We’re thin skinned about symbols: but is it just time to ‘move on’?

As Liam Clarke notes, we can be incredibly thin skinned about national symbols:

…once Orange regalia could be erected in factories, now the standard legal advice to employers is to keep the workplace neutral.

That is why Belfast City Council has been warned by consultants that flying the Union flag in workplaces like its Duncrue Street complex or the Ulster Hall could give rise to successful claims by aggrieved employees.

We are not just politically sensitive; compensation culture is so ingrained in our psyche that someone would sue.

And it goes back a long way:

Belfast City Council’s lengthy study of flags and the upcoming consultation process may be expensive, plodding and mindnumbing, but it is an advance on the days in which councillors traded insults on the issue.

“Butcher’s apron” was roared across the floor at the mention of the Union flag, and the same nickname was once applied to the Irish tricolour by Ian Paisley. We only need to look back to Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation in 1953. Then, Union flags were forcibly erected in nationalist areas and trouble flared when they were replaced by tricolours.

Some shops displaying royal regalia were boycotted by nationalists and their windows smashed. Tesco wasn’t around here then, but it may have heard.

But he notes, others have moved on a great deal great deal more quickly than we have:

It used to be like that down south. When I was raised in Dundalk in hte 60s, people were still talking about the smashing of newsagents windows which displayed magazines carrying images of the union jack to mark the Coronation. Charles Haughey, the former Taoiseach, burnt a union flag when a student in Dublin on VE 1945.

If we have moved on from the dark days of rioting over flags, the south is a little ahead of us and its attitudes may show us where we may end up.

One of the most arresting TV images of 2011 was made up of the lines of union flag waving kids who greeted Queen Elizabeth when she visited Cork – rebel Cork as it is traditionally known.

Peter Robinson, the First Minister, wondered aloud where you would go to buy so many union flags in Cork. None of these young people, or their parents, were hankering for a return to the days of British rule. It did not herald a wobble in commitment to independence or the republican system of government.

They were simply enjoying a day out. If it had been President Obama they would have waved stars and stripes just as readily. It was a sign of political maturity, of a country at ease with itself and without a chip on its shoulder, the touchiness and readiness to take offense that comes when your national identity is under serious threat.

It was evidence of the close affinity of two cultures and peoples. Whether or not it was consciously considered, the emotion of the crowd was enabled by Coronation Street and Manchester United, watched and supported in Ireland almost as much in Ireland as they are in Britain. It was possible because people like Dara O’Brian, Terry Wogan and Eamonn Andrews have been taken to the heart of British popular culture.

The ties binding the two communities in Northern Ireland are far tighter than those between Cork and London. The lesson of the troubles is that neither community can hope for victory over the other.

The flags we fly, or refrain from flying, won’t change that.

  • The Raven

    “…but is it just time to ‘move on’?”

    Oh God yes please. I enjoyed reading this piece. But I won’t lie. My shoulders slumped halfway through.

    It just underlines the complete inability of live and let live to happen here. We travel long distances to be offended by the Butcher’s Apron – the moniker alone offends me, never mind the sentiment behind it. There’s nothing like reaching back into a colonial past for an excuse for a riot.

    Similarly, a certain MP apparently came all the way from his perch in Derry to be offended by Tesco; I’m not from the area, but I don’t see him similarly ont telly being offended by the unemployment in the area. And I’ve just read “the bigger the arch, the poorer the area”, elsewhere.

    I get a text message from a nationalist mate of mine on Monday – “I’m disgusted by the telly…the fawning to Mrs Windsor”. So turn it off. Just bloody turn it off. I drive through tricolours every day. I’m not offended – I just wonder where they get the money from, when many can’t afford a proper cooked meal, which isn’t from a chip shop, for their kids.

    Chris Donnelly’s piece on here is pretty retrograde and fairly depressing. But not as depressing as the comments which follow – any excuse for an online fight.

    There’s so much more important to really rally round than flags at the moment. And yet, it’s a headline when one mayor puts a bit of paper in a parlour, and the next one takes it out.

    I had such hopes for the next generation – I’m late thirties – until I went on to Twitter to find I’d picked up a new follower: Let’s call him Eoghan for the purposes of this piece. He’s added KAH to his Twitter moniker. I don’t know why he’s following me, but a couple of clicks revealed that Eoghan is about 14 and KAH – god forgive my blinkered, cossetted life – stands for Kill All Huns.

