Flags: South Belfast

Adjournment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:45 pm on 27th September 2016.

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Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Deputy Speaker 4:45 pm, 27th September 2016

In conjunction with the Business Committee, I have given leave to Ms Claire Hanna to raise the matter of the irregular flying of flags in South Belfast. The proposer of the topic will have 15 minutes.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank those Members who have taken the time to participate in the debate. It is disappointing and a little bit unusual that there is no Minister in the Chamber today. I appreciate that this is a complex issue and, indeed, could probably have landed in one of three or four Departments. I understand, however, that it was assigned to the Executive Office and that none of the four Ministers is available, despite the normal publication cycle of the Order Paper.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Kennedy] in the Chair)

No one is saying that flags are the biggest or most pressing concern for the Assembly to discuss, but, nearly two decades after the establishment of the Assembly, it is an issue that we have to make progress on and remove from the "too difficult" pile, where it is with victims, the past, the 11-plus and a number of other issues. Our party and others, including the Alliance Party, which has a long-standing and honourable position on the issue, have been seeking regulation for several years. If that is not going to come centrally, we need to push for it.

A commission on flags and identity has been created, which, after a year, has released the names of its members, but we have yet to hear any news from it. As it is primarily made up of representatives of political parties in the Assembly, it is fair and interesting to hear from those parties in this debate.

The issue of flags sucks up an enormous amount of traditional media and social media time, but, hopefully, we can discuss it here in a way that gives us time to draw out points and that is less fraught than some other discussions. For clarity, by irregular flag flying, I do not mean flags flown from private residences or public buildings.

I defend the right of anyone to fly a legal flag from their home, provided that it is not in support of an illegal organisation or of violence. There are, of course, separate regulations and guidance for public buildings.

In practice, certainly in South Belfast, the issue is primarily related to flags reflecting a unionist or loyalist identity. In a report from Queen's, the ratio is reported as being 13:1. However, in discussing the issue and potential solutions, we will absolutely include all such manifestations of identity, including the hunger strike banners that are being displayed on parts of the Ormeau Road. Although I consider them to be in a different category, flags of the Northern Ireland football team and GAA clubs, which have been up and down at various times in South Belfast during the summer, are entirely regulatable. A 2010 Queen's study suggested that sporting and other displays made up approximately 5% of the total of things flying from lamp posts, but, if there is support for these displays, there should be a lawful way for people to apply, setting out the aims and the purpose of the flying. It is not the primary subject of the debate, but, if a set of principles were agreed, they could be applied to, for example, new murals appearing as well.

Most acutely problematic — they should not be regulated but obviously immediately removed — is the display of paramilitary flags. I noted these as recently as this summer at locations in South Belfast. At the root of the wider problem is the perception by very many people, me included, that, in a lot of cases, those flags are being used to mark territory, to intimidate and to divide. This is an issue raised with me by literally dozens of people every summer. I know that many of them contact all their elected representatives, so those of you from South Belfast will have heard from them as well. It frustrates me greatly to be able to do nothing. Those of us who are elected to represent people are literally powerless in this matter until there is some regulation. There are patchy improvements, and I am glad to report that flags came down in the very mixed neighbourhood of Rosetta just this weekend. I commend the people who were involved in local decisions and had the ability to get flags down in certain residential streets in Finaghy. There are slips too, and flags appear each year in places where they had never been before.

South Belfast is probably the most diverse, vibrant and participative constituency in Northern Ireland. Our neighbourhoods are home to people of all faiths and none and all political backgrounds. Of course, they are home to many people from new communities. I know that many people opt to live in South Belfast precisely because it is so open and welcoming. This is not just an issue of community relations and preventing what in some cases is identity being used as a weapon; there is an economic issue. There is evidence that is quantified year on year by the Northern Ireland life and times survey that flags can produce a chill factor that discourages people from shopping in particular areas.

It is an issue of confidence in law and order. How can people have confidence that the Executive are serious about tackling paramilitaries when in many cases their logos fly unmolested from our public property? They are organisations of community control, extortion and drugs, and, if their logos are able to fly, that shows that we are not in any way serious about addressing them. Although I appreciate that it is absolutely not always the case, national flags that do not bear paramilitary logos are often erected by gangs of men, sometimes with their faces obscured, and it is not that cold in South Belfast in May. That is not just a perception of mine: in the life and times survey, 66% of people across all communities stated their perception that flag flying was done by paramilitaries. I am also aware of families who have received intimidation when a flag outside their house was removed, not by them, I might add. The police will confirm, as will many of us who have had conversations about the cat-and-mouse chasing to get the flags down, that the people who they are conducting those conversations with frequently are in paramilitary groups. I know genuinely that no Member of the Assembly is in any way condoning that behaviour, and I know that there are people with much more benign aims who put up flags and other things, but the fact is that there is a disparity. Your poster about your lost cat or charity disco, which is considerably less divisive, will be removed a lot more quickly.

