There are a lot of arguments advanced by those who think the Union flag should fly over Belfast City Hall 365 days a year ( +1 on a leap year). Their most obvious argument last night was to yell foul-mouthed abuse, smash cars and attack police officers and security staff. Those unionists (i.e. the Alliance Party) who think 365 days is a bit over-the-top chose the selected-days option, and so it was decided. Latest word is that the Union flag will fly instead fly 365 days a year over the cenotaph beside City Hall. This of course will help the city centre become a 'shared space'. And your granny was a jockey in last year's Grand National.
Unionists are violent/angry because, they say, the symbols of their Britishness are being cabined, cribbed, confined by republicans/nationalists. Oh really? Put your hand in mine and let's take a walk through City Hall.
In the grounds in front of the Hall we see, among other things, an 11-foot-high statue of Queen Victoria and a memorial to Sir Edward J Harland MP (designed by Sir Alfred Brumwell Thomas and unveiled by Field Marshall Viscount Allenby). There’s more but it’s chilly. Let’s go inside.
Now. Here we have a bronze statue to the Earl of Belfast, Frederick Richard Chichester, and this mural commissioned to mark the Festival of Britain in 1951. These are portraits of King Edward VII, the Earl of Shaftesbury and Sir Edward Harland. Over there are stained glass windows showing the Royal Coat of Arms and those of the Chichester family. Here’s a special case displaying the Royal Charter granted to Belfast in 1613 and the 1888 Charter from Queen Victoria. And as we walk into the Banqueting Hall, you will note a series of stained glass windows showing the Royal Arms and those of Lord Donegall and Lord Shaftesbury. And you’ve probably noticed the stained glass windows showing King William III, Queen Victoria and King Edward VI.
Got the picture yet? Belfast City Hall, in the overwhelming number of its signs and symbols, is a warm-as-toast house for those who subscribe to the union with Britain; for non-subscribers, alas, it’s some degrees below cool. And that, mind you, without reference to a fluttering/non-fluttering Union flag above the building.
Given that we’ve moved into an era where general lip-service is given to notions of parity, an interesting question arises: what should be done about the historical decor of places like Belfast City Hall? How might we make Belfast City centre a genuine shared space, with no signs/ symbols associated with one community crowding out those of another?
Well, you could do what was done with Nelson’s pillar in Dublin: set explosives, blow up what is out of place. When that happened in 1966, a considerable number of those living in Dublin and further afield were upset. They dismissed this direct-action approach as caveman, primitive. It’s a reasonable argument, even though I’ve never heard anyone within or beyond the Pale complain that in the 1920s Great Brunswick Street in Dublin became Pearse Street, Great Britain Street became Parnell Street and Sackville Street became O’Connell Street. What’s more, did anyone of the pillar-lovers ring in and complain when the statue of Sadaam Hussein was pulled down following the American invasion of Iraq? So it seems it’s not always barbaric to remove the signs of a former regime when a new one comes into its own.
I’m not for a moment saying all the British royalty and aristocracy artefacts listed above should be removed. I’ll not even argue that a balancing number of stained glass windows and statues should be constructed in honour of famous Irish leaders, or that street names be changed to reflect changed times.
What I am saying is that those today wringing their hands and rending their garments because their Union flag will no longer flutter over City Hall every day that God sends, and who feel that Monday night stripped them of their British identity - those people really should take the City Hall tour. That or go to Specsavers.