Northern Ireland Assembly Flax Flower Logo

Northern Ireland Assembly

Monday 24 September 2001 (continued)

Mr McNamee:

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Aontaím le focail an mholtóra - leis an chuid is mó acu ar a laghad. Níl mé i gcoinne an rúin é féin, ach tá ceist agam ar an mholtóir: conas is féidir leis an ghrúpa seo an fhadhb a réiteach?

I agree with much of what Mr McCarthy has said about flags, emblems and graffiti, whether they are of a para­military nature or not. I tend to agree with Mr Hay's approach. Why does Mr McCarthy think that the establishment of an interdepartmental working group will solve the problem? He and others referred to the intro­duction of legislation. We have legislation that makes it an offence to deface public property. The Departments have the capacity to remove objects of any nature from their property, be it road signs, telephone or electricity poles, or the gables of Housing Executive properties. More legislation will not necessarily address the problem.

The issue of graffiti certainly needs to be addressed. The Department for Regional Development is responsible for removing graffiti from road signs, direction signs and hazard signs. I note that the Minister is here. Perhaps he will comment on the costs to the Department of dealing with graffiti.

There are legitimate uses of flags and emblems to celebrate cultural identity, cultural expression or an event, and there are murals that are visually attractive and not offensive to anybody. However, there is no doubt that in the work place, in schools and places of education, in places of worship and in mixed communities where people have different cultural or religious identities, flags and emblems are uncomfortably intimidating.

I have had many discussions with Roads Service and Housing Executive officials and with community groups on the ways and means of dealing with problems such as graffiti and flags. The only way that they can be effectively addressed is by involving the community groups in the areas where the problem occurs. Legislation and policing will not solve the issues of graffiti, flags or emblems.

I ask the proposer of this motion what benefit he sees in establishing this group and how he sees legislation being effective. For any group to be productive, it would need to be working on the street with the communities involved, with a community approach, and enabling them to have a more constructive and attractive expression of their culture. I am not opposed to the motion, but I question the effectiveness of simply establishing an interdepart­mental group to deal with the issue. Go raibh maith agat.

Mr McCartney:

Last week, during the debate on Holy Cross Primary School, I was at pains to mention that in recent years the Northern Ireland community has become more divided, bitter, angry and violent than it has ever been in the past.

In the past few days a university report has been published on the divisions in the community of Northern Ireland. It confirms in the most graphic way that over the past seven years - a period, incidentally, covered by the so-called peace process - divisions in the community and a sense of bitterness, exclusion and fear have multiplied enormously. The percentage of people from one community who will not enter, even by car, areas perceived as belonging to the other community was very revealing. The figure was enormously high. Many Protestants and Unionists will not enter communities perceived as being Nationalist-dominated, and Nationalists who for years have done their shopping in areas perceived as being predominantly Protestant and Unionist will no longer enter those areas. The community has been completely and totally divided.

Among the features of the division are the signs and symbols that the extremist paramilitary groups have decided to impose on communities as indicating that they control those areas and those communities. Because they control those communities through fear and violence, members of the opposite community who might be recognised as such will not enter them. Members of the communities that suffer under this symbolism are terrified of a brutal reaction to protests that they do not subscribe to the views that these symbols are intended to convey.

The Assembly is fond of telling the world at large and the community in Northern Ireland about the benefits that devolution has conferred upon it. However, all the signs of the much-vaunted peace process and the investigations carried out by community relations bodies and academic investigations, such as the one I referred to, confirm that that is not the case. The opposite is the truth.

In 1995, when I was elected MP for North Down, the Kilcooley estate, a large housing estate in Bangor, was virtually free, if not totally free, from all paramilitary symbol­ism. In the past five or six years the main thorough­fare through that estate has had every kerbstone painted red, white and blue. On the gable walls of those houses, which can been seen from Bangor's Circular Road, there are massive Loyalist paramilitary productions proclaiming UVF or UDA brigades and lauding the importance of, and the dedication to, the Union of those groups.

I have no doubt that such symbolism is replicated throughout many Nationalist areas. One may ask why that has been permitted. I have made such enquiries to the RUC and the Department of the Environment in the Bangor area. All sorts of reasons are given, but the most important reason is that lives might be lost or personal injury might be suffered if attempts were made to remove paramilitary symbols, which would be replaced instantly.

I agree with the sentiments of the motion. If it lay in my power, or in the power of the Assembly or the Executive, to remove effectively, efficiently and permanently all paramilitary symbolism and flags, I would endorse it wholeheartedly. However, the fundamental problem is much deeper than one that may be cured by an interdepart­mental committee that makes proclamations or invokes legislation about how the problem should be dealt with.

