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Dublin: 10 °C Saturday 4 April, 2020
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Column: We need new ideas to solve the flag issue in Belfast

Innovative ideas are needed to solve the crisis in the North, writes Steve Wrenn, who says we need to think outside the box and compromise.

Steve Wrenn

Last week, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement met to discuss the impact of the recent protests in Belfast on the local retail sector, which is costing the local economy at least £15 million (€17.7 million). Dublin Counsellor, Steve Wrenn says that riots can easily progress into a bigger problem, so in order to stem this issue there needs to be some give-and-take.

WE ARE NOW into the eighth week of Unionist rioting in Northern Ireland. It is estimated that over £15 million in revenue has been lost and many police officers have been hurt. Property has been destroyed on a nightly basis and Northern Ireland’s reputation, which it citizens and representatives have worked hard to establish since the Good Friday Agreement is suffering as a result.

Riots

The trigger for these riots was the decision to limit the display of the Union flag over City Hall. We saw how easily mass rioting broke out all over Los Angeles in 1992 and in France in 2005. We also saw mass rioting in England in 2011 catching the authorities off guard and bringing cities to a halt. All had triggers that resulted in large-scale public unrest. History has shown us that if these conflicts are not resolved quickly and fairly it can result in loss of life and large-scale destruction of property. Countries reputations can be effected for years resulting in tourism and their economy suffering also.

These riots and their beginnings in the flag issue indicate a new type of problem faced by the citizens, both private and public, of Northern Ireland. In the past, violence had its roots embedded in decades of dispute with all sides clinging to their grievances. In the past, differences arose due to inequality. Now, with the new more equal structures in place in Northern Ireland, it is vital that all involved look to a new solution to this situation, one that moves away from the jarring reminders of the past we have seen in recent weeks and forward to new methods of resolving the inevitable conflicts that arise in a new society.

Solutions

Riots by their very nature are difficult to police and the bigger the riot the harder it is for the police to arrest offenders and stop the disorder. I have no doubt that this is what makes rioters feel comfortable enough to keep engaged and returning to the streets of Belfast. The fact that these riots are occurring at the same time as an increase in activity involving criminals with Republican links in the Republic of Ireland adds an even more sinister element to them.

It goes without saying that both the rioting and the security threat posed by dissident republicans needs be resolved as hastily as possible in order to underline and emphasis the success of the peace process in Northern Ireland and the desire of the majority of the people living in Northern Ireland to continue to live in the peaceful fashion to which they are now accustomed.

Policing may be the only method available to control a riot but communication, compromise and the process of conflict resolution are the only methods that will bring the unrest to a close. Eventually, the rioters might disperse because of the weather or early morning raids by the police. Raids on the homes of the ringleaders will result in stiff fines and prison sentences that may end the current trouble. The worry for the future is that this might have brought a whole new generation of young people into a fight that they don’t fully understand or remember how it started.

Young protesters

Young people may be criminalised and potentially given a ‘badge of honour’ by their peers for their involvement in such behaviours. It is vital that we recall the lessons of our past and develop new strategies to ensure that this harmful cycle doesn’t start again. In the Republic of Ireland we have seen situations escalate out of control resulting in ongoing murders and several generations continuing feuds that become impossible to resolve. The families feuding in Limerick is a prime example of how generational violence and murder will continue, and serves as a reminder of how important it is to deal with smaller issues before the point of escalation.

Mediation is a perfect example of the type of intervention that has been used successfully in the past in communities and could be considered in this instance. It promotes ‘win-win’ outcomes, offers those involved the opportunity to express their issues in a comprehensive fashion and, most importantly, is very successful.

Coming from a mediation point of view, a way of preventing young people from both communities from engaging in rioting or sectarian violence could be to have them design a Northern Ireland Peace Flag. This flag could have, for example logos from both communities or incorporate colours from both the national flags. Schools, community based groups and other interested agencies could propose their designs and the people of Northern Ireland could choose their winner.

Peace flag

This flag could be flown over city hall and other controversial locations all year around. The peace flag could have huge significance for Northern Ireland and show the world once again that the people of Northern Ireland have refused to bow to violence and have decided to emerge from these recent difficulties a community that is stronger and more united than ever.

Another option that could be explored is the establishment of a “symbol commission” similar to that established by the British government in 1930 “to determine the rights and claims of Muslims and Jews in connection with the Western or Wailing Wall”. A commission such as this could have input into decisions such as those made regarding the flag and propose resolutions to prevent situations such as this arising again.

Steve Wrenn is a Labour Councillor for the Dublin North West Constituency. He is also the Peace Commissioner for the City of Dublin and surrounding counties.

Column: The Irish Government must help end the flag protests>

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