There is a serious lack of clarity, and I think that there is a deliberate political fudge on what is and is not permissible. For that reason, we believe that fresh legislation is overdue. I want to be clear that the SDLP's preference and ambition is for neutral public space that is free from the flying of this sort of symbol. We are not blind to the fact that not all of them are malign. I understand that not everybody is seeking to just mark territory. Also, we know that that aspiration is not shared by all parties in the Chamber.

We think it is time for a fair compromise. Fair compromises are possible. I believe one took place at City Hall on designated day flying. In this case, we think it should be based on the principle that individuals and small groups do not get to decide on the character and atmosphere of an entire neighbourhood and that one event or political viewpoint cannot dominate a whole neighbourhood for months on end. As stated, we support the right of any individual or family to fly a legal flag but do not support someone unilaterally, with no consultation, projecting that view on everybody else for the whole summer and longer.

For the many constituents who contact me on this, it is the duration of flag flying that distresses them most. I grew up a few metres off the Lisburn Road. In fact, in 30 years at five addresses in South Belfast, I have never lived more than 200 metres from a main route that has been flagged and a main parade route, and I will state for the record that I have never in my life objected to an Orange parade along those routes. When I was growing up, flags went up about a week before the Twelfth demonstration and came down about a week after. People probably were not dying about it — we were not dying about it — but we lived and let live because we understood how important that key parade route was to very many people. We understood there was a balance: the flags went up and came down in a fairly timely fashion. That compromise has been lost now in many areas, as flags are left to rot for months on end.

I did a small survey last summer to gauge the level of local support for flags. I did it in one ward, and I think it could be done in others. Malone Ward runs, as South Belfast representatives know, from Balmoral Avenue to Marlborough Park. I walked up one day, and there were 23 flags on lamp posts. I did a consistent survey in every street in the ward, which is home to about 4,000 people in about 200 households. I found that four houses were flying flags, so I do not think it is fair to say that that is representative of the neighbourhood. I am not saying it is a plebiscite in every area — other factors will be taken into consideration — but I do not think the views of four households should have been projected on to every household in that ward and in a very busy shopping area for so many months.

Much reference is made to the 2005 flags protocol, which was devised between the PSNI and various Departments. It has been eroded in almost every aspect. The proliferation of flags on arterial routes was supposed to have been prevented, and flags were definitely not supposed to be flown in integrated areas. Finaghy, the Lisburn Road, the Ormeau and Rosetta fit that bill probably more than any streets.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will, Christopher. Do I get an extra minute if I give way? I have a lot to say. Go ahead.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Would the Member care to hazard a guess about the year the number of flags on lamp posts throughout Belfast skyrocketed? Hazard a guess about when people decided to put extra flags up. What do you think might have prompted that decision?

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am happy to address that. Would the Member like to state other areas in which it is appropriate to break the law because you do not like a democratic decision? If people put up signs or start street riots because they do not agree, for example, with the UK-wide vote on Brexit, is that acceptable to us? Are we saying you can break the law because you do not agree with a decision that was made by a majority of elected representatives? The fact is that this has been a problem for a very long time, and it is not good enough to say, "Because of a separate democratic decision, we will break the law". Apparently, our elected representatives —

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

No, you can come back in. You will have your own time.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Don't worry: I will. Hypocrite.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

Apparently elected representatives will sanction that. Further, local arrangements in many cases have no clear basis and are made by self-appointed gatekeepers, with no discussion with local residents. People do —

[Interruption.]

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind all Members that even comments made from a sedentary position can be noted by the Speaker. I caution Members about the terms that are used.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thankfully, I did not hear that.

I have sympathy for the public agencies that are called on to devise policy and cover for what is a political problem, although I would like them to be more consistent. An SDLP councillor was asked very promptly to remove anti-burglary posters he erected a few months ago. Transport NI cannot be solely responsible for regulating flags on its property, and I felt for the Housing Executive on Thursday when it was asked to unilaterally adjudicate on the suitability of a new UDA mural on one of its properties. However, it is a pressure that is probably most acutely felt by the PSNI, which is being asked to judge flagging or flag removal in the context of public disorder.

They cannot be expected to police us out of political failure, and action or otherwise on any issue should not be dictated by who is going to make the most trouble. The spectacle of the PSNI apologising for removing flags in Ballyclare because there was a riot afterwards is an affront to any society based on law and order, but it is inevitable when we are asking an organisation that is necessarily impartial to operate in a political context with no framework. We are not being prescriptive at this stage about what form a licensing system would take, but we are asking that people at least acknowledge that there is an unsustainable issue to be dealt with and to engage rationally and constructively in finding a solution.