Since the process began - and this is why the problem exists - both Governments, under cover of arriving at a political settlement, have in fact arrived at a process of conflict resolution between the British state, which nominally has authority for the Assembly, and the representatives of violent Republican terrorists and their counterparts in the Protestant/Unionist community. It is necessary to include the latter because if they are excluded - and politically the UDA has been excluded by the electorate - they feel free to carry on with their paramilitary activities, thus threatening the Nationalist community, as they are attempting to do at present. The Nationalist community and its so-called representatives in the IRA would then react, and the whole structure would come tumbling down. It was for that reason that a policy of appeasing both sets of terrorists was allowed.

An academic group, which I think was from the University of Ulster, compiled a report on policy in Northern Ireland. That group also made it clear that it believed that the Government were deliberately frustrating the principles of the Belfast Agreement by adopting a softly, softly attitude towards terrorists. This softly, softly attitude towards terrorism is reflected in the attitude to alleged breaches of the ceasefire.

1.15 pm

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Sir John Gorman] in the Chair)

It seems that Republicans can murder, maim, mutilate and destroy within their own communities to keep them under control. Nationalists and Republicans murdering Nationalists, Republicans and Catholics does not amount to a violation of the ceasefire, and it is the same with their counterparts in the Loyalist organisations - and it seems at present that they are even more active in brutalising their community. They are creating Republican and so- called Loyalist areas where the rule of law does not run, where these groups can dominate the communities and behave in whatever way they wish.

For the sake of preserving the agreement, for the sake of alleging that ceasefires exist which do not, the Government have been prepared to tolerate this. Why have the Government tolerated criminality? Until last Tuesday week it was necessary to preserve a policy of protecting the mainland by appeasing terrorism in Northern Ireland, and so we have the manifestations of the control which the Governments, both North and South, have permitted.

We have the manifestations of the control in the flags, emblems, graffiti and gable wall proclamations that these are areas where the rule of law does not run, where Republican IRA terrorists and so-called Loyalist para­militaries manifestly control and declare that control through flags and emblems. The Government do not wish to do anything about it.

We are told that we should propose legislation, but as Mr Hay said, who will enforce the legislation? What if the enforcement of that legislation brings about open conflict with these groups? What if they shoot members of the security forces or murder members of the Department of the Environment who are carrying out this work? Instantly that would bring to a head a confrontation with those whom these symbols represent. That could threaten the policy that, up to now, has been one of deplorable appeasement by the British Government, encouraged by the Irish Government, which permit dumps of weaponry to remain on their soil in contravention of their Constitution.

There is no point in trying to deal with the symptoms of a disease, a political disease that is endemic in this community, without considering the underlying causes. If we deal with the rash without dealing with the cause of the rash it will perhaps manifest itself in another more virulent and violent form.

We do not need another commission or body to deal with these sectarian manifestations. Jane Morrice suggested a commission on sectarianism. Everyone here knows the causes of sectarianism, and the only people who would be qualified, in the view of that august party, to be members of that commission would be members of that party. No doubt they would be offering themselves for membership of the commission as most suitable and most qualified by their simon-pure protestations - because they do little else. Just like many other commissions, it would sit, it would talk, it would piffle and prognosticate, and it would not be able to produce any answer.

I agree entirely with the sentiments of the motion. Alban Maginness introduced another element: what is a sectarian emblem or symbol? Is it the Union flag? Is it the tricolour? Those emblems would not come within the terms of Mr McCarthy's motion.

Let us look into the matter a little deeper. Four or five years ago the great principle that everyone was looking for was equality of esteem. At that time there was a difficulty about the national anthem being played at Queen's University. I remember that the SDLP Member Bríd Rodgers, who is now a Minister, said that Queen Elizabeth was not her queen and that the symbols of British authority in Northern Ireland were not her symbols. Her President was the President of the Republic of Ireland. People are entitled to espouse to that viewpoint. However, if one of the fundamental pillars upon which the Assembly and the Executive is erected is the principle of consent - that until a majority of the people of Northern Ireland consent to be ruled otherwise than from the United Kingdom - the United Kingdom will be the sovereign power and Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom. Therefore the Union flag is the flag of Northern Ireland.

I have never been a flag flapper. I have never been in favour of using the Union Jack as a means of demo­nstrating any form of triumphalism or superiority over the Nationalist community. I deplore the use of the national flag for such a purpose. However, we are at the stage of becoming a stateless people. We are not allowed any emblems that indicate the political identity of the state. There are problems about flying the Union flag over this Building; and greater problems about flying it over the Departments of certain Ministers. It must be realised that the problem of symbols identified most acutely with the paramilitaries is only an extreme example of a divided community. That community is daily becoming even more divided by the policies of central Government.

