Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Tack and Diplomacy

According to a recent poll in the Belfast Telegraph, the proportion of Catholic to Protestant Alliance voters is now 4:3, a figure that was traditionally more like 1:2. Of course, one is often advised to take the results of such surveys with a pinch of salt, since there is a well-documented tendency for respondents to Northern Ireland opinion polls to understate support for Nationalist parties, particularly the former physical forcers of Sinn Féin. As the number of Catholics willing to vote for the DUP or UUP must be vanishingly small, the dissembling response in such circumstances has tended to favour the Alliance Party.

Even if one has one's doubts about whether Alliance is set to overtake the UUP in a province-wide election, however, it is clear that, after a near fatal squeeze during the initial years following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the party is on the up. There is no doubt either that Catholic support for Alliance is growing. For the first time, the end of the Troubles has brought about a Catholic vote for the Union, whose main depository, one suspects, is the yellow, liberal camp.

This raises an intriguing possibility. As Alliance gains more Catholic support, and Catholic representatives, will its grossly illiberal blanket rejection of Irish-language signage based on a pretended equivalence with sectarian symbols remain tenable? One hopes not.

An incident this week, however, does not augur well. Having sided with the Nationalist parties to reduce the number of days on which the Union Flag flies over Belfast City Hall and suffered a splenetic response from the East Belfast UVF, the Alliance Party has either bottled it or once again engaged in the kind of reflexive, analysis-free triangulation that marked its approach to the issue of Irish-language signs. For Alliance Councillor Máire Hendron has indicated her willingness to support an initiative from the Unionist parties to have the Union Flag fly over the Cenotaph 365 days a year, where it is both more visible than on the top of City Hall, and more accessible to passers-by. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of the situation, one feels bound to ask whether Belfast has been put through the last week only for the symbolic effect of flag-flying to be replicated on an alternative site a stone's throw away — one of great emotional sensitivity for Unionists and much more vulnerable to attack by vandals, drunk or sober.

Tack one way, then tack the other. Now, how about that on a sign?

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