Last year, my colleague Mark H Durkan, the then Environment Minister, brought forward rational proposals to regulate the most extreme end of summer bonfires. There is a direct parallel here. It is fair to say that I would rather that that practice dies out, as we think that there are environmental burdens and community relations burdens. However, the fact is that we accept that it is important to people so we did not seek to ban it. We sought to regulate the more extreme end of it. Like with many SDLP Members, various references to me and my posters have been burnt on numerous bonfires, but I still voted for a bonfire management scheme that incentivises good behaviour. It is not about projecting a view onto everybody.

The devil will be in the detail, of course, but a licensing scheme could regulate the duration of flying and be linked to a specific time or event; a specific parade, the Queen's jubilee, a sporting event or whatever. Crucially, a named individual will be responsible for removal by a specified date and, if not, the authorities can act to remove it. Having a fair and open set of criteria will empower those public bodies. If anybody wants to dismiss this theory as unworkable or unenforceable, just take a wee minute to ask yourself what you are saying about who is calling the shots here and how acceptable that is to you.

Fair regulations for election posters, advertising, fly-postering and graffiti mostly work. The solutions on removal are not 100% perfect, but the problems are largely addressed and the law upheld. If it is good enough for every other aspect of society, it should be good enough for what are, in some cases, divisive symbols in this society.

There is a large body of high-quality academic research and data on this, not least from Dominic Bryan and Paul Nolan who published a very useful snapshot of views earlier this year. They consulted very widely, including all the parties in the Assembly. Their top-line recommendation was a two-week window for flag-flying, but they brought forward a number of recommendations that bear repeating, namely: in residential areas, the views of all people, including minorities, should be given consideration; flags should not be placed outside homes; and flags should not be placed outside places that deliver public services. They also stress the importance of communication, recommending courtesy to people who might feel uncomfortable and that, to reassure people, people should know who is putting the flags up and how long they will be displayed. It is suggested that this information is communicated to the police.

In conclusion —

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker 5:00 pm, 27th September 2016

I ask the Member to bring her remarks to a close.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

Yes, I will. I have reflected the aims of that flags protocol, which was about improving the environment, a partnership approach to community relations and a legal and enforcement framework if necessary. It is an important issue, and I hope that Members will engage with it rationally.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

All other Members who wish to speak will now have approximately eight minutes.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Mr Deputy Speaker, you will be familiar with the fact that it is often unionists who are accused of being absolutely obsessed with flags and the display of them. Yet, during the months of July and August, our friend from South Belfast, my constituency colleague and others dine out on nothing else but the issue of flags in the media, or at least that is how it seems to the people in the constituency. The limit of her ambition in dealing with issues around flags and identity is not to be underestimated, but it was interesting to note that we had one cursory reference to displays of a non-unionist kind. Oddly enough, the lady from South Belfast and others are very prominent any time — it is usually the third week in June; you could set your watch by it — a few flags go up on the Ormeau Road. The hissy fits start. It is not only the SDLP and the Alliance Party, but it is generally the SDLP and the Alliance Party.

Unlike any other representative in the Chamber, I was actually born on the Ormeau Road and come from there. I know that, during July and August, people put flags on lamp posts. I am sure that that is the case in parts of your constituency, Mr Deputy Speaker, and in other constituencies, because those months are a special time in the broad unionist tradition. I have absolutely no objection to Union flags, Northern Ireland flags and Orange standards going up during July and August. For the benefit of the record, I believe that no paramilitary display and no display of any terrorist organisation should occur. They should not be there and are outwith the July and August tradition. They form no part of that tradition. July and August, in the unionist community, are about the celebrations associated with Orangeism and the victory of William at the Boyne, which is an important part of who I am and of the identity of the community that I come from.

The Ormeau Road was always a mixed community, and people there knew that, during July and August, flags went up. My ideal scenario is that, at the end of August or the start of September, they come down. I think that progress is being made in that regard. I deliberately did not say anything about the displays that went up below the Ormeau bridge over the last few months. I deliberately did not say anything because I would have been a hypocrite if I had defended the Union flags going up at one end of the bridge and then condemned republican symbols going up at the other end of the Ormeau Road. To do the reverse is also to be a hypocrite. To cast a blind eye and say nothing when republican symbols go up at the bottom of the Ormeau Road but get oneself into a state of righteous indignation and fury when unionist symbols go up at the top end of the Ormeau Road is to be a hypocrite, and some of those who whip themselves up into a frenzy during July and August over flags in South Belfast are noticeable by their silence when it comes to other displays.

For the record, I have no problem, Claire — through the Deputy Speaker — with Bredagh GAA club putting up its flags. Bredagh GAA club contributes positively to the community in South Belfast —

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

No. You get to make a winding-up speech. I do not have as much time as you.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I do not have as much time as you, Claire.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

I just want to put on record that I did apply the same considerations —

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I have no objection to a GAA club putting up its flags, especially one that contributes to the community in the way that Bredagh does. I do not and would not object to that because it is reflective of the fact, as has been said, that South Belfast is a diverse community. There are people from a Protestant background, a unionist background, a Catholic background and people who have none of those identities. They all live in South Belfast. You talk about a shared future and shared space, but the image of the shared space that was painted in the opening section of this debate was an absolutely bland one in which people could not in any way express themselves for fear that someone else would be offended by a display —

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I will not get to speak.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way. Given the Member's support for the display of flags on street furniture, does he support the search to find an open and transparent legal mechanism, which does not exist at the moment, to regulate and make that process open and understandable to the public?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

That is what we are trying to work through, and I welcome contributions in that regard. With the greatest of respect, what will not solve the problem is Assembly Members securing an Adjournment debate on this and tut-tutting at working-class loyalist communities that put flags up.

