The art of free society consists first in the maintenance of the symbolic code; and secondly in fearlessness of revision, to secure that the code serves those purposes which satisfy an enlightened reason.
— Alfred North Whitehead
However quote of the week goes to Máiría Cahill writing in the Sunday Independent. It’s an old saw in marketing that “everything communicates” and sometimes in ways people might rather it didn’t.
Looking back to her own youth and childhood, she recalls a finely drawn detail from memory…
Tattered old flags fluttered on poles most of the year round, threads unravelled by winds exposing little white lines which ate into the “t” of the ironic UDA phrase, “Quis Separabit”…
“Who shall separate us but our own carelessness with our own symbols”, you might say? Changed times now though, and how…
As “the war” era has subsided, new generations make wider choices about who they think they are or want to become. The uncomfortable conversations of the 90s displaced by questions like, ‘what next’?
What indeed. As Terry argued here yesterday, the focus is for the most part on old enmities and the biggest playing field of all, the past. The very thing that (despite the propagandists) we cannot change.
According Cahill, serious attempts at change, like the £800,000 dropped on the “Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition Commission to find a pathway through unresolved matters” are blocked.
Even the Commission’s website (that once sat here) no longer exists. The place to see the report is on the Executive Office’s (the well buttressed defensive barbican of the DUP/Sinn Féin duopoly) page.
The commission agreed 44 recommendations which for the most part were sensible, like legislation to compel the Department of Education to “be placed under legal duty to implement UNCRC Article 29.1; Article 30; and Article 31 in a manner appropriate to our society which is one emerging from conflict”.
It also recommended that “bonfires are an important aspect of the culture, identity and tradition of communities and are therefore a legitimate form of celebration or commemoration, provided they are compliant with the law”.
It isn’t exactly rocket science, yet it was a step too far for the Executive Office — which, incredibly, failed to agree an implementation plan, effectively rendering the report destined to gather dust on a Stormont shelf.
The inaction resulted in the usual falling out, and blame gaming of which we are now grindingly familiar. Cahill again…
If SF and the DUP were serious about truly moving society out of segregation, they could start by effectively doing the jobs they are paid substantial amounts to do. The electorate is savvier than Stormont gives it credit for and the Covid pandemic has starkly exposed its dysfunction.
A recent Ipsos Mori poll for the University of Liverpool found that just 7pc believe the Executive performs effectively as a government. Last week’s flag report fiasco won’t give voters any comfort.
And to finish, with well wrought irony, she quotes a poem from Paula Matthews first published in the Honest Ulsterman a few years back not long after the flags dispute… Here’s the last few stanzas…
‘Aphrodite,’ they would ask,
‘Can you tell us your position
on the flag situation? We want to
weigh your right to sexual expression
with our history of oppression.’
The Goddess speaks: ‘ I am a Deity.
My mind’s too high for flags.
I’m the ancient force of fertility,
passion and love in free women.’
“O, dear,” they would reply,
“We’re afraid it won’t work.
You’re the evocative female who
might distract us from our task.
We are dealing with the past.’
Our “symbolic code”, to cite Whitehead, is the Belfast Agreement/GoodFridayAgreement not whatever you’re having yourself. The ratings of both tenants of the Executive Office are on the slide.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty