Haass raises ‘new NI flag’ question (UTV)

The idea of a new Northern Ireland flag has been raised by US diplomat Richard Haass, ahead of his return to Belfast next week – as his end-of-year deadline to resolve contentious issues looms.

While Dr Haass has not simply proposed a new neutral flag for Northern Ireland, in an effort to resolve divisions over the Union flag and Irish Tricolour, he has asked how it might be brought about.

“What might a process to design and validate a new NI flag look like?” he questions.

“What role might such a flag play in civic life?”

Dr Haass also posed further questions to politicians on the flying of flags generally – such as where they should be flown, how a ‘code of conduct’ might work and how to deal with any breaches.

The diplomat, who has been chairing the process aimed at finding solutions to contentious issues, remains determined to meet his self-imposed deadline of the end of the year.

While other issues – including parades and the past – also need to be resolved, flags are particularly pertinent one year on from the decision to fly the Union flag on designated days at Belfast City Hall.

The change in policy, which was opposed by unionist politicians, resulted in major protests by loyalists – some of which, over the Christmas period last year, resulted in serious disruption and even violence on the streets.

Smaller-scale protests are continuing, with a city centre demonstration passing off largely peacefully at the weekend.

Northern Ireland does not currently have its own official flag, and the Union flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the only flag used by government.

Concerns have been raised by nationalists about the inclusivity of using the Union flag in areas where some people claim Irish citizenship.

Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, people born in Northern Ireland are legally entitled to choose whether they are British or Irish.

Previous suggestions have included flying both the Union flag and the Irish Tricolour side-by-side, or flying neither of them.

Unofficially, St Patrick’s Saltire is sometimes used when Northern Ireland is being represented alongside England, Scotland, and Wales.

The Ulster Banner – based on, but not to be confused with the provincial flag of nine-county Ulster – is sometimes used, often in a sporting context.

It was the official flag of Northern Ireland from 1953 to 1972, but has not held that status since then.

Responding to the questions posed by Dr Haass, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said that his party stands “four-square” behind the Union flag.

“Our approach to the Haass discussions will be to ensure the Union flag is treated with respect as the national flag,” he said.

“We will not be party to any process which dilutes the status of our national flag.

“Other parties are at liberty to put forward their ideas, but this should not be misinterpreted as having the DUP’s endorsement or support.”

Ulster Unionist MLA Tom Elliott said: “The principle of consent was enshrined in the Belfast Agreement and acknowledged in all agreements since then.

“By recognising Northern Ireland`s position as part of the United Kingdom, those who signed up to these agreements also acknowledged that the flag of the country is the Union flag.

“Only when all parties join us in reaffirming that point can we look at other issues in respect of flags and emblems.”

None of the nationalist parties wanted to comment on the issue on Tuesday.

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