that while they do these things and then talk about reconciliation nobody is going to listen to them. Republicans need to recognise that and recognise that there is a British culture and they can’t get rid of it.”

Sinn Féin’s Niall Ó Donnghaile said: “While Belfast City Hall has made some modest progress in terms of reflecting and representing the background and the culture and tradition that I come from it still isn’t enough.

“The place is bedecked with British army, British royals, British imperial history, British flags all over the buildings so the notion I think that there is an attack or an erosion on people’s Britishness in here at City Hall is a falsehood.”

The fallout from the removal of the flag has seen an upsurge of flag displays and symbolism in loyalist areas – and while the daily protests have gone, the anger has not.

It links in with the sense that loyalists are losing – if you take that they have dominated the public space in terms of flags and parades then it is most obvious that it is their displays that are more likely to become restricted

Dr Dominic Bryan

When the Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Belfast attempted to open a children’s play park in the Woodvale area of the city this month he was assaulted and harangued by a loyalist mob.

It is into this poisonous atmosphere that Richard Haass is hoping to find a solution, but those who have studied the issue say solutions have already been largely identified.

Dr Dominic Bryan said: “It’s quite difficult but I would say a relatively low level form of regulation, similar maybe to those that have done on election posters which all go up on lampposts and have to be taken down.

“Councils are usually the people who are looking at this and I would say some very low regulation, now you want to avoid I think something bureaucratic.”

But with regulation comes the issue of enforcement.

Northern Ireland already has a flags protocol. It has been in place since 2005, and in it the PSNI are the lead agency.

However, policing in a political vacuum can sometimes make the problem worse.

East Belfast MP Naomi Long said: “There needs to be a clear lead agency that deals with the issue that allows people to register to put those emblems up, that ensures that when enforcement comes there is enforcement action taken.

“I think the police and other agencies then need to be willing to step up and play their role but ultimately we need political support for that.”

So finding an answer may not be issue – enforcing it could be the problem.

Political commentator Brian Feeney said: “If you don’t have legislation and it’s not illegal, there’s nothing to stop local people, local UDA or UVF – who are rivals in many parts of Belfast in particular – sticking up flags to prove it’s their area. You’ve got to have some way to deal with that and it means the police being able to arrest them.”

The issue of flags and emblems raises many difficult questions for our politicians.

However if they are unable to find the answers – or stand by them in the face of any future dispute – Richard Haass may find his task impossible.