[Interruption.]

You do. The Member does. Every year, we see people who have absolutely no connection with the working-class loyalist community tut-tutting —

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

You are not attributing that to me, though. Will you make that clear?

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

Will you make it clear that you are not attributing it to me either?

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

They tut-tut at that community. They have no connection —

[Interruption.]

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

Order. I ask the Member to address his remarks through the Chair.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

We were told by Claire Hanna that people should not be made to feel uncomfortable. It is evident that, as a member of the SDLP, she was not made to feel uncomfortable by a party that names a play park after a terrorist. She was not made to feel uncomfortable by a party that campaigns for the release of terrorists from prison. I am thinking particularly of Dolours Price and Gerry McGeough — Gerry McGeough, who, incidentally, was responsible for attempting to murder a member of my party. She was not uncomfortable being led by a man who took part in a funeral where a paramilitary display took place, but apparently a flag on a lamp post makes her feel uncomfortable.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

When people look at the double standards —

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I am indicating that I am not giving way. When people look —

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

Order. The Member has made it clear that he is not prepared to give way.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

When people look at the absolute dual standard that is applied by the SDLP in relation to the issue, it is no wonder. They do not want to hear; they will not listen to be execrated and condemned by a party with such a dual standard on issues like this.

As the start of my contribution, I said that I am from the Ormeau Road. That is where I was born. I am from Annadale, and I am very proud to come from there. My vision of the future is a time when it becomes accepted that these displays happen at certain times of the year. That was the case many years ago. We should take the heat out of these issues and agree to live together. Part of agreeing to live together means that people are free to celebrate who they are and what they are. I am a unionist and a loyalist, and I am very proud of the tradition that I come from. Neither I nor the other people who come from that tradition should be made to feel guilty or bad for displaying it during what is a special time of the year for them. I do not complain when others in the part of South Belfast that I come from display their tradition, because to do so would be a dual standard — a double standard.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

I ask the Member to bring his remarks to a close.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Thank you. I want everyone to work together to build a genuinely shared future, but it will not be achieved by lecturing from ivory towers.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

I remind the House that it is an Adjournment debate and that there is no winding-up speech by any Member.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

Thank you, Claire, for bringing the Adjournment debate. Thank you, Christopher, for your comments as well.

The unregulated flying of flags from lamp posts in South Belfast is, without doubt, a significant issue for a number of people living and working in our constituency. As Claire said, it is one of the top five issues that is raised with me. We should not underestimate the scale of the problem. Residents are concerned that flags are displayed as symbols of paramilitary control and to mark territory, which undermines their desire to live in a mixed community and, unfortunately, can have a negative impact on traders' ability to reach out to the whole community. Nevertheless — it is unfortunate that you are leaving, Christopher, because I am coming to the point that you were making. Nevertheless, it is important to reflect that a whole lot of people in South Belfast take pride in the display of flags and emblems. I have included the word "emblems" because it is not just about the flying of flags but the flags on paramilitary memorials, community gardens and stuff that we need to consider.

There are cases during the year — special occasions — when the flying of flags is entirely legitimate and a positive expression of commemoration and celebration. It is further noted that the displaying of flags is quite normal across the UK and Ireland, both around specific times of the year, at sports finals, local festivals and national commemorations, and in general. Northern Ireland is distinct, however, in that people from different backgrounds can view the same flag in different ways. I would like to once again put on record that, for the Alliance Party, a shared future does not mean a neutral, nondescript future. Indeed, in a positive, progressive society, we need to recognise that the display of emblems and flags is a legitimate democratic right, whether or not we endorse the flag or emblem ourselves.

We need to be clear about the problem. The problem is what many of us would regard as an unreasonable display of flags and emblems that does not have cross-community support. It is not the display itself. For example, few people had any serious objection to the display of the Union flag to commemorate the royal wedding and the Queen's golden jubilee a few years back. Those were obvious displays of national pride, and even though the feeling may not have been shared by the whole community, in a progressive society, they proceeded without controversy, and rightly so. As has been mentioned this afternoon, Bredagh GAA flags were recently flown on the Ravenhill Road to mark the all-Ireland football championship final, a highlight of the GAA calendar, and it could be seen that they were put up in celebration and not to cause offence. On the other hand, almost everyone objects to a Union flag, a tricolour, or any national flag, being left to turn to rags on a lamp post. Even those who regard the flag as their own can object that the flag is disrespected when it is allowed to fall into a poor state of repair.

