Tom Peterkin: Wise to pull back from flag debate

Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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Dearie me. At one stage yesterday it looked as though Scottish political life had been reduced to town hall squabbles over what sort of flag ought to fly over public buildings.

At a time when most people have better things to do, members of Stirling Council have been discussing whether the Union flag should replace the Saltire as the most prominent flag to fly over the local authority’s headquarters.

According to the Tory and Labour councillors who originally came up with the proposal, they were standing up for “symbols the men and women and Stirling have fought and died under for 300 years”.

That’s all very well, but is it helpful to resort to the sort of politics of symbolism which has proved so divisive across the Irish Sea?

The intractable nature of Ulster’s political divide is so intense that often it appears that the vexed question of which days of the week the Union flag can be flown above Lisburn council civic headquarters represents the most sophisticated discourse that local politicians are capable of.

Less than a year ago carnage came back to Belfast’s streets when the Nationalist-dominated council voted to limit the days when the Union flag could be flown above the City Hall.

As has often been observed, the constitutional debate here has been a model of tolerance and reasonableness when compared with that in Northern Ireland. Even during an increasingly febrile build-up to the independence referendum, we have been spared the worst excesses of flag-waving politics.

Sure, there has been public money spent by the Scottish Government to buy Saltires to be handed out to crowds at big public events. And Alex Salmond is no stranger to appearing on the telly in front of a Saltire in Bute House. Such behaviour has displeased “No” voters, who are irritated by what they see as the SNP taking ownership of a flag which belongs to all Scots regardless of their position on the constitution. On the other hand, many “Yes” voters were irritated by Better Together revelling in the Union flag-fest that accompanied last year’s Olympics.

When compared to Northern Ireland, it has been low-level stuff. But as the referendum debate heats up, it should be remembered that flags cannot create jobs, that they are incapable of lowering electricity bills and they are not much cop when it comes to building affordable housing.

As Northern Ireland shows, obsessing over flags can fan the flames of division and offend those who are all too often too eager to take offence. We are fortunate in Scotland that our political leaders have been disinclined to descend to that sort of nonsense. So it was with some relief to learn last night that Cllrs Callum Campbell (Cons) and Danny Gibson (Lab) have withdrawn their motion. Presumably, they realised that the good people of Stirling deserve a little better.