Political parties have been asked for their views on a new flag for Northern Ireland.
Former US diplomat Richard Haass asked the question of five Stormont parties in his role as chairman of talks on controversial parades, emblems and how to deal with the legacy of 30 years of violence.
Divisions between nationalists and unionists over banners were highlighted by loyalist rioting following a decision a year ago by Belfast City Council to restrict the number of days the Union flag flies from the City Hall.
A leading good-relations organisation has warned the time available to address flags issues was finite.
Dr Haass asked: “What might a process to design and validate a new Northern Ireland flag look like? What role might such a flag play in civic life?”
He also canvassed politicians for views on a code of conduct for flags and emblems displayed unofficially in public spaces. The American foreign policy expert’s letter queried where they should be allowed and under what circumstances, as well as what enforcement measures might be included.
Northern Ireland has not had its own flag since 1972. A white and red Ulster Banner featuring a crown is used by some unionists and sporting organisations and was the flag of the government of Northern Ireland between 1953 and 1972 - before direct rule from Westminster was imposed.
The Community Relations Council (CRC), an independent organisation which promotes closer ties between rank and file nationalists and unionists, told Dr Haass a core element of any initiative would be leadership.
“This political and community leadership needs to bring forward a new vision to enable the important right of celebration of identity and culture to be assured, but which also protects others where such displays transcend beyond these rights and become an overt display of territory, intimidation, threat and power,” a statement said.
“If such actions are not taken, these displays will be persistently damaging to the economic and tourism potential of our society, and if we cannot find resolution our communities and society will continue to be caught in the legacy of the past, from which there will be no escape, even for future generations.
“We have a finite opportunity to tackle, address and overcome these issues. It will require us all to make difficult accommodations, but it is imperative that we seize this opportunity to ensure a positive legacy for all our futures.”
Hardline Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister rejected any chance of a “neutral” flag being designed.
“It is a symbol of that country, an emblem of sovereignty. The flying of the Union Flag shows that Northern Ireland is part of the UK. The Ulster Banner recognised our allegiance to the monarchy of the UK by the inclusion of the crown,” he said.
Dr Haass is chairing political negotiations aimed at finding common ground over contentious issues which have pockmarked Northern Ireland’s well-entrenched peace process with sporadic rioting and angry rhetoric.
While cross-party political powersharing at Stormont has not been seriously threatened, limited street violence following last December’s decision not to fly the Union flag every day from City Hall left dozens of police officers injured, victims of masonry, fireworks and other missiles hurled by loyalist protesters who were at times draped in Union colours and held large flags.
According to business organisation the CBI, city centre protests by some loyalists angry at a perceived slight to their culture cost traders millions in lost revenue before last Christmas and another protest was held last weekend.
A renewed bombing campaign by anti-peace process republican dissidents and tensions surrounding loyal order parades have also provided impetus for Dr Haass’s mission to find agreement on issues left unresolved by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which ended most violence and led to political powersharing.
Dr Haass will return to Belfast next week as he approaches his new year deadline for recommendations to the Northern Ireland ministerial Executive.