Let me be clear about what I have said, because this is a controversial issue, and it is very emotive as we have already seen this afternoon. In one case, there is almost universal support for the display of the flag, regardless of what the flag is; in the other, there is no support at all. The question is this: when does an obviously reasonable display of celebration or commemoration turn into one that is disrespectful, even to the flag itself? In other words, how do we build consensus about what is perceived as a reasonable display and what is not and how do we agree on how to manage the grey area in between? The fact is that much of the work has been done. Many of us may not have found it ideal, but I think that the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) is to be commended for developing and adopting a protocol and for seeking to ensure that it was enforced. That cannot have been an easy process for the LCC, and in many areas across Northern Ireland local accommodation was found this summer and things were better than in previous years. Of course, in some places, such as South Belfast and the Knockbreda Road, there were more flags than usual. However, the Loyalist Communities Council also issued guidelines for the flying of flags, which indicated where they should and should not appear. We have to recognise that progress has been made.

The last question that I will pose is this: how do we build community confidence across the constituency? How do we build consensus on protocols, guidelines and local dialogue? We would do well to note that interventions absolutely must not do further harm to a process that is going in the right direction in most locations. Out of frustration when I joined the Assembly four months ago — like Claire, I am contacted a lot by desperate constituents, saying, "What are you going to do about it?" — I started work on a private Member's Bill to create a legislative framework that would establish the legal right to display flags and emblems for commemoration and celebration, while seeking to ensure maximum consensus and that flags are on display only where there is local agreement. I do not propose any specific means of doing that nor any particular outcome in the development of the Bill, as I have just begun the consultation process and, as I am today, I am very much in listening mode. Frankly, I think that people have had enough of politicians claiming that they want to build consensus but then putting all sorts of caveats over what the outcome must be. Let us focus on the need for consensus.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

I do not get to wind on the debate, but I think that it is appropriate to correct the record, because I have been unfairly tarnished in this debate. I appreciate your giving way. I made a comment in June about the hunger striker banners: I raised them proactively without being asked in a BBC interview. The day after the decision was made on the Raymond McCreesh park, I issued a statement condemning it, and I made efforts in my party to the same end. I have restated that position at least six times, in broadcast interviews, because many people, like Christopher, are keen to throw out the hypocrite line but very few are keen for the record to be corrected. I was not elected at the time of the Gerry McGeough issue, but I wrote to DUP councillor Sammy Brush after his local council passed a motion calling for the release of that person. I am very glad to say that we had a number of very courteous and pleasant phone calls, when I expressed my sympathy at the traumatisation that he has been put through. I will not accept that I take a differential view. I have stood at all times, in my elected and unelected life, against all forms of paramilitarism, and it is an outrage to suggest otherwise.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

Order. The Member has an additional minute, although I suspect that much of it has been eaten up. I also remind Members that interventions ought to be concise.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

Thank you. I am finishing off.

I said that we needed to focus on consensus, reflecting that, if we can manage it in South Belfast, we could manage it anywhere in Northern Ireland. I will close by saying that I hope and trust that the South Belfast MLAs and other elected representatives will engage positively and constructively with my work on the private Member's Bill so that we can address the issue for residents and traders once and for all.

Photo of Emma Little-Pengelly Emma Little-Pengelly DUP

Thank you for the opportunity to speak in the debate. In one way, it is a slightly strange one for me. I am standing in the Northern Ireland Assembly talking about flags. If you go out there and speak to people on the ground, you realise that there is a perception that that is, in fact, all that we do: we talk about flags and the orange and green. I have told people who say that — they are often people who do not take a lot to do with politics — that I do not talk about flags day in, day out. I came here to be an MLA at the end of September last year — almost a year ago, and this is the first time, I believe, either in the Assembly or in Committee, that I am having a discussion on flags. Perhaps, it is a bit ironic that it is an Adjournment topic from Claire Hanna of the SDLP that brings us to talking about flags once again. I would prefer to stand here and talk about issues like affordable childcare, sustainable and good jobs for people etc, but we are standing here under the rather cryptic, I have to say, title "Irregular Flying of Flags in South Belfast".

I am not particularly annoyed by displays of identity such as flags on either side. That also translates into who I am as a person because I am not particularly annoyed by the celebration of identity right across the diversity of our society, should it be something that I feel part of or not. It is at the very heart of a tolerant and open society that we celebrate and accept cultural difference. I took part in the policy development of the Northern Ireland Executive's good relations strategy, Together: Building a United Community. At the very heart of that strategy is not the neutrality picture that Claire Hanna has put across but the celebration of our identity and rich diversity. Flag-flying is part and parcel of that.

