Now here’s a thought. The Union Jack is not the flag of Unionism

The raising of the Union Jack for a day over the City Hall (not “City Hall”, BBC) creates a welcome moment of reflection for the political parties.  Looking around them, they can surely see that the protests do not have the oxygen to ignite a real crisis, as Eamonn has reported. The persistence of disorder and protest is of course damaging but recoverable. The already narrow ground of serious disaffection has been exposed as getting narrower.

Everyone understands that escalation that can lead to disaster just as the Cold War could have led to the destruction of the Earth, but the rioting does not constitute significant steps to escalate up that ladder. This becomes a risk only if an atrocity by one side or the other  ignites it.  Power sharing may be agonisingly slow to deliver but its survival is not in question.  The unionist parties should stop indulging neurotic fears that their working class vote will collapse. The working class is bigger than this, never mind the silent majority. But also whisper it that the DUP has grown accustomed to doing without the core loyalist vote which has routinely failed to present a significant challenge. The DUP long ago ceased to be the champion of the disaffected and has become the main element of the divided political centre.  They should seize their chance and champion working class interests in a different way. I can see no particular concessions to rioters other than the warning that a criminal record makes it harder  to get scarce jobs.

We’re constantly told that it’s about more than the flag issue but the flag issue needs to be  addressed and the “more” will follow. For too long unionists and nationalists both have equated  the unionist identity with British national symbolism. This has to change to recognise the reality which is that for the first time unionists and nationalists reached accommodations with each other and with the British and Irish states in the GFA, revised at St Andrews. Parties which made that deal have repeatedly been  elected into office. Now this may be boring for restless politicians and comentators but it is a well established fact that cannot be waved aside.

By flying on designated days the Union Jack in Northern Ireland is brought into line with much practice in England as the UK national flag and not a sectarian symbol. Unionists should now own the distinction and proclaim it as a useful argument out of the impasse. A certain distancing from the flag by emphasising the  change of association might help them tactically. This should not inhibit slightly more magnaimous terms or ingenious solutions.

The Union Jack is the symbol of a State which embraces devolution and the right to opt out of it.  The tricolour will be kept for the parlour of a republican mayor. With hindsight nationalists would have been better advised to have arranged for the Alliance party to have proposed designated days as the substantive motion rather than the amendment. That would have won them a cross community victory.

Greater unionist  self confidence is needed, founded, ironically on the kind of honesty we hear  from some of the clearer thinking political spokesmen of loyalism. The simple lesson is that both sides have not completely learned is that their nirvanas are not attainable and it is now a test of their good faith not to reach for them in ways that are bound to provoke the other side.  They know this, most of the time, but they should not forget it. It would help too of they would explain their positions in terms designed to win at least acceptance by the other side.   But above all should come realisation that  nationalist gains have peaked and  so have unionists losses.

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  • Obelisk

    “But above all should come realisation that nationalist gains have peaked and so have unionists losses.”

    Not to completely dispute your analysis, I don’t have the time right now to consider it fully, but does your final statement take into account the likelihood of Belfast City Councul tipping into Nationalist control within the next electoral cycle or two and then a further vote being held to remove the flag entirely?

    Will that not be a new Unionist loss and a deeper one?

  • JR

    “By flying on designated days the Union Jack in Northern Ireland is brought into line with much practice in England as the UK national flag and not a sectarian symbol.”

    I think part of the problem is that for many they don’t want the flag to be normalized. They wish it to remain as a territory marker and a symbol of their perceived supremacy.

    The painful truth is that even by bringing this small compromise most nationalists feel that parity of esteem on symbols has still not been reached, and they are right. Belfast city hall has been dragged violently from being a symbol of super Brutishness to Normality. It now is symbolically the same as most councils across Britain. However those councils in Britain do not have areas like the Falls, ardoyne, etc etc. No other City in the Uk has a demographic split where just over half it’s people are not British, Do not feel British and do not identify at all with Brutishness. What is the countess of Wessex to them? Or Kate Middleton? Or the union flag? How does having the same flag regime as every council in England reflect the Irish Nationalist population that Belfast has? It doesn’t.

    Neutral flag (like Down district council) or no flag is the only fair compromise.