I am in favour of the sentiment and objective of the motion. However, I have profound reservations. Passing laws, whether by the Assembly - or by the Medes and the Persians - is useless unless such laws are enforceable and can be delivered. We will have this problem until there is a real willingness in the community to tell the men of violence in both communities that they have no place here. Any committee, body or commission will not be able to offer any remedy or panacea for that difficulty.

Mr O'Connor:

I support the motion. The situation is that some Northern Ireland Housing Executive estates, whether Republican or Loyalist, are bedecked with flags and pictures of gunmen, which I find grossly offensive. It does not matter whether they are Republican or Loyalist gunmen. There are problems in my town of Larne. I agree partly with what the Member for Foyle (Mr Hay) said about community participation. Unfortunately, in some of those estates, the tail is wagging the dog. It does not apply only to estates in which there is a mixed community; in predominantly Protestant and Unionist estates, there are people who find it grossly offensive to have paramilitary flags flying, and I have no doubt that that feeling is replicated in the Nationalist community. However, people are too afraid to say or do anything. Should we subject those people to life under such conditions? Do we let the tail wag the dog by kowtowing to the people who are putting up the flags and asking them which flags we can take down?

I agree with my Colleague, Alban Maginness, who said that there was a need for legislation. The current legislation is, at best, woolly, and it is not enforced. When the law is enforced, the people involved get no more than a slap on the wrist, because putting up flags counts only as behaviour that is likely to cause a breach of the peace. It is much more than that: such people are telling their community that they are the bosses - the school yard bullies - and that local people must do as they are told, or face the consequences. We need an effective deterrent, and the punishment should fit the crime. Intimidation is not being dealt with seriously. Crimes involving intimidation on religious or racial grounds must be dealt with more severely.

Public authorities have a duty to try to promote good relations. We have talked about flags on street lights or murals on the gables of Housing Executive houses. In my town, there are two gables side by side. One has a mural showing the Battle of the Somme, and I do not find it remotely offensive. The other mural portrays two gunmen in a military stance, and underneath are written the letters "UFF": I find that offensive.

There may be such a thing as a cultural mural, but a line must be drawn. We must decide where culture ends and paramilitary culture begins. We must define what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. Anything that advocates the use of illegal arms or illegal force is unacceptable. Would a true Irishman who respected the tricolour or a true Unionist who respected the Union flag paint their flag on the streets for the dogs to run over? I do not believe so. People who respect their flag should use it when it is appropriate to do so.

Mr McCarthy said that some people liked to fly the Union flag from their home at certain times of the year; that is a matter for them. I am talking about the estates that are decked out in paramilitary regalia. The communities need help to get the people who are doing it off their backs. As Mr McCartney said, there has been a certain appeasement of such people. The Secretary of State has been ambivalent about admitting that both sides have broken their ceasefire.

I accept that, but how do we make progress? How do we prevent people from being intimidated? How can that cloud be removed from over their heads?

1.30 pm

Legislation may be the answer. I take on board Mr Hay's and Mr McCartney's points about the need to be able to enforce any legislation. People have previously tried to paint over murals, only to be told that they must leave the area or they will get a bullet through the head; they have been genuinely frightened. The Housing Executive, as a result of one such incident, is very reluctant - and understandably so - to send anyone back to that estate to take the necessary and appropriate action. However, there are other solutions, perhaps in conjunction with the police. One option is that undercover policemen paint over graffiti and arrest those who threaten them.

There has been talk of an irresistible force and an immovable object. It has also been said that the more graffiti is removed the more will appear, but it must be removed every time it goes up, and those who keep putting it up must be prosecuted. In that way we can try to create a better environment for all citizens.

Mr Deputy Speaker:

Another six Members wish to speak. Will you bring your remarks to an end? A seven- minute limit on succeeding Members will be imposed.

Mr O'Connor:

Members of an interdepartmental working group may know the problems on the ground and may be able to make solid recommendations. On that basis, I support the motion.

Mr Shannon:

I support the proposal in principle, but I also urge caution on circumstances that could arise as a result of it. It is important to address the issues that Mr McCarthy raised. I understand that the Department is keen to support the proposal, but some matters must be taken on board. Mr O'Connor spoke of the fear in the community. While that is true, not everyone is afraid of what is put up on walls.

Some murals are very acceptable, for example, those commemorating World War I, to which many people, as members of the Royal British Legion, can relate. Much of the community thinks that those murals are acceptable. A clear distinction must be made between what is accept­able and what is not.

