--Brian Feeney - Irish News
15 April 2004

Does Easter kick off the 'marching season' or is it the Somme on the
first Sunday of July? It used to be the Somme, but the kick-off seems
to be getting earlier each year. It's no longer marching feet that
signal the beginning of the season, but other, more symbolic evidence
of ownership of the north: flags, graffiti, bonfire preparations.

Yes, in recent years preparations for Eleventh night bonfires have
been noted in early March, a full three months before they are to be
lit. Flags begin flapping from lamp posts and telegraph poles around
the same time and slogans are scrawled or sprayed on any available
surfaces. Alongside these phenomena you can hear the plaintive wail
of the middle classes appealing to the flag wavers, bonfire stackers
and spray-can artists to consider the environment, think about the
shameful impression on visitors to Norn Irn, have pride in their
community. Hah.

You may as well appeal for good weather on St Patrick's Day. Guess
who runs those communities? Why the very people who send out the flag
wavers, bonfire stackers and spray can artists, principally the UDA
and LVF with the UVF in Co Antrim bringing up the rear.

Do the hand-wringers believe for a moment that if the local
UDA/LVF/UVF boss didn't want flags, bonfires and graffiti there would
be any? What do they think would happen to guys festooning the place
with flags contrary to instructions from the local boss?

Naturally the local boss is impervious to considerations of the
environment or tourism. He knows that the local council and DOE are
equally impervious to environmental conditions on the estate he runs
and that no tourist ever catches a glimpse of it, loyalist Bushmills
being the exception.

No, the only way to deal with these manifestations is legislation.
Isn't it remarkable that after almost 40 years of persistent
sectarian violence the first time people were convicted for an
offence connected with loyalist flags was last month? It's indicative
of an attitude that has dominated the pro-union thinking in the NIO
for the whole period of that office's existence. Their concern being
that somehow you can educate people out of sectarianism, that
bringing in legislation to deal with the unique and specific
circumstances of the north would perhaps be to admit that this really
is a place apart, not like, wait for it, 'the rest of the UK'.

Do you realise that the Incitement to Hatred Act was brought in in
1970? Yes 1970. You may not realise either that it covers all the
aspects of bigotry that bedevil the north including using words or
publishing anything threatening or abusive or insulting on the
grounds of 'religious belief, colour, race or ethnic or national
origins'. It might have nipped things in the bud. Only one snag. It
doesn't work because you have to prove intent. Although this flaw was
obvious since 1971, nothing whatsoever was done to plug the gap.

The thinking was similar with fair employment legislation. Introduced
in 1976, it was like a lighthouse in a bog: brilliant but useless. A
decade later there was no difference in the ratio of unemployed
Catholics to Protestants. The US and Irish governments had to drag
the NIO kicking and screaming to sign up to real anti-discrimination
legislation in 1989.

The evidence across the world points in one direction only. In ethno-
political conflicts like the north it is fanciful to believe that you
can educate people out of bigotry and sectarianism and racism. The
only approach that begins to work is legislation with stiff
penalties. It was the huge fines and compensation powers in the 1989
Fair Employment Act which brought offenders to heel. It was only
after the 1954 instruction from the US Supreme Court that states had
to act 'with all deliberate speed' to end segregation that brought
governors in states like South Carolina and Virginia into line.

The only way to deal with the intimidation and threat that oceans of
flags and graffiti and bonfires present to the community at large is
by prosecution and jail. They're not merely a claim to ownership of a
particular captive estate. Due to the blind eye the authorities turn
to loyalist bonfires and flags, these manifestations of extreme
unionism represent a claim to ownership of the north of Ireland, a
unionist place where symbols of unionism, however extreme,
threatening or offensive, are allowed special licence to disfigure
the public thoroughfare, and in the case of gigantic bonfires, to
endanger property.

The legislation is in place. It remains to be seen whether the police
and NIO have the will to enforce it or whether unionists will be
allowed to flout it for the next six months until they decide the
marching season is over.

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