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    “But above all should come realisation that nationalist gains have peaked and so have unionists losses. .. unionists and nationalists reached accommodations”

    Brian, I think you really should take a serious look at voting trends and the significance of that tug-of-war 50%+1 constitutional arrangement. Many unionists said YES in 1998 in the belief that they could hold the line but, more importantly, that they could have a say in governance; many nationalists voted YES on the basis of the aforementioned trend and the belief by some that the trend could be fast-tracked by attrition.

    The accommodations you refer to translate to little more than sharing-out in the OFMDFM; they barely exist at all in local councils.

    “The already narrow ground of serious disaffection has been exposed as getting narrower”

    I thought the civil rights smokescreen had already been exposed ….

  • JR

    Brutishness – Britishness, Spellcheck :-)
    Also with obvious exceptions of Newry and Derry.

  • http://nicentreright.wordpress.com/ Seymour Major

    The Union Jack is the symbol of a State which embraces devolution and the right to opt out of it”

    I wholeheartedly agree. Of course, it does not alter the fact (a) that this was not the case all that long ago and (b) that the flag has been abused over many years to such an extent that it is offensive in the eye of many nationalists.

    Good political leadership is badly lacking and badly needed.

    We need Nationalist leaders to make similar observations about the Union Jack in order to water down the toxin. As to Unionists, what you say about the DUP is bang on the money. I believe that they can afford to adopt more of a cross-community position than they do now without losing electoral support. Unfortunately, by their recent statements, they have boxed themselves into a bit of a corner.

    Still, it is not so long ago that the DUP wanted to “smash Sinn Fein.” If they could do a bit of more of a “u” turn on this issue, I dont think they would be doing their future prospects any harrm.

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    “The unionist parties should stop indulging neurotic fears that their working class vote will collapse. The working class is bigger than this, never mind the silent majority.”

    The silent majority deserves the people that others vote for but democracy deserves and needs better.

    ‘Neurotic fears’ reminds me of the abusive language directed against his political opponents by John Hume: “[Unionists] hark back to the past and speak of the future only with fear and foreboding, a paranoia … a siege mentality, rooted in insecurity, in prejudice, in fear of domination” [Personal Views p27]. Paisley’s abusive language was rather less subtle but it was hardly surprising, given our history, that such language and the associated confrontational street theatre should set folks at each others’ throats.

  • Better Together

    Brian

    The problem is that there was no concord that designated days is an appropriate solution- if in Belfast, then why not in Derry City Council and Omagh? My argument for the flag is that it is not the symbol of one sect, it is the soveriegn symbol- putting it into a cultural stew with other contested issues devalues it.

    Republicans/Nationalists have chosen to do this, preferring short-term gain over a sensible long-term position. The reality that demography is not going to carry the day for them has yet to sink in, they seem to cling to the hopes that death by a thousand cuts is still, if it ever was, a viable strategy.

  • Greenflag

    JR @9 January 2013 at 12:54 pm

    ‘They wish it to remain as a territory marker and a symbol of their perceived supremacy.’

    Perceptions are often more important than ‘reality’ at the level of street politics . A comparison could be made between the flying of the Stars & Bars in the Southern States of the USA and the current flag waving frenzy in East Belfast . The Stars & Bars while it may represent cultural heritage for some white Alabamans etc is nevertheless perceived and rightly so as the flag of slavery by African Americans and by many Northerners .Some USA southern Stars & Bars wavers will claim heritage not hate as being the flag’s current meaning . Claim all they will but that’s not how it’s perceived .

    Drive around Alabama or Georgia or Florida or anywhere else in the South and if you come across some local flying his Stars & Bars instead of the Stars and Stripes you will find that in 9 cases out of 10 the Stars & Bars is a ‘political ‘marker for Republican , Tea Party , anti any minority , anti gay etc etc etc . These

    I would hazard a guess that if the same would apply to the 1,000 or so Union Jack flag wavers on the streets of East Belfast . The difference being that the East Belfast wavers are expressing their anti democratic , anti minority , anti new immigrant fervor , anti Irish and anti Catholic sectarian history the only way they know how .

    For the USA Star & Bars wavers the flag that flies over their State institutions is the Stars & Stripes . The CIvil War and the long struggle for equality and civil rights in the USA over the past 150 years ensured that outcome . There is no going back to ‘slavery ‘ although a more modern interpretation of that term might suggest that it has already returned for half the American population -and alas for the Stars & Bar wavers -it even may include a a large number of their ‘cultural ‘heritage despite their skin colour !

