It is disappointing that the talks between the parties in Northern Ireland, chaired by former US diplomats Richard Haase and Meghan O Sullivan, achieved no agreement.
These two people are professionals of the highest quality, with wide experience of conflict situations. I worked with both of them during my time as EU Ambassador in Washington.
The fact that they would devote so much time to the remaining problems of Northern Ireland is testament to their spirit of public service. They were invited to devote this time by the parties in Northern Ireland themselves, which makes the failure of the parties to take the opportunity to agree all the more dispiriting.
Of course, the three issues to be settled…flags, parades, and crimes of the past… were not easy ones.
The Irish tricolour, and Union Flag of the UK, were both explicitly designed to express unity, not division.
In the case of the Irish tricolour, the aim was to symbolise peace between nationalist and unionist communities in Ireland.
The Union flag of the UK incorporates three Christian crosses, the cross of St Patrick, the cross of St Andrew, and the cross of St George, symbolising harmony between Ireland, Scotland and England.
On the face of it, it is perverse that these symbols, of themselves alone, should be offensive to anybody. In fact the flags could be interpreted to represent two of the three strands that underlie the Irish peace process and the Good Friday Agreement….the tricolour, with its idea of peace between Orange and Green, symbolising the North/South strand, and the Union flag, merging the three allegiances on the two islands, representing the East/ West strand of the peace process.
But, of course, that is not how they are regarded on the streets and flagpoles of Northern Ireland. Both are used by some, and resented by others, as party or sectarian symbols. They are used as a means of marking off territory, and of indicating welcome for some people and exclusion for others. They are left flying day and night until tattered and torn by the wind, to a degree that shows scant respect, by those who put them up , for what the flags represent.
National flags are expressions of the sovereignty of states. As such they could, and perhaps should, be seen as the political equivalent of the business concept of a “trade mark”.
A trade mark indicates the origin of a product and can only be used with the consent of the originator of the product. A national flag is similarly the expression of the sovereignty of a state, and should be reserved for use by the state itself or with its consent. It should never be used for a commercial, sectarian or party political purpose.
If the Union Jack could only be flown, at home or abroad, when, where, and in conditions of which the London Government approved, and if the Irish tricolour could only be flown when, where and in a way of which the Dublin Government similarly approved, that, if enforceable, could eliminate the use of either flag as a sectarian symbol.
THE EMOTIONAL DIMENSION
A legal remedy of this nature does not address the underlying problem, which is the emotional response that particular flags evoke in particular groups of people.
That arises, in part, from the contested and provisional nature of Northern Ireland.
It is part of the UK, as long as a majority there wants that, but if a majority once changes its mind, it is irrevocably absorbed into a united Ireland, and there is no provision for that question being revisited.
That is the current expression of what is known as the “principle of consent”. In a sense, the “principle of consent” is a one way street, and that contributes to a sense of insecurity in the Unionist community.
That sense of insecurity is added to by the doubts about whether the United Kingdom itself will long remain united, and by a gradual change in the religious balance within Northern Ireland itself.
Flag waving would be less important, if the future was clearer and more secure.
Parades have been a divisive factor in the life of Northern Ireland for a very long time.
They are debated nowadays in the context of rights….the right to free expression, the right to use of the highway, and the right not to be gratuitously offended by parades by others.
Rarely is the language of responsibility in the exercise of these same rights used…….the responsibility not to abuse others through public speech, or through parades, and the responsibility to turn the other cheek, and keep a sense of humour, even if offended.
Common sense is not exercised about parades because of the burden of the past.
THE CRIMES OF THE PAST
Part of the problem is that some of the terrorist organisations have never apologised for the deaths and injuries they caused. In one case, this is because they consider their “armed struggle” to have been justified, even though it never received any sanction from the people on whose behalf it was supposedly being waged. An apology would be seen as an admission of a lack of legitimacy.
The other difficulty is the modern conception of victim’s rights. A victim of a crime is frequently presented in the media as having a right to see the perpetrator of the crime against him or her punished, and is assumed to achieve “closure” when this happens.
I have always had doubts about this concept of the purpose of criminal justice. It is too close to vengeance for comfort.
As I see it, it is society, not the victim as such, that has an interest in the punishment of crime, because society needs to deter or prevent future crimes, and that justifies and requires, a system of punishment. Society is entitled to make pragmatic judgements on something like this, and if an amnesty for past crime of a particular type is in the interests of the greater good of society, then it is probably better that victims be recompensed in some other way.
It may be that the Irish and UK Governments now need to assist the Northern Ireland parties by clarifying the wider context in which the Haase/O Sullivan process might be resumed.