London Letter: A new flag for Northern Ireland?

A Tory MP said yesterday that Northern Ireland should have its own recognised flag, but is it realistic to think that the people of Northern Ireland could ever become united under one flag, symbol and nation?

The MP in question, Andrew Rosindell, dressed his dog, Spike, in a union flag waistcoat whilst campaigning during the 1997 election, and is known for being in favour of firearm ownership, the death penalty and the detention of asylum seekers.

“Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK, the only region in Europe and the only area in Her Majesty’s realm that doesn’t have a recognised flag, and it should have a recognised flag,” said Rosindell.

“It’s always a delicate issue but they should have a flag. Some feel that the red hand is controversial so I think the obvious flag of Northern Ireland should be the cross of Saint Patrick. It’s already used in the PSNI badge, it appears in the Union flag and it’s Saint Patrick so nationalists should also be happy,” he said.

Rosindell, MP for the Romford constituency in Greater London, had tabled a question for Owen Patterson yesterday at Northern Ireland questions in Westminster. He planned to ask if he would bring forward proposals for an officially recognised flag for Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State ran out of time and didn’t get to answer the question but Rosindell is confident that he would have “great sympathy” with his views.

Dr Dominic Bryan, a lecturer in the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast, said: “I think it’s bizarre that a Conservative would want to ask about that. It’s strange how often the question comes up, and it’s usually on official occasions because the First Minister and Deputy First Minister have no flag to represent them.”

Dr Bryan worked on a project a few years ago looking at how symbols change and how to encapsulate a new Northern Ireland.

“There’s quite a long history to the debate,” he said. “The Ulster banner used by unionists has no official status but it was used at the Commonwealth games.”

He said it could be argued that the red hand would be an obvious symbol to represent both the six counties of Northern Ireland and the nine counties of Ulster. Despite it being associated with unionism, it is also used in GAA circles and is on the Tyrone GAA jersey.

“My argument for the red hand is that it is used by both communities consistently. Many nationalists and republicans say the Saint Patrick’s flag is just a part of the Union flag so that would be their objection to that.”

TV presenter, Zoe Salmon, found herself in the middle of a sectarian row a few years ago when she suggested that the red hand of Ulster would be an appropriate symbol for a ‘Best of British’ logo for an airline on Blue Peter.

Scottish academic, David Miller, was one of the first to complain to the BBC about what she said, stating that the red hand is a symbol of the unionists and certainly not something “signed up to by the majority” of people in Northern Ireland and Ulster.

Dr Bryan points out that this shows a distinct ignorance on Miller’s part due to there being substantial evidence that the red hand is used by the nationalist community too.

According to Dr Bryan, when you put the idea of a new flag to people, almost everyone finds a reason not to like something about it.

Sharing Rosindell’s view to an extent, Dr Bryan agrees that Northern Ireland should have its own flag.

“As kids grow up they’d start to recognise a new flag and it would grow in popularity. I’m not saying people would fly it from poles but it could be used at rugby games and the like,” he said.

The notion that it would be likely for the population of Northern Ireland to agree on a flag to represent them, and to be used on official occasions, will undoubtedly be met with much scepticism.

As Dr Bryan says, there will always be someone, somewhere, who will disagree with some aspect of any new flag.

Catherine Wylie is a reporter at the Press Association in London.