Never mind the election posters which will adorn lamp posts in the run-up to the December 12 Westminster showdown, what about a resolution to the flags and emblems issue?
There is the real danger that contentious issues could be swept under the electoral carpet as the Remain and Leave factions try to colour their respective manifestos in political green and orange paint. Flags is one of those controversial issues which will be outgunned by the Brexit debate.
I recall a time when Unionists in the predominantly loyalist region tried to defuse a paramilitary flags time bomb to prevent Protestant districts being marked out as ‘turf’ by death squads such as the UVF, UFF and Red Hand Commandoes.
However, the plan was viewed as ‘triumphalism by the back door’ by Sinn Fein.
The flags crisis always seems to be sparked when Orange and loyalist memorabilia is used to mark out territory, including a substantial stock of flags supporting groups which have been responsible for hundreds of sectarian murders during the Troubles. The same is also true of many Catholic areas.
Some years ago, unionist councillors from the DUP and UUP proposed a blueprint whereby the Union flag would be flown on the council headquarters all year round. The plan also allowed for the Union flag to be flown from other proper public flagpoles, such as those outside Orange halls.
At the time, one Unionist representative told me the purpose of the blueprint was to get the “Union flag treated with respect”.
In terms of loyalist paramilitary flags, during tours of the area, I have not seen them being put up in significant numbers. The real danger period is always between 1st and 30th July.
However, whilst many groups remove flags after the marching season, there is the potential for crisis if paramilitary flags are left flying all year round.
There have been attempts to defuse the parades issue. We see this proposal on flying the Union flag as an attempt to get a sensible solution to the flags issue.
We want this to be viewed as a sensible measure and that it will not open the floodgates to the flying of paramilitary flags. To date there has not been a noticeable problem with paramilitary flags, but only time will tell.
However, the selling and obvious erection of the loyalist paramilitary flags has also been condemned by Sinn Fein.
One Sinn Fein source blamed the situation on a unionist-controlled council’s decision to fly the Union flag all round, maintaining this had sent a signal to the more extreme elements in loyalism that they should parade their flags supporting loyalist terror gangs. My Sinn Fein source at the time said:
The decision not to adopt an equality agenda on flags only compounds the problem and has created this situation where the loyalist death squads see this as an approval of triumphalism.
I am not surprised loyalist death squad flags are being sold openly. We see that in the new estates, they are being marked out by loyalist death squads’ flags. I am determined to see a policy change on any decision to fly the Union Jack 24/7.
It is annoying that the unionists could claim a monopoly on those who died in the two world wars. Many Irish people died, and they didn’t die to that we should live in a sectarian state. Given the sort of unionist political leadership, its not surprising we are getting extremists wanting to fly UVF and UFF flags.
With the dark nights going to be a feature of this election campaign, maybe it will be the vehicle of social media which keeps the flags issue fluttering in front of the candidates?
And speaking of flags, splits within the unionist family are not just limited to parties or political directions, but also to those choice of flags which represents the various cultural diversities within Protestantism.
Just as there is a need to distinguish between the different types of Protestant marches, such as church parades, loyalist band events, and Loyal Order demonstrations and ‘feeder’ parades, there is also a need to differentiate between the traditional unionist flag culture and the militant loyalist flag culture.
Traditional unionists tend to bedeck their areas with Northern Ireland flags, commonly known as the Ulster flag, as well as the Union flag, commonly known as the Union Jack.
The real tensions can arise from July 1st, when many Protestant communities stage their Mini Twelfth or Somme anniversary parades.
Whilst the event is supposed to commemorate the men of Lord Edward Carson’s original 1912 Ulster Volunteer Force and its junior wing, the Young Citizens Volunteers, the names of both organisations are now associated with loyalist death squads.
Historically in 1914, the UVF mainly formed into the British Army units, 36th (Ulster) Division, and the YCV became the 14th Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles. The 36th especially suffered almost 6,000 dead and wounded on the opening day of the Somme, 1st July, 1916.