I also urge caution on the interdepartmental working group. Will the Government body be able to enforce its recommendations? Will it be able to suggest how they should be enforced? Perhaps Mr McCarthy will address that. It is all very well to ask for changes, but we must address where such changes will occur and who will be responsible.

In one incident on the Ards peninsula this year, obscene graffiti was put up. The RUC and Ards Borough Council were quite happy to remove it. The graffiti appeared in the countryside, where there were only three or four households that might feel directly endangered or threatened by it. The graffiti was dealt with immediately because all residents in the immediate area were opposed to it.

That was a simple situation. It happened in a country area and the small number of residents involved all agreed on the action to be taken.

Should the recommendation be, for example, that the graffiti, or emblems be removed, it should be noted that in 30 years of terrorism the enemies of our country have occasionally booby-trapped flags and emblems and that security forces personnel have lost limbs or their lives in trying to deal with them. Caution is most certainly needed in this regard.

When flags are removed, new ones are undoubtedly put up. Has anything been achieved by removing some and allowing others to replace them? We should perhaps look at the problem at every level. At last week's meeting of Ards Borough Council, its chief technical services officer gave councillors a cautionary note on the removal of graffiti. He endorsed the council's decision, but was concerned about the safety of his staff in implementing the proposals. Such concern also applies to the Housing Executive and the Department of the Environment. Personnel must be given protection. It must also be ensured that, should such a decision be taken, personnel can remove those articles.

Who will enforce decisions about the removal of emblems or graffiti? Who will police them? Who will ensure that staff are safe and are not threatened or endangered when carrying out the work?

We need a group which can work in its own community. It is not fair for decisions to be made for the whole Province. In conjunction with the RUC, and staff employed by the Housing Executive, local councils and the Roads Service, a community should decide what should be removed. Those issues must be addressed at community level, not by the criteria of a Government body.

We must make sure that staff are safe and that the community has an input into the process.

Mr A Maginness:

What happens where a community shows its support for paramilitary displays? Alternatively, what happens if, because of intimidation and fear, it is incapable of freely expressing its view on those matters? Is there not a danger that a community could be unable to act freely in certain circumstances? What happens then?

Mr Shannon:

Every case must be dealt with on its own merit; it is always difficult to give a general answer. We who live in communities have our ears to the ground and a fair idea of community thinking. There is a way forward, but it must be community-based, and it must come from people on the ground. Let them decide.

Mr ONeill:

Considerable ground has already been covered, and Members have dealt adequately with the fact that the motion asks for the removal of paramilitary flags. There was discussion on the use - or, perhaps more accurately, the abuse - of national flags. Flags have a very long history and are generally regarded as emblems to be treated with respect and pride.

Unfortunately, in our society, they are used to taunt the other side. Hence, people with respect or pride for their flag - national or otherwise - would not leave it up a pole to fade into tatters. To do otherwise is not a show of respect or pride; it is taunting. That is part of our problem. It is a manifestation of the divisions in our society. It was here - with all due respect to Mr McCartney - before the agreement, and it has been here since. In fact, the agreement states that symbols and emblems should be

"used in a manner which promotes mutual respect rather than division."

That should be the benchmark for any work that we do.

The motion extends from flags to emblems and graffiti on public property. There are many different types of emblems including, as experienced in Down district recently, the erection of monuments on council property without permission from a planning authority, the local community or an elected politician. That type of activity - and Down District Council is not the only council to suffer from it - has many sources. It raises a big issue about equality and what our work in the Assembly has achieved with the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission in determining how people can live and operate in a society that is free from threat or alienation.

These issues result, as has been well illustrated by Members, in the virtual ghettoisation of an area. In most areas it is a small minority in the estate, town or village that achieves it. Should we not, therefore, support the majority in those towns, villages and communities, and give them a way of emphasising and achieving what they want in their own area?

Alban Maginness referred tellingly to the economic effect, particularly in areas that depend on tourism. When people see these things in a particular area, they feel alienated. That means that any attempt to promote a tourist industry in that area is faulted from the start. Everybody is disadvantaged, both those who want it and those who do not.

Danny O'Connor said that we need to help to get those people off the backs of the rest of the community. Mr McCartney poured scorn on the idea of a commission. However, since he mentioned it, why not look at something that can intervene in the community and help people by giving them the guidance and confidence to work together to solve these problems? As a result of Mr McCarthy's motion, an inter-party group may come up with suggestions about how these things could be done to strengthen communities. It could carry out in­dependent surveys of views and get the community to feel confident enough to deal with the issues.