  • Dec

    ‘Republicans/Nationalists have chosen to do this, preferring short-term gain over a sensible long-term position.’

    That accusation could be equally levelled at Unionism. If you believe making that Union as uncomfortable as possible for Nationalists is a sound strategy, then go for it.

  • Obelisk

    “My argument for the flag is that it is not the symbol of one sect, it is the soveriegn symbol- putting it into a cultural stew with other contested issues devalues it. ”

    I believe the root of your problem Better Together is that in the our toxic stew it is both. It maybe the sovereign symbol, but it has also been used for many decades by one sect as the symbol of their dominance.

    Trying to present the flag in it’s unsullied original meaning is an almost sisyphean task, you can’t get past what it means HERE.

    I believe no Union Jacks, no tricolours. We all take a leaf out of Down Council’s book and fly the council flags.

  • Greenflag

    better together @

    ‘The reality that demography is not going to carry the day for them has yet to sink in’

    It appears that this reality has not yet sunken in to the ‘mindsets’ of East Belfast loyalists . As you can see from your TV screen their viable strategy in the face of political reality is to set fire to everything around them and shoot at police ?

  • BluesJazz

    Greenflag
    At least one of the rioters arrested in East Belfast was a Polish national. he was named in the Irish News.

    So cultural assimilation appears to be underway.

    i always associated the Confederate flag with the ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ and Lynnrd Skynnrd (Sweet home Alabama), and never thought it would be offensive.

    JR
    You would be surprised at the population of some northern English cities not identifying as ‘British’. Some of them (cities) resemble Karachi. Many of their citizens have little affinity with the Union Jack, regarding it as having NF connotations.

  • Dec

    ‘i always associated the Confederate flag with the ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ and Lynnrd Skynnrd (Sweet home Alabama), and never thought it would be offensive. ‘

    I’m assuming you’re not a black American.

  • BarneyT

    Brian – “With hindsight nationalists would have been better advised to have arranged for the Alliance party to have proposed designated days as the substantive motion rather than the amendment. That would have won them a cross community victory”

    Indeed it would have lessened the blow and eased the perceived threat of complete removal (which is clearly an ambition) however from an Alliance perspective, would they not have been completely shafted in this scenario. They should be associated with the moderate and commendable compromise however they would be viewed as the main instigators had they owned the substantive motion. Maybe I’m splitting hairs here.

  • Reader

    Greenflag: For the USA Star & Bars wavers the flag that flies over their State institutions is the Stars & Stripes . The CIvil War and the long struggle for equality and civil rights in the USA over the past 150 years ensured that outcome .
    Ah, the half-Godwin. But your analogy fails at the last hurdle, since the flag you find so objectionalble here is the one that recognises the union, not the one that rejects it. So try this instead:
    “For the Northern Ireland Tricolour wavers the flag that flies over their State institutions is the Union Flag . The Good Friday Agreement indicated that outcome . “

  • Greenflag

    Blues jazz ,

    ‘At least one of the rioters arrested in East Belfast was a Polish national. he was named in the Irish News.’

    Perhaps he was a Polish protestant ? They were at one time prior to 1900 a significant minority in western Poland in the Gdansk (Danzig region /Silesia ). They were also very pro German which of course had inevitable repercussions when Poland became an independent nation and became the ‘bone ‘ between competing German & Russian imperial interests . Like a lot of Poles their ‘protestant ‘ minority did not benefit from the world shattering events surrounding them.

    The Stars & Bars is not as offensive as it would have been in 1865 and it’s mostly tolerated today even by African Americans -But that’s mainly because it’s a ‘minority ‘ marker . Most USA southern whites would not be seen waving one from their pick up truck. There have been some contentious votes in some states about the emblem being part of the State Flag but as the State Flag is the ‘national symbol ‘ the contentiousness is less .

    I’m aware of the demographic changes in some Northern British cities but that’s even true of London where I believe according to the recent census some 55% of Londoners are the offspring of one or more foreign born parents .

    And In Ireland some 25% of all births were to foreign born mothers which enabled the country to achieve the ‘highest ‘ birth rate in the EU at just about ‘replacement ‘level . In 50 years time in answer to the census poll question ‘Does your mother come from Ireland ‘ about a quarter or more of will be able to answer ‘No’ .In the UK Probably even more ?

