The publication of the ‘Towards a New Understanding’ report into the flying of flags has caused much debate around the practice of flying flags on lampposts.
This was perhaps the key and most focused upon part of the recommendations, although the report did provide some opinion based research- also carried out by Lucid Talk- on the flying of flags from Council buildings.
For Unionism, it is important that we do not conflate the bones of the document- which are the recommendations and conclusions- with the meat around it, which is simply a collection of opinions and research. It is how that research translates into recommendations that should take our focus.
The approach of refusing to engage and entrenching ourselves has not served Unionism well in recent years. I believe that we must go on the offensive, engage in every forum and around every table possible and pocket the positives and mitigate the negatives. The alternative is to become further isolated, marginalised and eventually criminalised.
The flags report recommends in relation to the tradition of flying flags from lampposts that now is not the time for legislation or robust enforcement, but rather a voluntary set of guidelines. This is a positive to be pocketed and built upon. Legislation and/or statutory regulation would only lead to criminalisation.
As one of the reports authors, Dr Paul Nolan, said at the launch on February 17 2016 “it is never a good idea to criminalise expressions of culture”.
The report also recommends a voluntary set of guidelines and outlines suggestions around what these guidelines should entail.
At its core the suggestion that the flying of flags should governed by a voluntary protocol is a good one, although the suggested guidelines would not- in my opinion- be in any way workable or even considered by the section of the Unionist community that takes great pride in flying our flags as part of a cultural expression.
So what do we do? Option one is to throw the report in the bin. That isolates working class Unionist voices and ensures that the influencers- quite often from an academic perspective- are those from outside our own communities, who as well intentioned as they may be, are effectively imposing solutions from the outside.
Option two is to pocket the positives such as the recommendation that legislation would not be a problem solver but rather a problem maker and mitigating the negatives by adapting the idea of voluntary guidelines into a positive community-led protocol. Use the core suggestion as a staging post in order to build a set of guidelines that is acceptable to the working class Unionist community.
This means accepting- at its most basic level- the recommendation of voluntary guidelines, but taking ownership of the process and ensuring that these guidelines are community-led. Solutions must come from the community and not be imposed with a top-down approach.
I would encourage a new way of thinking amongst working-class Unionism. A more strategic method of problem solving.
We must be confident in our own message and our ability to articulate that message. We have nothing to fear from engaging in debate and discussion.