1.45 pm

Legislation is important. However, in some cases, when implemented directly, it can be a very difficult and blunt object, as my council knows from recent experience. Legislation is not the whole answer. However, legislation combined with the creation of opportunity for people to engage fully with what happens in their communities might be better than a legislative approach alone.

The implementation of existing regulations and legislation is very important. The Department of the Environment, particularly in the past, has received a lot of criticism. The police, councils and the Housing Executive have been criticised today for not fully implementing legislation. As Members have said, the people on the ground have a difficult job in dealing with the issue. They could be putting themselves and their families at risk, and we should never forget that. There is all the more reason, there­fore, for an independent commission that could intervene and deal with the issues to rid our country of this blight.

Mr Wells:

It is clear that many Members are still confused about the roles of the Department of the Environ­ment and the Department for Regional Development. When the Department for Regional Development opens a new by-pass, the Minister is reported on the front page of all the newspapers as claiming responsibility. However, when his Department refuses to grit roads, everyone blames the Department of the Environment. Unless emblems are on a listed building, a planning service headquarters, or a divisional -[Interruption].

Mr ONeill:

I was not referring to the present arrangement. The Department of the Environment has received much criticism in the past, as the record shows.

Mr Wells:

I was referring to another contributor, who blamed the Department of the Environment for things that it was not responsible for. I do not oppose the motion, but I wonder what it will achieve. I am glad that Mr McCarthy has drawn a distinction, as I do, between the flags of this country - the Union flag and the Ulster flag - and paramilitary flags. It is traditional for people to fly the Union and Ulster flags during the marching season. The flags are put up on private homes, and many arches across the country bear flags. That is part of our tradition, which has prevailed in this part of the United Kingdom for many years. I would not support anything that would prevent people from flying those flags or depicting their traditions in years to come. However, everyone must accept that there is a problem with paramilitary flags. That is a problem in the community and it cannot be solved easily.

In my constituency of South Down we have tackled the difficulty of establishing the community's point of view. If a representative of the Department for Regional Development or the Housing Executive were to knock on people's doors to ask what they thought about the display of paramilitary flags, people would be very reluctant to give their opinions. In the Langley Road estate in Ballynahinch, every resident received a questionnaire that was stamped to make sure that it could not be photocopied and misused. A pre-paid envelope was provided, addressed to a post office box number in Ballynahinch. An inde­pendent panel opened the questionnaires, and the process was overseen by church leaders in the community.

The questionnaire provided the first, very clear opinion poll on the display of paramilitary flags in Ballynahinch. The majority of people who live on the Langley Road estate are opposed to the display of UDA and UVF flags there. Perhaps for the first time, officials from the Department for Regional Development and the Housing Executive, who are asked to deal with the situation, know that they have overwhelming community support for what they are doing. Such questionnaires might be the way forward in dealing with the problem. The community is perfectly happy with the display of Union and Ulster flags and wishes that to continue.

The logical outcome of Mr McCarthy's proposal is that a working party be set up, and proposals made to deal with the problem. However, unless Mr McCarthy takes down the flags himself, the ordinary staff of the relevant Government agency will become the "storm troopers". Roads Service or Housing Executive officials will be expected to go into areas and remove flags or cover up murals.

We know from experience what will happen. We watched with horror the news reports of the three Northern Ireland Electricity officials who were sent to Crossmaglen to disconnect the electricity supply of an individual who was abusing the metering system. Two suffered horrific injuries while carrying out what was a legitimate task. One was absent from work for a consider­able time. In east Antrim, another member of staff received serious threats after he was sent to disconnect an electricity supply that was being illegally used.

These employees live and work in the same areas where they would be expected to remove flags or cover up murals. It is totally unreasonable to ask them to carry out such work without the support of the community. If they were brave enough to do so, the flags, murals and kerbstone paintings would be replaced within a day of their removal. The proposal will not work if we ask people to remove murals and graffiti without community support. There is nothing wrong with the concept of Mr McCarthy's proposal, but it will not achieve its intended objective.

Mr ONeill rightly said that not only is it impossible to stop people in the Province from putting up paramilitary flags or painting kerbstones, but that in his town - and I applaud the stand that he has taken on the issue - a full-scale monument to Republicans has been erected without planning permission and without the landowner's consent. There was nothing within present law to prevent the monument from being erected. An injunction was served on a Member of the Assembly restraining him from any further work on the monument. What happened next? Individuals not named on the injunction completed the work. People face enormous difficulties in trying to prevent such activity from taking place.

In Kilcoo, which is in my own constituency of South Down, Northern Ireland Electricity and British Telecom poles are being used to display pictures of dead hunger strikers. The pictures have been displayed for many months and have not been taken down. If an ordinary Roads Service employee were to take those down in somewhere like Kilcoo, he could be signing his own death warrant, because of the threats and intimidation that he would receive.

