Raising the standards

Israeli flags are hoisted in one part of the city while, in another, Palestinian colours fly. But this isn't the West Bank. Clare Dwyer Hogg reports from Belfast on Northern Ireland's latest sectarian battleground

An Israeli flag is held taut by the wind, its blue and white colours brighter as the sun breaks through a gap in the clouds. But the sky against which this flag flies is not the expanse that blazes over the Golan Heights or Galilee. This is Belfast. And the community that hoisted it up was not an Israeli community living in Northern Ireland, either. Instead, it's an emblem among all the other cultural signs that crowd this small space.

An Israeli flag is held taut by the wind, its blue and white colours brighter as the sun breaks through a gap in the clouds. But the sky against which this flag flies is not the expanse that blazes over the Golan Heights or Galilee. This is Belfast. And the community that hoisted it up was not an Israeli community living in Northern Ireland, either. Instead, it's an emblem among all the other cultural signs that crowd this small space. This flag is in The Village, a loyalist enclave in north Belfast where Union Jacks are in plentiful supply, murals of William of Orange decorate gable walls, and the kerb stones are painted red, white and blue. Nothing seems further removed from Protestant Unionism and fiercely held Northern Irish links with Britain than the symbol of Israeli culture, but this isn't an isolated display. In certain areas across Belfast, the most potent declaration of Israeli nationalism is flying high, but so out of its original context that its significance has taken on a completely different meaning.

It still has everything to do with politics, of course. It seems strange that Israel's cause is being heralded by the Unionists, and while there may be parallels, it is hard to find a link between their politics. The most obvious connection is an obtuse one – Irish nationalism. The internal conflict within Northern Ireland is such that the rationale seems to go like this: if the Nationalists are putting up Palestinian flags, we'll put up the flag of Palestine's enemies. And vice versa.

This was the view of David Irvine, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party (the political wing of the Ulster Volunteer Force) and a main player in the Good Friday Agreement talks. He is not in favour of the recent proclivity. "I think it's pretty sick, whether they are flying Israeli flags or Palestinian flags," he says. "What do people here really know about that conflict? We devalue the death and destruction there by having a relatively simplistic view of it. It becomes a badge that's meant to upset the others."

This seems to be the conflict in a nutshell, but as with all things political in Northern Ireland, there is nothing black and white about this issue. At a time when army presence is stronger than it has been for a long time, and the "peace wall" in the Short Strand area (the site of the most recent conflict) is being extended, grey areas just become greyer. Simplistically, Nationalists do have a historic precedent of solidarity with the conflict in Israel, the Unionists do not. That is, unless the brand of Unionism you subscribe to is the one that believes Unionists are actually a lost tribe of Israel – "the tribe of Dan".

Those Unionists are few and far between, though, and it is unlikely that you'll find many Protestants loyal to the throne wandering around thinking they actually hail from Israel. Irvine doesn't think so (his parents came from family who came from Scotland) and he is clear about the motivation behind the recent obsession. "All I want to say is that if one side put a Tamil flag up, the other would put up a Sri Lankan one."

Martin Morgan, a councillor for the Social Democratic and Labour Party in north Belfast, points out that the Palestinian cause has been close to the hearts of Nationalists – whether SDLP or Sinn Fein – for more than 20 years. "We believe," he says, "that the Palestinians have a legal entitlement to their home and land, and that their human rights should be respected under the UN."

This doesn't mean, however, that the SDLP condone this fresh wave of flag rivalry. "Any more flags are just a territorial claim," Morgan states. "We believe that, at best, they're unhelpful and a sign of division, and at worst they are antagonistic and a source of conflict." If this is the case, it is no coincidence that the glut of flags are at "interface" areas – so called because they're where one community ends and the other starts.

Recently, Gerry Kelly, the Sinn Fein MLA for north Belfast, called for the removal of Palestinian flags from the interface areas after members of the (small) Palestinian community in Belfast expressed concern. Kelly says they were worried that the new flag war was creating additional tensions. "It is disappointing," he said in his statement, which appeared in local newspapers, "that the flying of these flags in Belfast and elsewhere is taken by others to be sectarian. We see elements on the interface areas of north Belfast, with insufficient understanding of the situation, putting up Israeli flags. This is with little or no regard for the humanitarian crisis in Palestine or the Palestinian community living in Belfast."

Sinn Fein, of course, focused on the emergence of Israeli flags as the core of the problem; and while they called for Palestinian flags to be taken down in flashpoint areas, there wasn't any mention of a more general policy. Nationalist solidarity with the Palestinian cause seems as strong as ever.

It's a strange coincidence that the flags on both sides share similar colours. If it weren't for the fact that Union Jacks and Tricolours already provoke enough division, it could almost be comforting that there is a recognition in Northern Ireland that an outside world exists. Almost, but not quite.

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