What's in a Flag?

07/12/2012 11:07 GMT | Updated 04/02/2013 10:12 GMT

At its best, a nation's flag can represent its identity - a symbol of its history, values and ideals. Yet flags can also be symbols of oppression, of division.

It may seem puzzling that a small, seemingly insignificant piece of cloth holds the power to convey such abstract concepts, that it possesses the ability to inspire unbridled emotion, passion and loyalty.

In Northern Ireland, however, a place whose history is fraught with dispute - the flag comes to assume an even greater importance than it may in other countries.

Resultantly - albeit unfortunately - it may come as little surprise that a controversial vote on whether or not to keep the Union Flag flying outside Belfast City Hall each day of the year has provoked much public unrest. Earlier this week, Belfast City councillors voted by a margin of 29-21 to have the flag flown only on assigned occasions such as the Queen's birthday. Until now, the flag had been flown for 365 days a year.

On Monday evening, as the result of the vote was made public, the following unrest descended into violence as Loyalist protesters rioted outside the City Hall - the crowds even spilling over, at one point, into the building's courtyard. Fifteen police were injured, three arrests made. Those returning form the city centre later turned their attack on the city's Short Strand area, hijacking a bus in the vicinity.

In the following days, Alliance Party councillor Laura McNamee (who voted in favour of having the flag flown only on designated days) has been forced to flee her home following threats from extremist Loyalists. Tonight, reports stream in of violence having spread to Carrickfergus, where the Alliance Party's office has been attacked, with yet more police officers injured.

Much of the blame for such outbursts has been pinned on a hard-core faction of Ulster Loyalists - but what exactly are such extremists hoping to achieve?

As Belfast gears up for its most economically profitable time of year, Christmas shopping season; as it welcomes to the front of its city hall a continental market hosting visitors from around the world; as new reels of riots are beamed to the corners of the globe - what will these reactions do for Northern Ireland's national image?

Of course, such issues will continue to evoke strong reactions. People will necessarily disagree on matters that they hold dear - it's this diversity of opinion that propels debate, which, for the most part, takes the form of orderly and respectful discussion.

Ultimately, however, we need to put the week's events in perspective. Anachronistic scenes such as those witnessed over the past few days are nothing but blatantly sectarian. These tactics undermine any hope of rational or reasonable debate, and achieve nothing in the way of developing understanding and promoting diversity.

First Minister Peter Robinson has moved quickly to condemn such actions, noting:

"The scenes of violence in and around Belfast City Hall and the wider vicinity are totally unacceptable and must be unreservedly condemned".

To keep moving forward on the journey towards a shared and prosperous future for Northern Ireland, we must relegate such scenes to the dim and distant past.

As we attempt to overcome this latest stumbling block in our community's path towards peace, we must pose the question: isn't it slightly ironic that in fighting to defend the flag, these rioters compromise the very ideals it symbolises?