Current Affairs Politics

The Past Is A Foreign Country

The British presence in Ireland - a faded and tattered thing
The British presence in Ireland – a faded and tattered thing

It’s been another night of street-clashes and rioting by youths and terrorist-linked activists from the British Unionist minority in the north-east of Ireland following the majority vote by Belfast City Council to reduce the flying of the British flag over the City Hall to fifteen designated days a year after decades of undisputed display. The original motion placed before the council was to remove all flags from a building shared by both the Irish Nationalist and Unionist communities but the majority Nationalist parties of Sinn Féin and the SDLP accepted a compromise motion put forward by the liberal Unionists of the minor Alliance Party to fly the flag on dates important to the city’s British population (the same arrangement in place at Stormont, the seat of the regional power-sharing government in the North of Ireland). However the main British Unionist parties, the DUP, UUP and some others, opposed any compromises with the elected representatives of the Irish Nationalist community of Belfast and following a defeat in the vote led calls for public demonstrations that predictably descended into days of sustained violence that have left dozens injured.

Now the main British Unionist political parties are attempting to further inflame communal tensions in the north-east of the country by seeking to overturn the decade-old compromise agreement in place at Stormont and have the British flag flown all year round from the roof of the regional legislature, in a return to the symbolism of several decades of one-party, anti-Irish authoritarian rule by Unionism. The same rule that eventually led to the 1960s’ Irish civil rights movement and thirty years of military conflict that largely ended with the Irish-British Peace Process and the Belfast Agreement of 1998.

The advances made in the years since that landmark accord are being imperilled by the supremacist beliefs and internal political rivalries of a minority in the British Unionist community in Ireland and their adherence to a British colonial ideology that the vast majority of the people living in Ireland and Britain left behind decades ago. A British colonial ideology built on ethnic and religious fears continually stoked by the leaders of Unionism to sustain their own privileged positions.

But if you think that a conflict over flags is unique to the North of Ireland think again. In Québec they are seeing their own long-running flag dispute, albeit one conducted in a largely peaceful manner. From CTV News in Québec:

“The Maple Leaf has survived a symbolic vote in the Quebec legislature, with the Parti Quebecois being defeated in an effort Tuesday to remove the flag from the building.

The vote marked a milestone for the province’s national assembly: the Canadian flag has never before remained on official display in the building when the pro-independence PQ has held office.

Members of the sovereigntist party erupted in jeers and sarcastic cheers as its motion to remove the flag went down to defeat.

The target of their heckling was the province’s newest political party. The Coalition Avenir Quebec is led by a staunch former Pequiste, Francois Legault, but the new party has always positioned itself as neutral on the independence question.

Now the PQ says that the flag vote has illustrated, once and for all, how that neutrality is a sham. It says the Coalition’s sympathies have become clear.

The motion sponsor said there are now two pro-Canada parties in the legislature, the Liberals and Coalition, and independence-minded voters will have to think twice before backing either of them.

Legault explained why he voted with the status quo.

“The CAQ is a coalition of sovereigntists and federalists. There are federalists who believe very much in Canada and I believe this (flag issue) is really not a priority,” Legault said.

It was at the swearing-in of the new PQ cabinet several weeks ago that people noticed the flag had been removed.

The Canadian flag has had an on-again, off-again presence in the Red Room. It is the only visible spot in the building where the emblem hangs.

Marois’ government made a formal request to remove it last month, on the 36th anniversary of the election of the first PQ government in 1976.

That year, then-PQ premier Rene Levesque was the first to put the Quebec flag in the legislative chamber, the Blue Room, where the daily debates are held and votes are cast. In 1983, he put the Fleur-de-lis in the Red Room.

The Maple Leaf was eventually added to the Red Room by federalist Liberal premier Robert Bourassa when he returned to power in 1985. It was removed by successive PQ premiers before being brought back in 2003 after Jean Charest’s Liberals took power.”

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