Paul McFadden - Flagging up problems

It was back to the trenches in Limavady, this week, where a meeting of the local Borough Council was suspended in a dispute over – guess what - a flag. The offending item, a Union Jack, had been brought into the chamber and erected on his desk by the Council’s sole TUV occupant, Councillor Boyd Douglas. The display was a protest against the election of former IRA bomber Sean McGlinchey as Mayor; but it was also deemed a breach of the Council’s ‘no flags’ policy, prompting the Mayor to suspend proceedings.

The incident lays bare the deep divisions which still exist just beneath the surface in the North, and brings into sharp relief the mental and emotional scars which many relatives and victims carry for years, even for a lifetime. Councillor McGlinchey served 18 years in Long Kesh for a car-bombing which killed six people in Coleraine almost forty years ago. He has since expressed “deep regret” for what happened and said that had he known “innocent people” would be killed he would not have carried out the bombing.

One of the survivors of the explosion, David Gilmour, now works as a researcher for East Londonderry DUP MLA George Robinson. Mr Gilmour – understandably - regards Mr McGlinchey as an inappropriate choice as first citizen and has called on him to step down. In his position I might feel exactly the same.

However, the Sinn Fein politician has received support from a most unlikely quarter, a woman whose father was badly injured and whose aunt lost her life in the Coleraine attack. Jean Jefferson says her father never held any hatred for the bomber and neither does she. Indeed she went as far as contacting the new Mayor upon his election to offer him her best wishes for his term in office. “Sean McGlinchey was elected in a democratic fashion,” she told this newspaper, “and that is what democracy is all about.”

Democracy – “the worst form of government,” according to Winston Churchill, “except for all those other forms which have been tried from time to time.”

The furore in Limavady runs much deeper than a dispute about a union flag. There are people on both sides who still hurt grievously after decades of violence during which all parties to the conflict inflicted great harm on each other and on the rest of the community.

Now, though, and not for the first time, we find ourselves at ‘a crossroads’. We have to decide whether to remain imprisoned by our wretched past or move forward together. The latter requires incredible generosity on the part of victims and the bereaved, but it demands sensitivity, too, on the part of those who find themselves in positions of influence. Where additional hurt can be anticipated – for example in the appointment of ministerial advisers like Mary McArdle – perhaps it should be avoided for the greater good. The victims’ burden – on both sides – is heavy enough already, without adding to it.

Sean McGlinchey, though, is a different case. He is now a politician, wedded to the peace process and he has a mandate. He finds himself in office as a result of a democratic process. He may not have the support of many in his Borough, but the people of Limavady and Dungiven – of whatever tradition – find themselves hitched together for better or worse. Together they face a future of political uncertainty and economic challenge. Together they face enough problems without manufacturing an artificial row over a flag.

Read more from Paul McFadden in the Journal each Friday