Time for Unionism to find a place for the Irish National flag in Northern Ireland

The Platform for Change discussion on Flags at Belfast’s Holiday Inn last night focused partially on the possibility of an agreed resolution to the Flags Row which could be implemented consistently across the newly proposed eleven local government councils.

It was a fairly tame affair, though multiple contributions by loyalist flag protesters (including one lasting for what seemed like 5 minutes in spite of the polite yet vain pleadings of Robin Wilson for said man to concede the floor to others) did ensure that a touch of spice was added to the proceedings.

These councils will be replacing the existing 26 councils, which have policies on official flag flying which vary considerably from no flags to the Union Flag flying 365 days a year, reflecting the political composition of the respective council majorities.

I find the flags discussion to be fascinating because a resolution founded on the guiding principles of equality and mutual respect has the potential to provide a stable foundation to the vexed issue of identity which can in time transform our political discourse in this part of Ireland.

The culture and ethos of the Northern Ireland state since partition has reflected exclusively the identity of the British and unionist community of the north. That is unsurprising, given that the state was consciously carved into existence to maximize the geographic area within which the protestant/ unionist community could govern as a comfortable majority.

The rationale for partition, oft repeated to republicans during the post-1969 conflict, was that there were- and remain- two Nations residing on the island, and that the crude slogan of ‘Brits Out’ ignored the reality of the enduring presence of the British, unionist populace in this part of Ireland.

Of course, the true losers in the partition settlement were the ‘ghosts at the feasts’, the northern nationalists. Unionism’s victory in securing partition did not secure a stable society precisely because northern nationalism’s status as part of the Irish Nation was suppressed by successive Unionist administrations and ignored by the southern political establishment. Unionism’s own rejection of the Two Nations argument, coupled with an ‘Irish Out’ mindset, kept the pot boiling until simmering point was reached in the late 1960s.

The Good Friday Agreement ushered in a new era for the north of Ireland, characterized by power-sharing, partnership and parity of esteem between the two main communities whose political differences had shaped a sorry history of conflict and instability dating back 90, 400 or 800 years (pick your starting point accordingly.)

Most tellingly, the architecture of the Good Friday Agreement robbed unionism of the whip hand it had traditionally wielded, replacing it with a system of governance defined by the mutual veto which characterizes the relationships existing within the Office of FM/DFM, the Executive and Assembly chamber itself.

The residual supremacist tendencies associated with unionism are evident in the frustrations currently manifesting themselves through the flag-associated street protests, and the oft-incoherent ramblings of the protest voices attempting to articulate the reasons for their blockades perfectly illustrate how disconcerting the transition from dominance to sharing has been for many in unionism- a process further hindered by the abdication of leadership by political unionism, which has sought to lead from behind far too often (the past 8 months alone have witnessed political unionist leaders behave appallingly in relation to the Famine Song row, St Patrick’s Church parade letter and conduct & then the infamous leaflet campaign, all before the Flag Riots kicked off sending unionist politicians into a frenzy.)

Resolving the contentious issue of flags will inevitably involve unionism having to legitimize and find a place for the Irish National Flag within Northern Ireland, something unionist leaders have yet to even countenance never mind float with their electorates.

Yet is as logical a progression from where we stand today as it is necessary from the point of view of any unionist serious about wanting to move past identity politics and into a new era of politics defined by the type of competing socio-economic visions and varying stances on moral issues which provide the political fault lines in many other societies.

Indeed, affording legitimacy and respecting the National Flag of the 40%+ of northern society voting for nationalist parties is a prerequisite step for a vision of a civic unionism capable of attracting support from across the religious and political divide.

The fact that nationalist parties have moved considerably over this issue in recent years reflects an appreciation within nationalism of the need to accept and find a place within a broader nationalist narrative for the British identity of unionists. Indeed, the model conduct of Sinn Fein’s first Belfast Lord Mayor, Alex Maskey, when he positioned the two National Flags of our divided peoples within his mayoral chamber, has provided us with a prototype approach capable of ultimately transcending identity politics.

Unionism’s hostility to the Irish National flag has been a constant theme throughout the existence of the northern state. The Flags and Emblems Act effectively banned displays of the Irish National flag, giving the PSNI RUC the powers to remove flags deemed contentious, as they did in 1964 at the urging of Ian Paisley, provoking the Divis Street Riots.

During the Troubles, the RUC caused uproar at a number of republican funerals by insisting upon the removal of the Irish National flag from coffins, whilst, only 4 years ago, one DUP councillor cited the presence of an Irish Tricolour in a majority nationalist part of Coleraine as the ‘tit’ provoking the ‘tat’ that was the sectarian murder of catholic man, Kevin McDaid (the councillor later apologised for his comment.)

Respecting the identity of The Other ultimately involves accepting and embracing each other as we define ourselves, affording others the same courtesy of self-defining themselves. That means nationalists and republicans accepting the Britishness of Unionists every bit as much as it means unionists accepting the Irishness of nationalists.

It is ironic that both National Flags can make a claim to seek to be inclusive in their very design. The Tricolour’s incorporation of the colours green and orange is meant to symbolize an ideal union forged between the traditions at peace, whilst the Union Flag’s incorporation of the Scottish and English flags along with that of St Patrick is meant to symbolize harmonious union between the Nations once comprising the United Kingdom.

Yet the very idea of coercing The Other into embracing the national identity of one or the other runs contrary to the letter and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.

Many unionists will object to the flying of the Irish National flag, no doubt arguing that the Union Flag alone should fly in a region under British sovereignty. Alas, it is here that unionist politicians have shot themselves in the foot.

Over many years, flags apart from the Union Flag have flown officially from civic offices across the north of Ireland, including the British Armed Forces flag, the Government of NI Flag/ Ulster Banner (which has no official status today) and even the flags of the Orange Order and Royal Black Preceptory, which flew from at least one council for a period of time, Peter Robinson’s Castlereagh.

Perhaps conscious of this, at least one unionist political representative responded to my challenge regarding the need to legitimize the flying of the Irish National flag in the north at last night’s gathering.

Trevor Ringland, formerly of the One Small Step Campaign and now a Conservative Party spokesman, suggested in his reply that, in addition to the Union Flag, the Ulster Banner could be flown on some days, perhaps even the 9-County Ulster provincial flag periodically as well as the flag of St Patrick on March 17th. Trevor’s response was fascinating because he essentially was conceding that he’d accept all manner of flags being flown……… except the one in which the overwhelming majority of his northern nationalist neighbours regard as their National Flag.

Some steps still need to be taken………