On the 3rd of December 2012 a vote was held by Belfast City Council to remove the union flag from the dome on top of its city hall. An amended vote was passed by a council majority of nationalists with the support of the non-aligned Alliance Party. A compromise was reached in line with the flag-flying policy at parliament buildings at Stormont – the home of the Northern Ireland assembly. The flag will be absent for the majority of the year, except to mark specific occasions such as the Queen’s birthday, as a gesture to unionists. This solution is one that connects to the philosophical ideal of toleration.
The flying of the union flag has been a long-standing controversy in Belfast, as one can imagine, even in the current post-conflict scenario, where religious identity still acts largely as a synonym for one’s political affiliation. The flag has been a permanent fixture on top of City Hall since its opening on its current site in 1906. But with demographic change in the city and a particularly well-fought election campaign on the part of the nationalist Sinn Féin (and a bad one by the Ulster Unionist Party), in 2011, for the first time nationalists outnumbered unionists on the council, with the non-aligned Alliance party holding the balance of power between the two. This meant that a motion was inevitably going to be brought to council to see the union flag, a symbol that is by most accounts only representative of the half the city, taken down.
This brought vociferous loyalist protest on the evening of the vote (see, for example, the report here). The protest reiterated the long-standing unionist commitment to the flying of the flag over city hall. The argument being that the union flag flies over every city hall in the United Kingdom by convention. So to remove the flag is to undermine the status Belfast that has as a United Kingdom city.
This of course was countered by nationalist politicians who argued that the flag is by its very nature divisive. Nationalists have long contended that city hall is a public space and has to be, because of this very fact, an inclusive space for all the citizens of Belfast. This means that regardless of the symbol’s positive affirmation of U.K. cityhood for unionists, the flag has to be removed because it alienates and excludes nationalists.
These arguments, however, somewhat cloud the use of symbolism as a demonym for national-political ideology in Irish/Northern Irish politics. Unionists intrinsically value the union flag because they are unionists plain and simple. Many nationalists, particularly those of the Republican stripe, would most likely, when hard-pressed, like to see the Irish tricolour fly over city hall. Real-politick suggests however that no union flag, as a second best, is a better and more achievable option for nationalists than the status-quo. It is more realistic than the preferred option of the tricolour alone, which is an unacceptable position for unionists to ever accept.
Indeed one of the mooted options during the consultation was to fly both the union flag and the Irish tricolour simultaneously side-by-side (see here). This was appealing to many nationalists, and even some unionists, but ultimately rejected because for many unionists – even though it would give parity to both traditions – it would ultimately symbolically legitimise the political presence of the Irish Republic in Northern Ireland.
Symbolism has a political potency in Northern Ireland politics that some in Britain may find hard to comprehend. What might seem trivial elsewhere has real political value, because symbols of British/Ulster and Irish nationalism have real meaning in the inter-relationship between religious and political identity. The compromise reached involves genuine toleration, like a lot of the political paradigm in Northern Ireland. For the union flag to have remained would have been an unacceptable solution. Unionists could have contended that nationalists should tolerate the flag, but this would have in meant in practice unionists failing to show toleration for nationalists' opposition of the flag. In this sense the flag remaining would have been a plainly intolerant move. This would have again been true if nationalists had pushed for the tricolour to be flown over city hall, a move that would have not found support from the Alliance Party, and quite likely from the moderate nationalist S.D.L.P. (and perhaps even in practice a pragmatic Sinn Féin).
But what of the equal recognition of both traditions, by having two flags? This is a move that does not solve the problem with reference to toleration; it is one that affirms difference. The problem with this solution is that it affirms and essentialises identity. Such a solution solidifies the fact that Protestantism equates with a unionist/British/Ulster identity and Catholicism with a nationalist/republican/Irish identity in Northern Ireland. The tolerant solution provides a political stabiliser that allows these forms of normatively contingent identification to be transcended. Unlike the Alliance Party position, which uncritically makes the assumption that both unionist and nationalist politics are sectarian by their very nature, rather what is sectarian about these forms of identifications is the idea that one is a unionist because they are Protestant and one is a nationalist because they are Catholic. But unionism and nationalism have the capacity however to both be non-sectarian ideals. It is because of this that toleration works as a means, that should be absolutely welcomed in this instance, to move towards a natural accommodation of difference, where politics can be conducted without reference to the constitution and persons can be seen not in terms of their identities, however configured.
Adam Fusco, originally from Belfast, is a PhD student at the University of York, and a graduate of York's MA in Political Philosophy (The Idea of Toleration), for which he was a recipient of a Studentship from the C & JB Morrell Trust. His research focuses on questions of national identity, their role in contemporary citizenship, and Civic Republican theory.