However, the names of the UVF and YCV were revamped in the mid 1960s as loyalist terror gangs. Whilst some militant loyalist working class areas fly the flags of the UVF and YCV as supposed historical support for Carson’s men, it is generally perceived as an act of defiance in support of the modern-day Protestant terror groups.
The shocking revelation is that the flags and emblems of banned loyalist death squads which have no link to the 1912 Home Rule crisis can be openly bought across the counter in a number of predominantly loyalist areas.
In the teeth of the marching season, for example, in the heartland of many loyalist areas, the loyalist shops have a wide assortment of banned terror group memorabilia, such as flags, badges, patches, hats and scarves.
These included UFF and Red Hand Commando flags and ties, UDA scarves and UFF hats. UDA/UFF children’s mini-flags were displayed alongside mini Orange standards, the flag of King Billy.
Loyalist tunes regularly play from a ghetto blaster, and the atmosphere in such shops is one of the helpful assistants willing to help you get the correct purchase – including on one occasion, an under-the-counter order for the notorious Waffen SS Death’s Head (Totenkopf) division, which was responsible for running the Nazi death camps.
Ironically, the anniversary commemorations every year to mark the end of the First and Second World Wars in both Europe and the Far East always produces new sets of commemorative flags for Protestant districts.
The farcical nature of the Protestant flags tradition can see Jewish Israeli flags, World War Two commemoration flags, and Waffen SS banners all flying in the same districts.
The flying of the Israeli flag is two fold – to rival republicans who fly Palestinian solidarity flags, and also as support for the concept of British Israelism, which maintains that Ulster Protestants are descended from one of the Biblical 12 tribes of Israel.
There may not be the same time frame to get election posters erected before the 12 December poll, but in the increasingly bitter political turf war between the communities, there is a perception of a rise in the displaying of paramilitary flags as a means of marking out a group’s specific ‘turf’.
It should never be forgotten that loyalist terror gangs have been responsible for almost a third of the deaths in the Troubles, with some 1,050 killings attributed to them, according to the acclaimed publication, Lost Lives.
Top of the murder list comes the UVF with 534 deaths. It claimed responsibility for the first sectarian killing of the Troubles, Catholic barman Peter Ward in 1966. Amongst its most notorious atrocities were: the McGurk’s bar massacre in December 1971; the Miami Showband massacre in July 1975, and the reign of terror by the Shankill Butchers in the late Seventies and early Eighties.
The UDA and UFF come next in the Irish killing fields and are responsible for 408 deaths, including; killing most of the 40 people who died at the hands of loyalist gunmen in 1991; the killing of five Catholics at a bookie’s shop on Belfast’s Lower Ormeau Road in February 1992; seven murdered in October 1993 in the Rising Sun bar massacre at Greysteel, Co Derry.
The Red Hand Commando – viewed as the UVF’s little brother – has killed 13 people, including in October 1992 a man in east Belfast it claimed to be an informer. Its founder, John McKeague, was himself murdered by the INLA in 1982.
The Loyalist Volunteer Force, set up in the mid 1990s by the late Billy Wright as a breakaway from the UVF, has murdered a dozen people, including Sean Brown in May 1997, a well-known Bellaghy GAA member. Wright was himself murdered by the INLA inside the Maze Prison in December that year.
Another dissident group, the Red Hand Defenders, has killed three people, including the prominent Lurgan solicitor Rosemary Nelson in March 1999. It was formed by rogue LVF members who did not accept their organisation’s decision to announce a cessation of activity in 1998.
Other fringe loyalists, either individuals or groups, have been responsible for the deaths of another 79 people.
Brexit may be the key talking point for this election, and it may not be decided by the 12 December outcome, but there will always be flags to sort out in Northern Ireland.
Listen to religious commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.30 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online at www.thisissunshine.com