    There are many reasons for the major demographic changes presently underway -many of which are common to all advanced /rich countries but I still think that my mother’s answer while it may be less true today than in her day was the most accurate .

    ‘The rich have money and wealth and education .The poor have children .’

    In today’s West while it’s true that some poorer folks have more children than the wealthy -it’s also true that they are not as prolific child bearers as 60 years ago .And it’s ‘poor ‘foreigners and immigrants who have to make up the numbers . The eh Market Economy demands it or at least it used to before it became the current Globalised Financial sector led Plutocracy :(

  • JR

    BJ,
    I noticed when the census came out that in one London Borough only one in eight are white british. But two differences I would point out. One Unlike in Belfast those who are not “white British” are a mix of nationalaties from Asian, african, Middle eastern, caribean countries. They do not have a single “alternative” culture. Secondly they do not see them selves as (for want of a better word) the indigineous culture there and so do not feel as strong a need to have their culture recodnized by the council and the state.

  • Greenflag

    Reader @ 9 January 2013 at 2:05 pm

    ‘since the flag you find so objectionable here is the one that recognises the union, ‘

    I don’t find the flag (union jack ) objectionable .Where did I state I did ? The decision of the Belfast City Council was a democratic decision which is what I accept . The flag waving morons on the streets of East Belfast are just showing their disrespect for democracy and indeed the ‘flag ‘ which they wave .

    Your point above re my analogy doesn’t make it past the first hurdle never mind failing at the last ;)

    Best to read what I write not what you ‘imagine ‘ I’m writing . Paranoia is probably treatable in time for some mild cases of ‘loyalism ‘ . There is none alas for the ‘rabid ‘version currently displaying on a TV screen near you:(

  • Alanbrooke

    It never cease to amaze me how easily people take offense; Northerners are offense junkies, they’d get out of bed at 4 in the morning just so they didn’t miss the chance to be properly offended.

  • BluesJazz

    JR
    What’s happening in London, Bradford, Leicester etc is a Britain of multiculturalism that I suspect some loyalists would not be particularly ‘loyal’ to.
    But, slowly, it’s happening here also, and in the Republic.
    De Valera’s vision of Ireland with comely maidens dancing at crossroads or whatever is about as relevant as John Major’s Britain of warm beer and village cricket.

    All ‘nationalism’ is getting increasingly less valid as ‘globalisation’ makes nation states virtually irrelevant.

  • ayeYerMa

    Brian Walker has it completely the wrong way round. In his world somehow the absurd definition of “Unionist” as used in the fudge process outweighs the one in the dictionary. The idea that there can be power-sharing between “Unionists” and “Nationalists” within a Unionist system is nonsensical unless it is understood that “Nationalists” are now Unionists in the true sense. Perhaps if he had said “The Union Jack is not the Flag of Protestantism” he might have had a point.

    As for the frequently repeated phrase that this is bringing NI into line with the UK norm either, well this is not true either, as it goes against the grain of the trend towards simple flag-flying all year round to improve social cohesion (as is encouraged by government). It is the opposite of normalising, as a southern commenter is trying to claim here; you just need to ask what the motives where behind changing a 106 year old tradition — nothing to do with normalisation — more trying to undermine the Unionist preference for constitutional stability with a Republican desire to undermine any display of that stability and encourage destabilisation in route to their fantasy Republican nirvana.

  • Kevsterino

    Speaking as an American, let me say the Stars and Bars are no more the “flag of slavery” than the Stars and Stripes (which flew over slavery much longer than its counterpart). However, it was a flag of a rebellion that cost the lives of at least 600,000 at a time when the population was 30 million and plunged a wide swath of the national territory into deep poverty for most of a century. In my opinion, the Confederate flag is a banner of stupidity, arrogance and racism. These days, some people fly it to mark territory. In other words, particular types of people are not welcome in its vicinity. That shouldn’t appear strange to Northern Irish people.

  • Framer

    All flags are about marking territory else why have them?