It is a difficult problem. I do not believe that any party will vote against Mr McCarthy's proposal, but if he thinks that the proposed group will solve the problem, he is wrong. I will be interested to hear in his summation speech how he believes the working group - when it is formed - will implement, and gain community support for, its recommendations. Only when we solve the problem of lack of community support will we be able to implement any recommendations of the working party.

Mr Byrne:

I support the motion and I congratulate Mr McCarthy. People are waiting for the Assembly to do something about the issue.

Flags, emblems and graffiti are being used as psycho­logical weapons to impose fear on our communities. The toleration of the problem is leading to greater ghettoisation and social alienation. The erection of flags and emblems in an estate pertaining to a majority of householders causes the minority living there to feel a "chill factor". It is an uncomfortable environment for them and very often they leave, thereby leading to greater ghettoisation. It is deplorable.

People want the Assembly and the district councils to tackle the issue. Many business owners are aggrieved and angry at how their image and their competitiveness is weakened when flags are erected or graffiti sprayed on or near their premises.

Road signs are being defaced and bus shelters destroyed. This is adding to that "chill factor" and generally makes people feel uncomfortable. Many of the graffiti and para­military emblems are obscene and threatening to visitors or those going to an area to work.

I have made representation to the public authorities and tried to get obscene and paramilitary-related graffiti removed. In the past my own council, Omagh District Council, along with the Housing Executive, had a contract with a private company to remove graffiti. I know that two drivers were severely intimidated - indeed, they were psychologically ostracised when they went to a pub for a drink. That sort of intimidation must be deplored. The Assembly has to send out a clear message that it does not tolerate that sort of behaviour or activity.

There are many examples of this. Reference has been made to employees of the Housing Executive, Northern Ireland Electricity and the Roads Service who have tried to remove graffiti under instruction from their management. Many felt that they were shunned or fingered. That is another gross example of intimidation.

We must start sending out a message. Are we for or against intimidation, or are we ambivalent towards the intimidation of public service workers when we ask them to go out and keep our environment clear of such obscene graffiti? I support the motion and congratulate Mr McCarthy on tabling it. The public wants to see a clear message coming from the Assembly. It is dangerous for us to create any default options on this.

The Minister for Regional Development (Mr Campbell):

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to respond to the motion. I do so, not because it is the sole preserve or even a prime responsibility of my Department - far from it - but because my Department has, over several years, had to face the brunt of this manifestation of our community divisions.

The problems of paramilitary flag flying and graffiti, including the unwanted painting of kerbstones, are tangible symptoms of a more serious and chronic disease. We should be all too aware of the difficulties affecting community life and community relations in Northern Ireland. The trauma, the hurt and the resultant mistrust are deeply embedded running sores caused, in no small measure, by decades of terrorist strangulation of normal life and society. Overcoming the divisions that those sores leave cannot be quickly or easily accomplished.

While it is important that we can all speak here in relative agreement about the need to tackle these problems on a broad front, we should not delude ourselves. No one should be deceived into believing that there is a quick fix or that the establishment of an interdepartmental working group will be a panacea for these ills. Nonetheless, I welcome today's debate as an important and very necessary step forward.

We all have a responsibility to tackle these issues. Individuals cannot be compelled to live and work together in harmony, nor can they be compelled to express themselves in ways dictated by others. Reconciliation and the construction of good community relations can only work when people make a conscious effort for themselves. Constructive approaches to tackle the root problems of this issue have to be low-key and sensitively handled if they are to be sustainable.

2.00 pm

There have been successes. I know of groups which, with the support of local people, have tackled the issue of flags and have achieved consensus. In some areas, mixed groups of community representatives now remove offending flags as they appear. Importantly, those representatives have the support of the local community to do so. I cannot pretend, however, that that will serve as a model for all areas. Many different approaches will be required and doubtless not all will succeed at first.

The harnessing of broad community support is the key to success. The Roads Service has found that without the near unanimous support of local residents, the removal of flags and graffiti from its property is often nugatory and can lead to a proliferation of material, sometimes more offensive or permanent in nature. Sometimes the personnel who are tasked with the removal work are intimidated.

The Roads Service wants to respond positively to that problem, but there are contentious and sensitive issues to be considered. In particular, there is a duty of care to staff and contractors, and their safety must be taken into account. Several Members have referred to incidents where staff have been threatened and, on occasion, physically assaulted.

