What we can’t do is permit an approach which divides rather than unites, regardless of any other areas of agreement. 

Emmet McDonough-Brown is an Alliance Party Councillor for the Botanic DEA

Alliance was accused of a climb down by Green Party Councillor Brian Smyth last week over the issue of flags, so I wanted to take this opportunity to set the record straight.  I know that the vexed question of flag flying won’t be new to Slugger readers; we all know this arouses deep passions in our politics, but why are the Greens attacking Alliance over the issue?

The simple answer is they’ve failed to defend shared space.  The Green Party joined the DUP last summer to deliver a “flags protocol” on the Ormeau Road in South Belfast, one of the most socially, culturally and politically mixed areas of Northern Ireland.  They don’t like this being pointed out.

Flags are used to demarcate territory and often intimidate residents.  That’s why it’s wrong for Greens and DUP to agree to a “protocol” – which allows flags to be erected for a third of the whole year – without wider input from Ormeau Road residents or representatives from other elected representatives.  I know that people want to see parties which share much of an agenda work together, and for the most part the Greens and Alliance do, but this is an issue where we differ.

The proposal for Belfast City Council to consult with members of the public on the presence of flags and banners in the city won’t be universally popular, and we still have detailed work to do on the precise nature of the consultation, but Alliance’s hope is that this will give the public their say on a potential way forward.  We believe that we are better than the use of our identity to try and inferiorise each other.  We want to move forward together, and this consultation is a good places to start.

I want to address a point the author of last week’s post made around shared space: the Alliance Party has always believed shared space should be vibrant and free from the deadening nature of paramilitaries who should have long ago left the stage.  This isn’t neutrality, it’s quite the opposite.  Imagine a patchwork of green and orange space across this society – it does nothing to resolve division and build a united community, but it is exactly the logic of the position of the Green Party when they refuse to challenge the abuse of national symbols.

Furthermore, it’s implied that issues of identity are primarily the concern of “working classes” who have “carried the weight of the flags issue across the years”.  Nobody denies that poverty is a real and pressing issue in our society, but why elide it with identity?  Are we being invited to believe it’s only the poor in society who care about who they are?  This is made all the more bizarre by the subsequent claim that same people are “held to hostage by paramilitary criminals masquerading as community representatives”.  Perhaps the people erecting the flags are the ones truly holding communities hostage.  I invite the author to reflect on this point.

It is encouraging to see the Green Party engaging with the difficult issues which face this society.  Those of us who have long pushed for progress on areas of contention will always welcome more shoulders to the wheel, but what we can’t do is permit an approach which divides rather than unites, regardless of any other areas of agreement.

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