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Time to move on from flagging politics of past

Published 21/01/2014

Opinion Brendan Mulgrew




There has been plenty written about the failure of the Haass process, thus far, to come up with an agreement on flags, parades and the past, not least in these pages.

Suffice to say at this stage that the feeling on December 31 when wakening to the news of the failed outcome was akin to the air coming out of a Northern Ireland-shaped balloon. It made for an inauspicious end to 2013 and was enough to test the will of the most battle-hardened of optimists. How we manage the legacy of the past, and accommodate the needs and wishes of the victims of the Troubles is a vital issue and one worthy of everyone's best efforts, the other two issues really are the politics of the past, and that's where, for the sake of the future, they should stay.

It is not only depressing that the whole Haass enterprise has yet to result in a favourable outcome, but surely it is disproportionate that our political leaders, with international assistance, spend so much time, energy and political capital pursuing issues which mean very little to the vast majority of people who live here.

For eight years I worked closely with the NI Parades Commission, and while those who engaged with the Commission were clearly passionate and sincere in their support for or objection to certain parades, it was very clear that the vast majority regard the issue as largely settled.

Successive public attitude surveys over that period showed that ever increasing numbers of people, on all sides, regarded the Commission as the solution to the parading problem.

The BBC poll taken as recently as last December re-enforced that conclusion and showed that the same applied to flags; almost 60 per cent of the population either had no opinion or favoured the flying of the Union flag on designated days. The fact is that most people have more to worry about than whether a flag flies on a certain day or not.

Yet, despite that broad consensus our political system was stuck in a quagmire for six months, pursuing what amounts to the politics of the minority, at the expense of the majority. That balance has surely to be addressed?

When has there been a hothouse political talks process around, for example, the economy, or education or health?

Aren't parents whose 11-year-old children are forced to sit four consecutive Saturdays of transfer exams entitled to have that core issue put under a similar political spotlight?

Shouldn't the search for a so-called peace dividend around tax breaks, enterprise zones or corporation tax have received the same dedicated amount of concentrated effort as that spent on flags and parades?

It is genuinely baffling to a large number of people that these issues dominate the political discourse and hog the headlines at a time when youth unemployment is on the rise, when A&e departments are seemingly at breaking point and when we have lived in a school transfer vacuum for more than a decade.

The one economic issue which has come the closest to receiving that level of joined-up political campaigning has been around the demand for the devolution of power over corporation tax.

Whether our own political leaders were responding to the unified voice of business or reflecting it, we did at least, and at last, see a concerted effort which may yet bear fruit.

It is crucial that the case for a reduced corporation tax continues to be made, forcibly, by our political leaders, in spite of the diversions which plaque them at this moment.

There are shards of light forcing their way through the prevailing economic gloom. Recent job announcements and investments at Thales, Fujitsu and Finnebrogue show what is achievable, and there is clear evidence, globally and locally, of an economic upturn.

Anyone who is working with some of the genuinely exciting new and emerging IT and life sciences companies locally can testify to the level of talent that we have in Northern Ireland, and to its economic potential. The education sector at university and further education sector is more attuned to the local economy than ever before and that's all to the good.

At an individual level our ministers can be, and often are, very effective in their own fields. While the commonly held sense of 'that lot on the hill do nothing' is unfair and inaccurate, it is invited by the same politicians who appear too comfortable engaging in wars of words over the politics of the minority.

That makes it easier to cast wholesale blame on 'the politicians'.

So - a plea for a new year's resolution from our body politic. If flags and parades really mean that much, then fine, keep on trying to resolve them.

But at the same time remember what really matters to the average citizen, and it is not who marches where and under what flag. It's time for a new set of priorities.

* Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner of MW Advocate. Twitter: @brendanbelfast n Next week: Angela McGowan