Since the Belfast Agreement there has been constant controversy over the display of flags, bunting and emblems in public areas and premises in Northern Ireland. It has been argued that in a pluralistic society the display of flags, bunting and emblems should not be an offence to anybody. Yet what would appear satisfactory to one section of the community may well be unacceptable to another.
The question has been raised as to what the legal basis for the display of flags, bunting and emblems should be. To answer that question three elements need be considered: (1) the kind of flags, bunting and emblems that are displayed, (2) the purpose of the display and (3) whether or not public funding is requested for the display by members of the community.
Firstly, to be acceptable, flags, bunting and emblems should be a representation of a democratic state and/or a peaceful organisation. National flags, such as the Union Flag and the Ulster Flag, must be deemed proper. This rules out any form of paramilitary flags, bunting and emblems that are an expression of fascism or terrorism, which are clearly incompatible with a democratic society.
Secondly, it is essential to consider the purpose of the display of flags, bunting and emblems as this allows us to identify the relevant legal framework. Flags, bunting and emblems may be associated either with the State or an event that may be a manifestation of culture and/or religion. If the display is related to the expression of the authority of the State or the celebration of an historical national event, the legal basis should be found in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, as being part of the United Kingdom. If the display takes place on the occasion of a cultural or religious event, the legal basis should be the rights that each individual is given to manifest his culture and religion freely in a democratic society.
Thirdly, the display of flags, emblems and bunting may depend on whether or not public funding is requested by members of the community. If the display is carried out by the public authority as an expression of the authority of the State, public funding should be provided. On the contrary, if public funding is requested for a display during a cultural and/or religious event organised by one particular section of the community, the public authority has to make a decision in compliance with the principle of equality of opportunity, so that no one section of the community is at a disadvantage in relation to another.
Providing the right legal basis for the purchase and display of flags, bunting and emblems will remove ambiguities and confusion. The constitutional status of Northern Ireland as being part of the United Kingdom should constitute the legal basis for the display of flags, bunting and emblems that represent the State in its authority and for the celebration of national historical event. On the other hand, individual rights and equality of opportunity should be the legal basis for the allocation of public funding requested by any section of the community for cultural and/or religious events.