To Fleg or not to Fleg

22 Dec

Ye gods! In spite of my extreme discomfort when it comes to Northern Irish politics (mostly because I suspect that in less enlightened times I would be pinned atop the Belfast Peace Wall and shot by representatives of both side should I actually voice my opinions) I keep getting dragged into it of late.

My post last week about LAD has stirred up a significant body of traffic and not a few comments. And the increasing LAD-related discussions in my Twitter feed are hard to ignore at times. I’m planning to come back to the topic in a few days in relation to the ongoing debate about humour and whether LAD’s postings can actually be regarded as such.

There was an exchange via Twitter last night where we were discussing the class boundaries, with LAD declaring “The whole class thing is a scam designed to keep people in boxes…There ain’t no box big enough to hold a LAD.” Considering I see myself as a box jumper (its in the eye of the beholder regarding what class boundary I am seen as – if one believes in such things), I should state for record now, that I am not a LAD, although I have sympathies with a significant chunk of their activity. I’m not part of their admin team, and if I have met them ever, it is unknown to me. As some individuals are on a campaign to unmask the organisation and being aware of my own public interaction, statements and media background, its probably best to clear that up lest someone finger me for some reason.

heraldic Flag Of Ulster

heraldic Flag Of Ulster

At the moment American Dr Richard Haas is in the country leading discussions between our political representatives regarding the latest set of peace initiatives, proposing how Northern Ireland should deal with parades, flags and “the past”. Ignoring the temptation to see it as an insane prospect to have someone fly into the country and resolve some of our most contentious issues through a week’s chit chat when we haven’t been able to fix it for decades, the flag debate appears to be the most contentious.

The red/white/blue and green/white/orange combinations are used here as tribal colours, marking territory as republican or unionist and effectively dividing the country up into a series of no-go areas. I know far too many people who refuse to make trips anywhere near particular areas because of the perceived threat embodied in those flag colours. Over the last year much has been made of the Union flag (red/white/blue – UK), which after over a century of continuous flying has been removed from Belfast City Hall except for designated days – and which was used by certain groups as incitement to riot and intimidate the entire country through road blocks and protests last Christmas. They cry that “Ulster Is British” and that as such only the Union flag should fly.

Irish Tricolour

Irish Tricolour

On the other side are the republicans, who use the Irish Tricolour (green/white/orange), and who would welcome the use of the Tricolour alongside the Union flag as a compromise. The Unionists it seems aren’t too happy with this, viewing it as a “foreign” flag, and refuse to permit its flying anywhere.

The whole point of the Good Friday Agreement was, I thought, to learn the need to compromise. Protestants are no longer the overwhelming majority in Northern Ireland, and proper democracy demands that opinions of all are taken into account. Traditionally protestants and unionists were inextricably linked, and the same with catholics and republicans – but the realities are somewhat more skewed. It makes using any term rather limiting and inadequate.

The 2010 Westminster elections resulted in unionists taking 50.5% of the votes (barely passing the half way mark), with 42% going to the republicans, and 7.5% going to other parties. Effectively this means if we took a sample of ten people, 5 are unionist and 4 republican. In terms of logistics, the difference is so slight that one cannot comfortably speak of majorities. Unionists have to accept that there are nearly as many people voting republican as unionist, and republicans have to accept that unionists still have a huge say.

UK union flag

UK union flag of 1606 – before Ireland joined the Union and so missing St Patrick’s Cross. 

Now, I accept that voting patterns for political parties do not necessarily represent what way the vote would go in a referendum if offered the choice for Northern Ireland to either remain in the union, or rejoin with the rest of Ireland. But our democratic declaration is pretty evenly split – hence the reason why Alliance often seem to have a deciding vote – and have come in for much grief for every view expressed that doesn’t align with the unionist parties’.

Standing back and trying to be objective, bringing the union flag flying policies in line with the rest of the UK’s councils seems to be perfect sense, and is perhaps the properly ‘loyal’ thing to do, rather than be zealot-like in an over-declaration. In fact, it might even help dissipate some of the dick-waggling that seems to go with regards to these sorts of symbols among the masses.

We’ve had power sharing for many years now, both between NI and the UK, and NI and the Irish Government via the North/South Ministerial Committee. Ireland has a say in certain issues within the country, and by extension NI has a say in Ireland. NI also benefits from funding from Europe, so the idea that we exist in some sort of splendid isolation, or in an exclusive relationship with Westminster is a complete fallacy. There are pros and cons to these relationships which I leave for economists and politicians to debate at length, but the reality is that government is complicated.

With this in view, optionally flying the Tricolour alongside (but not in a superior position to, as per the UK guidelines) the Union flag isn’t that disrespectful, and acknowledges Northern Ireland’s rather unique position as a hybrid state between the UK and Ireland without needing to sever individual connections and benefits to either. Further, the unionists/protestants should maybe consider viewing the compromise as something which further recognises their position. The symbolism of the Tricolour is itself the symbolism of contrast, with the green traditionally representing Gaelic Ireland, the orange symbolising protestantism and the white marking a hoped for peace between. Poetic license and those uncomfortable with the representations often refer to ‘gold’ rather than orange, but this doesn’t negate the intent.

I have little doubt that proposals will be forwarded for a new flag for Northern Ireland which will in some way incorporate both traditions, and will no doubt be rejected by both loyalists and republicans as disrespectful and evidence of their country selling-out – especially if it incorporates green/orange/red/blue. My own suggestion is for something in black and white (easily photocopiable/faxable) – also indicative of the attitudes of many, who see the politics here as simple (its us or them). Though from a tourism point of view, that would be a waste – we need iconic things to attract foreigners. Celtic harps and celtic crosses are probably too Irish for the loyalists, and imperialistic imagery like Britannia is just going to wind up the republicans. Simple shapes will probably win out.  A representation of the Giant’s Causeway would perhaps be a sensible move – as an utterly non-sectarian and mythical place (replacing the Red Hand motif), and also symbolising the journey of the Ulster Scots, which is utterly relevant to most of us here in some way.

Anyway – its just a flag. A temporary symbol of a ruling authority – and frankly if it induces riots, it isn’t worth having. The number of people who claim to hold the flag with esteem may want to think about that – every week I see the tattered remnants of various flags flying from posts, and in trees across the city.


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