A leader of a political party, tired and hungry at the end of lengthy election campaign and count, refers to supporters of an opposing party as 'scum' and describes the flags they are carrying as 'foreign'. As an exercise in community relations in Northern Ireland, it is a disaster. It may yet be a political disaster and a career-ending outburst. As a farmer, the party leader can have no trouble with the colour green. As a member of the Orange Order, he can have no problem with the colour orange. And how could he possibly have a problem with the colour white in a tricolour?
That mere cloth, colour and words - hot air?- can cause such uproar gives us pause. That one politician should let down his political guard so badly allows others to smugly congratulate themselves on their tolerance and respect. Unfortunately, the language and attitudes displayed are widespread in Northern Ireland. They are a manifestation of one of the sources of the conflict, viz. communal fear. As well as being among the sources, the language and the attitudes are part of the legacy of the violence that erupted from the conflict. In the hall, where the party leader lost his political grip, were former members of paramilitary groups who opposed the state. The party leader is a former soldier in state forces. Language reveals its use as a weapon. As do cloth and colour, in various combinations.
The party leader apologised belatedly and somewhat cack-handedly. It may not be enough to save him politically. Other words are being exchanged, quietly and away from the public gaze, which may yet lead to the party leader changing roles. Smaller weapons, daggers and kris, are being held to his neck and perhaps plunged into his back.
Thankfully not in possession of daggers and kris, a football fan hurdles a steward, a gate, two fences and advertising hoardings to clatter the manager of an opposing team during a tense end-of-season game in Edinburgh (55 degrees North, 3 degrees West), Scotland. The manager has previously been attacked on the street and received bullets and, most recently, parcel bombs in the post. The leader of the newly-forming Scottish Assembly is appalled at further evidence of rising sectarianism – largely anti-Catholic and anti-Irish. It is not part of his plans for the brave new world of an independent Scotland.
Language, cloth and colour will have to be considered. Evelyn Waugh's ironic novel title Put Out More Flags may be relevant. Does it mean fly more flags? Or extinguish them? Basil Seal, a villain in the very funny book, says: 'But you see, one can't expect anything to be perfect now. In the old days, if there was one thing wrong, it spoiled everything; from now on, for all our lives, if there's one thing right the day is made.'
Getting 'language, cloth and colour' right is just one of many challenges facing the new Assemblies in Northern Ireland and Scotland.