There is also the unavoidable question of resources. Undertaking the removal of offensive flags and graffiti is labour intensive, and a heavy opportunity cost must be considered against other priority road responsibilities. Taking that into account, the Roads Service's current policy - I have stated it frequently in the House - is to remove any flags or graffiti on its property that are deemed to be a danger to road users. In other instances where specific complaints are received, but where there is no perceived danger to road users, it gauges community reaction on the likely success of attempts to remove the flags or graffiti. Advice is sought from the RUC, local elected representatives and local community representatives. I stress, however, that there is no legislative requirement for the Roads Service to remove such materials.

I want to respond to several issues raised by Members. Mr McCarthy, in moving the motion, distinguished between paramilitary flags and flags that are not deemed to be offensive. That is helpful, and the interdepartmental working group should be able to use it as a basis for progress.

Alban Maginness said - and I can see his reason for doing so - that in some instances the displays of paramilitary flags can be deemed a threat to democracy. I can understand that. I will resist the inclination to ask why the representatives of paramilitaries being in Govern­ment cannot be deemed such a threat to democracy. I will leave that for another debate.

Mr Hay mentioned the need for consensus, and that need was reiterated by many Members. Mr Hay spoke about areas in Londonderry where that has been achieved. In my opening remarks, I stressed the importance of achieving consensus, as that is likely to lead to a permanent resolution of the difficulty.

Other Members spoke about the costs of removal. Mr McCartney said that devolution was partly to blame for the worsening divisions. I will leave others to pass comment on that.

Mr O'Connor and others distinguished between cultural and paramilitary murals, which was helpful.

A number of Members referred to the problems that we face in removing murals: threats and sometimes physical violence ensue. Mr Byrne made a useful comment when he stated that we must declare where we stand on that intimidation. I would hope and expect the House to be decidedly against intimidation. I referred to recent instances in which Department for Regional Development Roads Service employees had been threatened, as the issue concerns Roads Service property. On one occasion an employee was physically attacked. The problem is an ongoing one, and I hope that whatever the findings of the interdepartmental working group, serious consideration will be given to the welfare of staff. I must give that high priority.

Public representatives' comments are almost always useful in attempts to resolve problems. However, public representatives have occasionally made matters worse by intervening in sensitive discussions on the removal of paramilitary displays. That has served to exacerbate prob­lems in certain areas. Fortunately, that has not happened often.

I reiterate what I said earlier: we all have respon­sibilities to tackle this divisive issue. We must be able to ensure that pride in the community and business confidence be restored to those areas most affected by the blight. Responsibility for that lies not only with various Depart­ments, but with local councils, the Housing Executive, the RUC and community groups. Perhaps most importantly, responsibility lies with the terrorists who seed and feed the proliferation of the flags and graffiti that plague our communities and that keep the sores of conflict and division open and unhealed. I repeat that no quick fix is available. I call on all to play their part in tackling the issue and in wresting the strangling grip from terrorists in order to restore normality to our society.

Mr McCarthy:

I welcome the constructive contributions to the debate from every Member, and particularly that of the Minister for Regional Development. I do not know why the problem has fallen so much on his shoulders because other Ministers have responsibilities - those who are involved in housing, the Department of the Environment and so forth. Mr Campbell has defended his Department well, for which we are grateful.

Many points have been covered. Alban Maginness mentioned national flags. I said that we were not concerned with the national flag. The national flag must be respected at all times.

Mr Ervine:

Does that include the occasion on which Alban Maginness removed the flag of our nation from the Lord Mayor's parlour when he became Lord Mayor of Belfast? That showed some respect for the national flag.

Mr McCarthy:

I thank the Member for his contribution. Mr Maginness may respond to that, as I cannot answer on his behalf. We are discussing paramilitary trappings, flags, monuments and so forth today.

I congratulate Mr Hay and Mr Campbell, who represent the constituencies of Foyle and East Londonderry respect­ively. They seem to be more advanced than Members from this part of Northern Ireland - not only in this instance, but on other occasions. I mean that seriously. I can think of other occasions on which a lead has been taken from a Member from those areas. Those Members should keep that up, and perhaps what they say will filter through to the rest of Northern Ireland.

Mr Hay said it was about community. Of course it is about community, and we must bring the communities with us. We all acknowledge that Northern Ireland suffers, and has suffered for a long time, from the "them and us" attitude. That has been nurtured by various people for their own ends. We must try to get away from that and bring people to work with each other rather than pull against each other.

Mr McNamee referred to respect for different cultures. People are entitled to the culture of their choice, and respect must be given to that. The people who have that respect must, in turn, respect other people's culture. That is very important.