I echo the words of my colleague Christopher Stalford: I do not agree with the flying of paramilitary flags. The DUP has been very clear, time and time again, that we do not agree with the flying of paramilitary flags. I will also correct what the Member said about the illegality of flag-flying. We have looked at this, and it is not always clear and is not always the case that the public flying of flags, even from lamp posts, falls into illegality. The Member should also be well aware of that. I also share some of the thoughts that were expressed about tattered flags. If people put up the flag of our country or a flag that they feel something about, they leave it there and it gets tattered, that is a shame. I feel shameful when I see that, and I know that communities feel shameful when they see a flag that they feel something about tattered and flying from a lamp post. It is not always the case that local communities can go in and take down that flag themselves. I say to those who put up the flags that mean so much to many people and allow them to get into that state that they should remove them. That is absolutely the case, and, again, the DUP has been clear about that.

What I would say to Claire is that, coming from South Belfast — I know that most people in the Chamber at this stage are South Belfast representatives — we go to events like the Mela and go down to Culture Night. Those are great celebrations of the richness of the diversity of Northern Ireland society in 2016. That is to be celebrated. What must not happen is that we celebrate certain cultural traditions and yet, on the other side of that, say that indigenous displays of culture — other people's cultural identities — should be packed away and we should be ashamed of them. We have heard about neutral spaces, yet I have seen Claire, who made that comment, at events in South Belfast — I think that I have seen all of us, in fact —where we have had Tibetan prayer flags or emblems and symbols of the Chinese or Indian community. We are all very comfortable about celebrating that. We need to get into a more mature space where we can step back and say, "Do you know what? This is a cultural identity that means something to a significant number of people in South Belfast and across Northern Ireland". We should not only tolerate that —

Photo of Emma Little-Pengelly Emma Little-Pengelly DUP

I will just finish the point. We should not just tolerate that. We hear a lot about tolerance, but sometimes we do not even get that tolerance. We should celebrate the richness of our cultural diversity. We should not say there should be neutrality for that and then put other cultural traditions and identities right into the public space — into Botanic Gardens and into the town and city centres. We need to celebrate right across the piece.

Photo of Emma Little-Pengelly Emma Little-Pengelly DUP

Sorry, I think Chris wanted to come in.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way. I think we have eventually got to a very constructive debate. Would the Member accept, however, that the Northern Ireland life and times survey, a survey used by the Executive on a regular basis to establish an evidence base for policy, shows year-on-year that, regardless of her support for flags on lamp posts or my view of flags on lamp posts, around 80% of people in Northern Ireland do not wish to see flags on lamp posts in their street? There is a significant number of people and traders with a view that this is an issue that needs to be addressed, so is she open to looking at ensuring there is a clear legal framework to deal with it?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Emma Little-Pengelly Emma Little-Pengelly DUP

Just to respond to the Member's point, I worked closely with the life and times survey in my tenure before I even came into this post. It is a smaller sample survey. There are issues with who participates in it, but it is clear that there are people who do not like flag-flying. That is, again, part and parcel of the tolerance we should show people. If people do not want to display a flag, do not display one. Likewise, just because you do not have an affinity with a particular cultural tradition, that should not mean it should be snuffed out and stamped out in the spirit of neutrality. It is important to emphasise that, if we want to celebrate diversity, we have to celebrate it in all its forms.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

Will the Member acknowledge that, for a start, this is an attempt to regulate not to ban? I made that very clear through specific examples. Will the Member agree that attempts to regulate should not be dismissed as a "hissy fit"? Will she accept that the independent research puts the ratio of a certain dimension of identity at 13:1? Will the Member further acknowledge that the Mela and Culture Night do not seek to dominate the public space for months — sometimes 12 months at a time? Will the Member further acknowledge that I specifically said it should be allowed, just not year round? —

[Interruption.]

Photo of Emma Little-Pengelly Emma Little-Pengelly DUP

It is a little unfair: you had 15 minutes initially and are eating into a lot of the very limited time I have. I agree with you about cultural dominance, and I think it is a case of diversity, but there are communities that want what they see as their cultural identity to dominate their space. They want to celebrate that, and generally it happens over July and August. I praise the considerable work that happens at a community level. We have seen not just in South Belfast but across Northern Ireland over the last number of years community leaders working with communities on the management of this: when flags go up, what flags go up and when flags come down. We are still, on a week-by-week basis, reaching local agreements about that, and that is to be welcomed. It is to be welcomed for this reason: we will find a solution to these issues only with local agreement and consensus. It touches on issues of community confidence, the social capital of communities and people feeling respected. When people hear that their traditions like bonfires, flag-flying or parades — people on either side or all sides of the diversity of our culture — are not accepted, are not tolerated and are bigoted or sectarian, they react against that. The reality of it is that we cannot sit up here and push and corral people into a particular position. We need to work with people on this, and we need to find workable solutions.