  • http://www.selfhatinggentile.blogger.com tmitch57

    In South Africa there was a similar situation. Until the 1920s the Union flag was considered to be the official flag of the Union of South Africa, which gained independence in 1910. But the Afrikaners regarded it as the sectarian symbol of their enemies. So a new tricolor was designed that incorporated the Union flag along with the flags of the two Boer republics in miniature in the white stripe of the tricolor. This flag began the new flag in 1927(?). But it in turn became objectionable to black South Africans who lacked a vote under both the Union and the Republic of South Africa. So when majority rule kicked in in 1994 a new flag was introduced with new colors.

    The Irish tricolor was meant to be similar to the South African tricolor with an orange stripe to represent the Protestants. But the unionists of Northern Ireland always saw and continue to see it as a sectarian symbol and the orange stripe as gold. Maybe it is time for the parties to get together and design a new provincial flag for Northern Ireland that won’t be considered sectarian. Maybe something with both the red hand and the harp.

  • Kevsterino

    With such emotion attached to the current banners, a new flag would be quite an achievement, but I see no indication that such a new emblem would gain the acceptance of any faction, let alone their affection.

  • galloglaigh

    Here’s a great way to take a good shite on the Union flag:

    http://blogs.channel4.com/alex-thomsons-view/files/2013/01/09_unionjack_toilet_w1.jpg

  • Reader

    Greenflag: Best to read what I write not what you ‘imagine ‘ I’m writing . Paranoia is probably treatable in time for some mild cases of ‘loyalism ‘ .
    So, just because you linked the Union Flag protests to the Stars and Bars, while reciting a long list of objections to the Stars and Bars, to its users, and to the Union Flag protesters, is no reason to think you see anything wrong with the Union Flag itself? Got it.
    Then your analogy was pointless, as well as being poorly mapped to the constitutional position as it stands.

  • Tom

    “Much of the state’s Democratic leadership was swept out on Tuesday, after a campaign that featured frequent visits for Republican candidates by President Bush and harsh advertisements against Senator Max Cleland, a Democrat seeking a second term. But the governor’s defeat was the biggest surprise of the night here, and in the morning-after search for answers, the flag issue surfaced as a leading explanation. “There was this huge undercurrent of resentment and anger about the flag, but I think we all missed it because it’s not something people discuss in the open,” said Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. “The Confederate flag is still a very powerful symbol. A lot of white voters felt Barnes was not on their side when he pushed to change it.”

    This is from a 2002 New York Times article. The removal of the Stars and Bars from the Georgia State Flag was the immediate cause for the destruction of the Democratic Party in Georgia. A popular govenor was swept out of office. “Heritage not Hate” was the rallying cry for those who wished to keep the Stars and Bars. A republican govenor won the election on the flags issue. And at the end of the day, those who were so swept up in the flag debate got their new govenor, but not their Stars and Bars. Changing demographics and the increased political power of afican americans ensured that the old flag was never coming back.

    I wonder if a similar political outcome is in store for some existing Unionist leaders ? And I would suggest that like in Georgia regardless of the political impact, the old flag policy is gone for good.

  • Manfarang

    Support for the Union Flag among ethnic minorities in England maybe stronger than people think.Recently in Hong Kong there has been some flag waving by protesters-the old colonial flag!
    I would have thought the flag of Unionism in Northern Ireland is the Ulster Banner.
    Fly a council flag at Belfast City Hall. The Belfast city logo looks good and it makes a nice flag.

  • seamusot

    The butcher’s apron is assuming mythical proportions usually associated with young highly doped African battle dancing tribes – put a rag around your shoulders and assume (after a bottle of Vodka) a sense of invincibility. Toss mortar, petrol bombs, golf balls, bolts etc at PSNI boys and prove your virility to other mindless morons. Even Peter First Minister Robinson has the courage to state that hitting a PSNI boy with a petrol bomb will not erect a single apron above City Hall. The Shinners should exploit the pleb problem of East Belfast and its serious educational/ unemployment deficit by proposing the erection of 10,000 apron poles above City Hall to be paid out of the forfeited welfare payments of identified offenders..

    Feck

  • Starviking

    tmitch57

    The Irish tricolor was meant to be similar to the South African tricolor with an orange stripe to represent the Protestants. But the unionists of Northern Ireland always saw and continue to see it as a sectarian symbol and the orange stripe as gold.

    I guess the Brothers in the CBS in the 80s were unionist then, they were always harping on about the “Green, White and Gold”.