In Mr McCartney's lively contribution - I do not know how long he took, but it certainly was quite a while - he talked about the segregation on housing estates in his constituency. That is wrong and must be condemned. However, it is the situation that people find themselves in. The Assembly and elected representatives should be doing all in their power to encourage people to live side by side wherever they choose, regardless of where they worship on a Sunday, if they worship anywhere. We should be hammering that point. Unfortunately, Mr McCartney is not in the Chamber at present. However, we are talking primarily about paramilitary flags and emblems. A Member specifically talked about the offensive graffiti showing guys standing around wearing combat jackets, carrying guns and holding a list of the organ­isations that have been guilty of the most heinous crimes. How can someone who has suffered at the hands of those people pass by each day and look up at a flag that portrays the organisation that was responsible for the murder of his loved one? That is the whole ethos of this debate.

Jim Shannon and the Minister talked about the fear involved. Other Members talked about the fear of enforce­ment and how flags can be removed. It is a major problem. We cannot walk away from it. We must educate the people to know that these things are wrong. Any workman or woman asked to remove these flags is fearful.

Eamonn ONeill and Jim Wells from South Down quite rightly referred to the problem of monuments. Monuments have been erected in that area without planning permission. If I wanted to build a structure, I would have to seek planning permission, not only from the Planning Service but also from the person who owned the land. Congratulations to Jim Wells on the outcome of his survey. The survey was carried out in an area with which I am not familiar, but if that is what the people there want, that is a way forward.

We are all in this together, and we must help each other. We are debating very sensitive issues. So far nothing, or relatively nothing, has been done, or has been seen to be done, to overcome the problem. If the Assembly accepts the motion, Members can genuinely tackle this blot on the landscape. Let us work together to bring about a better environment for all in Northern Ireland. Bring our communities with us, and, as Joe Byrne has said, let us send out a strong message from the Assembly that we will set up this interdepartmental group. There is no guarantee that we will overcome the problem, but at least we will have tried, with the co-operation of all the Departments in the Executive, to tackle it. I hope we will see a better future for all in Northern Ireland.

2.15 pm

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly calls on the Executive to establish an interdepartmental working group to make recommendations on the removal of paramilitary flags, emblems and graffiti from public property.

The sitting was suspended at 2.17 pm.

On resuming (Mr Speaker in the Chair) -

2.30 pm


Speaker's Business

Mr Speaker:

Due to a long-standing engagement in the later part of this week, I will be unable to be in the Chamber tomorrow. I shall be in Parliament Buildings in the first part of the morning, but unable to be in the Chamber with you.


Oral Answers to Questions

First Minister and Deputy First Minister

Poverty and Social Alienation


Mr Byrne

asked the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to outline the Executive's role in formulating a policy to combat poverty and social alienation in deprived areas.

(AQO 134/01)

Sir Reg Empey:

In the Programme for Government, we made clear our commitment to the creation of a cohesive, inclusive and just society and to tackling the problem of poverty. We are working to tackle the problems of deprived areas through our New TSN policy, objectively identifying the areas that are most deprived and focusing our resources and efforts on addressing their needs.

The Programme for Government highlighted the action that we would take to regenerate disadvantaged urban and rural areas. The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development has published her strategy for rural develop­ment and the Minister for Social Development has initiated consultation on his urban regeneration strategy.

Mr Byrne:

I appreciate the Executive's efforts in this regard. Does the Minister accept that voluntary organ­isations, such as the Society of St Vincent de Paul, the Salvation Army and others, do wonderful work to help the many needy people in our community? There is a need for strong Government action to tackle poverty and social alienation in the ghettoised estates in deprived urban areas.

Sir Reg Empey:

Like the Member, I want to express appreciation of the good work that is carried out by the many voluntary organisations that assist deprived com­munities. Much of what we have today would not be there had it not been for the steadfast service that such organisations have given over the years, when there was little hope in those communities.

When we published our Programme for Government in March, we promised to "identify the most deprived urban areas and to deliver a co-ordinated response to the social and other needs of people living in them, including problems of weak community infrastructure, and the problems caused by the effects of the conflict." Capacity building is under way in local communities to enable people to help themselves. It is not a matter of pushing aid down from the top but of giving people in those deprived communities the skills and abilities necessary to allow them to help themselves. That is happening in many areas, but there is a long way to go.

The new draft Programme for Government shows that we will implement strategies to renew deprived com­munities, including a north Belfast regeneration initiative supported by URBAN II and other practical measures to address economic and social problems in west Belfast.

The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee of the Centre (Mr Gibson):

The Queen's University of Belfast published research last week that showed that three groups had been alienated and excluded from society. Those groups were the Protestant community, farmers and women. Members of those groups in west Tyrone feel especially isolated and alienated. What will the Minister do to ensure that such alienation is addressed during the next funding period?


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