I think all of you have been involved in the issues down in the Holylands over the last number of years. I was actually involved in it when I was in the student union movement — I know my colleague Christopher was as well — in trying to work with the university about this. One thing is clear: there is no easy solution to these things. You cannot simply go in and say, "Do you know what? Clear the road. Sort out this problem. Do this. Do that". We need to work with communities to find a workable solution, and this is no different. That is my concern. It raises concern, too — I see Alex Attwood sitting there — many times during negotiations on these issues.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

I ask the Member to draw her remarks to a close.

Photo of Emma Little-Pengelly Emma Little-Pengelly DUP

We need to find a workable solution that does not push people into an equal and opposite reaction that may worsen the situation. All of us should work together to find that.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green 5:30 pm, 27th September 2016

When I saw that this subject was up for debate, I was a little disappointed because I believe that the issue of flying flags in Northern Ireland is not an issue for South Belfast alone, it is an issue for Northern Ireland, and if that debate were going to happen, I would like to see a full Chamber and a raft of opinions. Having said that, I know that Claire Hanna has spoken widely on this matter and, in my opinion, she usually speaks a lot of sense. I understand why this debate is happening.

In trying to support the licensing, regulation or any other initiatives around the flying of flags, these debates need to be had. However, if we want to contain the debate in South Belfast — the most diverse constituency in the whole of Northern Ireland, which is why we see elected representatives from five different parties holding six seats in the Assembly — it is not a nationalist and unionist issue. In the last census — correct me if I am wrong — a third of the population claimed to be neither "Nationalist" nor "Unionist" but claimed to be "Other". There is a huge Chinese population in South Belfast, and there is a huge Polish population and a huge LGBT community there as well. So, should we put flags up for everybody when they want to celebrate whatever they want to celebrate?

This is also a very timely debate because tomorrow is the day set by the Loyalist Community Council, under its own protocol, to take the flags down. In recent press statements, Jackie McDonald called on the loyalist community to make sure that the flags are down, certainly in South Belfast.

I was a wee bit concerned to hear Christopher Stalford say that a lot of people throw hissy fits when a few wee flags go up on the Ormeau Road in early June. You might have been born there, Christopher, around Annadale, but I have been living there for 20 years. I am not sure when you were last on the Ormeau Road but have a look because there are three flags on every lamp post from the top at Rosetta to the bottom at the city centre. I do not call that a few wee flags and I do not think you should be quite so trite about it.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Thank you. I am glad that you gave way. Do you accept that there is a direct correlation with this annual event ending up, in the last week in June, being blown completely out of proportion, usually in the South Belfast News. We have already talked about the fact that, if you push people in one direction, you will get an opposite reaction. Every year, two political parties in particular make a huge issue out of this. I believe that others are committed to a genuine shared future and, in particular, on the Ormeau Road. The SDLP would not even vote for a flower bed to go into the Ormeau park to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Ballynafeigh Orange hall. A flower bed was too much for them.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

Thanks for that. I think that is just an —

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

Order. The Member has an extra minute. I ask all Members of the House to show courtesy when a Member is on their feet. Some of the conversations are a little too audible.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

It is just another example of where this debate is going and how seriously the issue might be taken. I am recently elected, for the first time, in South Belfast, but, for years, I have been contacted by residents there with their concerns over flag-flying. There is a range of concerns. Some people are concerned that the flags are there in the first place. Some people are concerned that they are there and are left to rot. They feel that it is a sign of disrespect and they want new ones put up. Other people are concerned because they do not know who is putting them up, why they are putting them up or for how long they will be up. Some people are just seriously weary that it is flag season again.

I am not tutting at any community and I resent anybody in the House who thinks that by standing up and engaging in this debate, I am looking down on, or tutting at, the working-class loyalist communities in South Belfast, because I am not. I spent the summer meeting community groups and people in the working-class loyalist areas of South Belfast. What the people are saying is not anything to do with flags. They say, "Seriously, thanks a million for coming. We could not tell you the last time any elected representative has ever paid attention to us." I have given the commitment that I am here for all people and all concerns.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

Order. The Member should continue.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

Thank you.

The flying of flags in Northern Ireland is not something that I see as a celebration of identity; it is something that I see as a root cause of a crisis of identity. When people are not confident and not feeling secure, that will work its way outwards.

When Christopher Stalford was speaking, he challenged Claire Hanna and asked her when so many flags went up. Well, the flags went up in more numbers when Belfast City Council took its decision, and 40,000 leaflets went to homes telling people to be afraid and that they were under attack. The result was that we now have a bigger culture of flying flags across Northern Ireland. It is not exclusive to South Belfast. It is playing petty politics when you come out with statements like that on an issue that needs to be sorted out.

This is not a South Belfast issue; it is a Northern Ireland issue. The debate needs to be wider. It needs to be taken with a level of seriousness, not as a petty one for cheap political point-scoring. This is not a nationalist and unionist issue. We come to Pride week in Belfast, and I have the LGBT community in South Belfast come and ask me, "Where will we put our flags? There is just no room on the lamp posts". What would happen if our LGBT community went out and put its flags up? I will just leave that there. I cannot imagine that you would have the same reaction to that.

