Flags, Nationalists and the Contested Law of Equality

Much discussions over the past month in Northern Ireland has centred around the aftermath of the decision of Belfast City Council to move away from its 106-year old tradition of flying the Union flag every day, to one of only flying it on a maximum of twenty designated days. Whilst much has been written, understandably, with regard to the appalling scenes of violence and ongoing loyalist protests, this issue opens up much deeper issues around the nature of the accord reached in the Belfast Agreement.

The first section of that agreement, latterly signed up to by all major parties (excluding TUV), indicates the acceptance of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom until a decision by the majority of its people states otherwise. The question must then be posed- was the acceptance of this by nationalists contingent upon no visible symbols of this status being reflected, or at least, as little as possible? The standard argument offered by nationalist political representatives is that parity of esteem requires either neutrality or the display of both the Union flag and an Irish Tricolour.

Leaving aside Belfast, one can see that in 11 nationalist-controlled local authorities, the sovereign flag doesn’t fly at all, even on designated days. On one council, the removal of military regalia was deemed essential by nationalists to create a shared space. Conversely, as in other councils, Irish language symbolism is routinely used, presumably without much reference to the importance of ‘shared space and neutrality’ as a consistent requirement. If one looks at the agitation against the statue of Ulsterman and New Zealand PM, William Massey in Limavady, one can see the ferocity of the battle to control the past, as well as the future.

More recently, the decision of Newry and Mourne District Council on the Raymond McCreesh playpark demonstrates a notably different attitude to the desirability of majority rule without regard to the importance of ‘shared space’. Equality thus becomes an ethos employed when politically expedient, rather than a consistent requirement or standard feature of a shared future. Other controversies have seen similarly dismissive attitudes to the use of public money to commemorate former terrorists.

Essentially, ‘equality’ has developed as a distinct lingua franca, a procedural mechanism of deciding contested issues in a space beyond the directly political. This doctrine usually aims to identify a kind of ‘third way’, placing emphasis on compromise between apparent ‘extremes’, in the hope of sustaining a fragile peace. The problem exposed by the Newry/Belfast contrast is that once equality becomes an á la carte doctrine, it loses all credibility, increasing, rather than resolving, conflict.

In defining ‘extremes’, it is important to note there are differing conceptions of what equality and parity of esteem should entail. On one view, these concepts relate to fair employment, the right to express and demonstrate cultural/political identity without fear of social impediment and lastly, as a means of ensuring that access to public funds fairly reflects the cultural balance within Northern Ireland.

From a unionist perspective, an inclusive approach to symbols, such as that seen by the inclusion of Irish language poetry in City Hall or the hanging of Seamus Mallon’s portrait at Stormont, has the potential to encourage a promotion of the Union as the best arrangement for mutual cultural security. This advantage flows from the multi-national character of the broader Union. In this respect, resisting attempts to render the Union flag as a partisan, ethnic bargaining chip is entirely consistent with a shared society, provided the campaign is articulated in these terms.

The second, more expansive view of equality, one promulgated particularly by Sinn Féin, views equality as a means of attaining a prize not won through negotiation, a form of symbolic Joint Sovereignty. Consequently, ‘both flags or no flags’ is presented as the reasonable option, treating the sovereign flag as merely one cultural symbol to be horse-traded with others.

The attractiveness of this argument lies in that it allows nationalists to seek the removal of British symbols by arguing that the flag of one identity has no logical priority over another, safe in the knowledge unionists may be dismissed as hostile to equality by refusing to consent to symbolic JS. Within this view is the assumption that the Union flag is a fixed and immutable symbol of merely one identity- a concession unionists cannot make if it seeks to grow its support base. The battle to define ‘reasonable’ is a low-level, fraught contest.

Michael Gove, in an impassioned criticism of this potential within the Belfast Agreement, quotes then Irish Foreign Minister, Brian Cowen, in a leaked NIO report around the time of the Agreement:

“Beyond the constitutional acceptance that Northern Ireland remained a part the UK, there should be no further evidence of Britishness in the governance of Northern Ireland.”

The implication of a slow, incremental erosion of British symbols within a conception of equality allows nationalists to pursue a zero-sum game without it being couched in those terms. The perception of continual loss is one that can have powerful de-moralising effects, the political value of which was once candidly admitted. Convincing a “section” of inevitable doom is a tactic directly contrary to the improvement of relationships and must be challenged on these terms.

If the Unionist Forum is to have a purpose beyond the urgent need to end thuggery and violence, it must offer a strategic direction to counter the arguments for a symbolic form of JS, in terms which emphasise a shared future of cultural security within the Union.

This should begin with an exposure of the contradictory positions on equality within political nationalism and an appeal for a return to the essential compromise of 1998- unionist security for nationalist and Irish cultural recognition. If political unionism doubted the importance of language on shaping perceptions, it is something it must immediately grasp.