Are London and Dublin flagging?

Flag protest at Belfast City Hall

Flag protest at Belfast City Hall

As the crisis over the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall enters its second month, questions are again being raised about the continued absence of the British and Irish governments in seeking a solution. The Detail’s Steven McCaffery reports.

DOES Unionism need a ‘critical friend’?

According to business-speak, that would be a trusted confidante ready to offer uncomfortable truths when tough decisions have to be made.

When you’re in a bind, your critical friend would keep you right, whether you liked it or not.

The British and Irish governments used to provide the service to both unionists and republicans.

They’d steer them through difficult phases with a blunt word in the ear.

But it seems those days are long behind us, amid a growing impression that the governments have become increasingly disengaged.

Five weeks into Northern Ireland’s flags crisis it is still witnessing murder bids on police, death threats against politicians, disruption to economic and civic life, ongoing protests, road blocks and riots.

Critics claim that the response of London and Dublin has been mere tokenism – a word of condemnation here, a brief media statement there.

But it is the result of a developing pattern of British and Irish government reaction to recurring crises in the peace process.

The tactics of the two governments can be traced back to the series of negotiations that have followed the initial peace deal agreed on Good Friday in 1998.

The most recent was the Hillsborough negotiations of January 2010.

The discussions took place in the Co Down castle which is the Secretary of State’s official residence and caters for the Queen during royal visits.

Talks ran across three days and two nights, representing the longest set of continuous negotiations of any period of the peace process.

The summit saved Stormont’s power-sharing government and saw its role extended to cover responsibility for Policing and Justice.

But as the media waited outside the castle gates – in wind and rain, followed by heavy falls of snow – a subplot seeped out from behind the battlements.

It was a narrative that praised the unending patience London and Dublin shows to the troublesome northern tribes.

`Both governments have lots of important work to do,’ the story went, ‘but here they are, dragged back to Belfast again.’

The marathon nature of the peace process provides fertile ground for that kind of frustrated analysis.

And the Hillsborough agreement allowed the governments – led now by politicians with no track record in the peace process and whose agendas are dominated by pressing economic difficulties – to take a step back from Northern Ireland.

The flags row, however, has presented the Stormont parties with a crisis they seem unable to contain.

The dispute has become a touchstone for a plethora of loyalist grievances including concerns over British identity, under-achievement in schools, and the restricting of loyal order parades.

The scatter-gun of complaints means it is difficult to identify a central problem, never mind a solution.

The Alliance Party’s Naomi Long, threatened by loyalists over the flags row, is among those who say unionist leaders raised expectations by making unrealistic promises over hot issues like flags and parades, when compromise is inevitable.

At a time of continuing violence by dissident republicans opposed to the peace process, the flags crisis has also underlined the sporadic violence of some loyalists despite their declared commitment to a permanent ceasefire.

Loyalists have in the past cited a series of aggravating factors, including the continuing police investigation of crimes from the Troubles.

Tackling the legacy of the decades of conflict, however, would require a comprehensive effort by both governments.

And they show little interest in doing so, or in defusing the tensions over culture and identity that overshadow Northern Ireland’s successful political accommodation.

The governments’ muted response to the recent weeks of rampant violence and political disaffection has prompted some to ask if London and Dublin have confused Northern Ireland devolution with independence.

The two governments still have ultimate responsibility. It’s part of their job.

It is true that they regularly play their roles in the north-south and east-west political structures set-up after the Good Friday agreement.

They could also argue that the current crisis was created by the local parties and should be solved by them.

Or perhaps London and Dublin simply hope the problems will go away.

Perhaps they need a critical friend.

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