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Alex Maskey Motion 39 - flags and emblems

17 February, 2006

For nationalists the British union flag and associated emblems are symbols of domination, the imposition or partition and the denial of democracy to the Irish people.

The British flag and Crown symbols, whatever about any political allegiance to Britain it may convey, have been used by unionism as a symbol of political dominance and a tool of sectarian coat trailing.

The late human rights lawyer PJ McGrory summed up this experience when he wrote:

"All around them nationalists, on a daily basis, see the ordinary institutions of an ordered society proclaiming a loyalty and an allegiance, which they do not share, but by which they feel oppressed, strangers in their own land."

The Good Friday Agreement was about changing all of that. The norms applied to flying the union flags and symbols at Government and Court buildings in Britain are not appropriate to the six counties. The north is not as British as Finchley as once famously proclaimed.

The unique nature of the Good Friday Agreement and the conditions which gave rise to its negotiation are a testimony of that. What was agreed at Castle Building at Easter 1998 was about mapping out a framework which would ensure equality and respect from and for all citizens, as well as defending and protesting human rights and civil liberties.

In relation to flags and emblems the Agreement was very clear. It demanded that symbols and emblems are used in a manner which promotes mutual respect rather than division.

This has not happened. Under pressure from the unionist parties the British Secretary of State took upon himself the power to regulate the flying of flags on government buildings. Both the way this was handled and the result achieved contradicted the Good Friday Agreement and was unacceptable to Sinn Féin.

The Good Friday Agreement has to be the philosophy which informs decision taken on the issue of flags and emblems Parity of esteem, equality, inclusivity and the promotion of mutual respect should underpin future decisions on the flying of flags at government and public buildings.

This was the approach I adopted while Mayor of the City of Belfast, when for the first time the Irish National Flag took its place in the City Hall alongside symbols of the unionist tradition.

Where there are British cultural symbols involved in public life in the north, equivalent Irish cultural and political symbols should be given equal prominence. If agreement or consensus cannot be found on this then a reasonable alternative is to suspend the flying of flags until such agreement can be found. In other words and equality scenario or a neutrality scenario.

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