Yes, I believe that regulation is needed, not because I believe that legislation is the answer but because there is a deficit in exactly what Emma Pengelly said about community consensus and working with people and understanding their needs, their fears and their reasons for wanting this. The Loyalist Communities Council, in putting together its protocol, has done an awful lot more than any elected representative over the past few years.

Photo of Doug Beattie Doug Beattie UUP

I am very conscious that I am not from South Belfast, but it is a microcosm of the whole of Belfast, which is a microcosm of the whole of Northern Ireland, and it is important to talk. I am also part of the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition. We have had three meetings so far, and I am one of only two MLAs who sit on that commission; it is not full of MLAs. If you do not mind, I will try to keep my remarks quite general so as not to impinge on what I do in the commission.

I suppose that the flying of flags is nearly an institution in Northern Ireland. It has become part of our psyche in many ways. Certainly, when I was growing up, flags were always flying in some shape or form, normally on a house, and that has transitioned onto lamp posts. As a unionist, I really do not mind if people use the Union flag or the Ulster flag or the Irish tricolour or the provincial Ulster flag as something that identifies them with their identity, culture and tradition. As long as they fly that flag in an appropriate way that does not intimidate, I have no real issue with it.

The one thing that I would say, just to put something in context here, is that there is only one flag that represents the sovereignty of this country, and that is the Union flag. Now, I cannot see how anybody can be intimidated by the one flag that represents the sovereignty of this country, and therein lies the problem: because I cannot see it, does that mean that it does not intimidate? In the same way, there are people in nationalist areas who fly the Irish tricolour and cannot see how that might intimidate me. So there is a real problem about perception and understanding, and there is a conversation to be had about that.

I do not like flags flying up lamp posts; I really do not. People know that. I have gone up lamp posts and taken those flags down. My flag, my Union flag, in tatters up a lamp post — it is just not acceptable, and I do not like it. It is completely disrespectful.

Many people will know my background in service overseas, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo or east and west Africa. People know where I have come from.

Not once have I needed a flag flying above my head to tell me how British I am, that I am a member of the United Kingdom or that I am fighting for a particular cause. That is because I am a confident unionist. I am confident in my identity, I am confident in my culture and I am confident in my traditions. However, not everybody is confident, and there is a general perception — it is important to take this on board — in some communities that their identity and culture are being eroded.

I was not in politics when the decision was taken to take the Union flag off City Hall — people will know about that issue far better than I do — but it had a serious, detrimental effect on the Protestant/unionist/loyalist people of the whole of Northern Ireland. It is that perception that we need to deal with.

Photo of Doug Beattie Doug Beattie UUP

Absolutely.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

I would like you to expand on the point about it having detrimental effect. How can you quantify that?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Doug Beattie Doug Beattie UUP

People are at fault — you could point your finger at those who are — but when somebody takes down your national flag, you genuinely feel that somebody is trying to erode something that is incredibly important to you. If you went down to the Republic of Ireland and said, "Take down your tricolour from the Dáil", people would be upset, and that is the problem that we have here — it had a detrimental effect. I understand the reasons why, and I am not attacking that. I do not really want to get into it.

Paramilitary flags are an absolute scourge and should not be flying anywhere. If I could, I would take them down, and I have done so in the past. Only this year, the Loyalist Communities Council came up with a commemorative flag, and what did we do? We attacked them for bringing out something to try to bring about change. Mean-spirited journalists attacked them because the hand was the wrong way round. MLAs attacked them because they did not like the flag. That was a council trying to change things, and, where I come from in Portadown, it worked. This year, I could count the number of paramilitary flags flying in Portadown in single digits. It was far better than last year and certainly better than the year before that.

We have a group called Regenerate that operates in Portadown. It got residents' groups and community groups together to talk, and it came up with a flags protocol, which was instigated last year. It absolutely works: the flags went up for our celebrations over the Twelfth of July and came down. It was exactly the same this year: they went up and came down. Paramilitary flags did not go up. It has absolutely transformed Portadown and stretched into Banbridge. It is an exportable commodity that could be taken to South Belfast and used there. That is because it is based on dialogue, not on MLAs leading the community by the nose with legislation and saying, "This is what you will do". This is about communities, supported by MLAs, coming up with solutions for themselves. This was an intra-community, not cross-community, initiative, but it had a cross-community effect in Portadown. Suddenly, we saw that flags that were up in the nationalist area were not going up in interface areas. It was not perfect, but it absolutely worked.

I do not like seeing flags on lamp posts, but I would like to see my flag — the Union flag — and all its regalia flying above our government buildings. I would really love to see that all the time. However, I reiterate the importance of bringing the people with us. Where we make improvements, we must applaud success. Where we fail, we must examine failure and do better the next time, but it will take time for us to be able to do that.

Adjourned at 5.44 pm.