Belfast is big enough for all of our pasts, our hopes and our futures, on the basis of respect, the rule of law and equality for all.
I drove through Sandy Row last week and at the corner with the Golden Mile I sat at the traffic lights while a large group of older men with ladders were putting up flags. A large squad, the groups of tourists out on a Friday night had to navigate their way around their ensemble, while clearly being subjected to unwelcome “banter”. From their demeanour, and the shapes they were throwing I figured it was not a friendly type of flag event, so I was happy when the lights turned green and I went on my merry way. I didn’t really think much more than “The 12th is like Christmas, it gets earlier every year”.
On Sunday morning I took the same route and saw the result of the good old boys’ handiwork. All of the Sandy Row and Donegal Pass bedecked in Parachute Regiment flags and a big banner, in case the subtle message was lost, declaring support for Soldier F.
Soldier F is the solitary soldier charged in connection with the murders and violations that occurred on Bloody Sunday. Belfast public furniture and streets declare support for him, before a trial, yet after a full independent public inquiry laid bare the savage barbarity of what occurred on that day.
Belfast streets also hold the victims of the Parachute Regiment who fight tooth and nail for truth or due process. When Charles Windsor came to Belfast last week to tour the burned out Bank Buildings a grand daughter of just one of the victims of the Parachute Regiment in Belfast stood at a metal barrier and with immense courage shouted across to the Commander in Chief of the Parachute Regiment “What about the Ballymurphy ones”. There was no threat of violence. It was a reasonable question, given the months of horrific testimony laid bare at the inquest into her grandmother’s killing along with nine others. Sadly, the Prince either didn’t hear her or chose not to. The PSNI response was to come over and issue her with a warning to stop or they would arrest her for breach of the peace. This ordinary civilian was threatened with arrest for asking a question and potentially making someone a bit uncomfortable. Yet we are expected to accept on our public furniture the expressions of hate and insult flying in our Belfast skies in the form of “We support Soldier F”.
So, I am asking is it acceptable? To those who are responsible for the lamp posts and traffic lights which hold these insults, your failure to remove them is complicity with the message. To the PSNI who allow people to erect these messages with impunity, I say the same. To church leaders, who walk and drive past these messages on their way to deliver sermons, do you think you escape responsibility if you do not speak out against such obvious and deliberate hurt? To the Equality and Victims Commissions whose offices face those flags, your silence on such an obvious incitement to harm and hate is unacceptable. To the leaders in Unionism, are you really going to allow such poisoning of the environment in which we endeavour to deal with our contested past?