    And there you are. I’m not even German. But Mrs Windsor is. Partly. 😉

  • Alias

    “The lesson of the troubles is that neither community can hope for victory over the other.”

    True, but a national flag is a not a symbol of a community: it is a symbol of a nation and (if fortunate enough) of its sovereign state.

    In that regard, one nation has secured a victory over the other via “the troubles” since one nation now has an undisputed right to national self-determination, with the other nation giving up its former right to national self-determination (and with the state that formerly made a claim to sovereign British territory withdrawing that claim). One nation lives in a sovereign nation state and the other does not, so there is no equality of national rights between the two nations.

    I don’t see where Clarke has solid ground to support his claim that “change is coming” since change can only come the supporters of the Shinners are led to accept that they gave up their former right to national self-determination in return for self-serving concessions within a ‘reformed’ British state and no longer express a desire to reclaim that former right.

    True, that right can’t be reclaimed via the envisioned constitutional structures in the GFA even if unity occurs but they don’t know that so it is probably fair to say that the tricolour is still a symbol of that flawed aspiration.

    On the other hand, symbols have meaning and all meaning is local so it might simply be a means of delineating from the other nation. In that regard, they could live as a non-sovereign nation within the British state and that is the basis on which the unionists might learn to show respect of that symbol – a basis that is little more than self-serving pragmatism but one by which their own status as a sovereign nation is maintained.

    After all, there is little reason to fear or disrespect a national flag when it doesn’t make any claim to your sovereign territory.

  • Alias

    The war of the symbols is essentially a phoney war rather than a proxy war, being designed to lead the gullible Shinner supporters deeper into the consolidating the constitutional settlement by making them think they’re still asserting a set of national rights that they have rejected in their entirety.

  • weidm7

    Symbols in this instance ARE important, if I walk into a government office and am met with Union Jacks everywhere around, I will feel very unwelcome and uncomfortable, similarly if a unionist walks into an building covered in tricolours. Both communities are unsure of their own security, so they feel it is necessary to proclaim it when they can and fight for it when they must, if you happen to not be bothered or don’t feel part of either community, it’s easy to get up on your pedestal and look down your nose at these ‘tribalists’, but it IS a representation of who a lot of people are and their feelings deserve to be respected. If both communities can feel secure in themselves and tensions surrounding community subside, then symbols will become less important and there’ll be less press attention to offend sensitive readers like The Raven and Liam Clarke.

  • derrydave

    Agree 100% weidm7 – these things are important, and we need to be sensitive to the underlying emotions involved. All that said, the less important these matters become in the future the more we will know that our society has progressed !

  • Alias

    Offence depends on whether the nation waving the flag is depoliticized doesn’t it? If it is then it isn’t a threat to unionism or the British state. It has already formally renounced its national rights and accepted the legitimacy of the British state, but the problem is that they haven’t told their own supporters that and so unionists still see the flag waving as an assertion of those national rights and a rejection of their own. How do you get around that? The present British state/Shinner strategy is to continue to improve the status quo so that their tribe may organically develop allegiance to it (and this is working as studies show) and thereby gradually weaken their own desire for equal national rights so the war of the symbols is a phony war to that aim.

  • Alias

    To make that point a bit clearer: if the flag waving is just a symbol of a non-sovereign nation within the British state then neither unionists nor the rest of the UK has a problem with it since the UK is an alliance of four non-sovereign nations. However, if the flag waving is seen as an assertion of a desire to be a sovereign nation then both unionists and the British state will have a problem with it.

  • andnowwhat

    The deal with flags is the intent of person or persons flying it. It’s probably better to take it out of the NI situation (of which I am heartily sick) and look at what happened in GB with the St. George’s flag.

    As a composite part of the union flag, it clearly did not serve the purpose of the message that England’s extreme right wanted so they chose the St George’s (don’t tell them about the Greek thing) flag as a symbol of Englishness thus it became synonymous with such intent for a decade or more.

    It was people like Billy Bragg who chose to reclaim it and to take it off the EDL and such and they did so with much success.

    As I said, it is not a flag that offends but the intent to fly it ad it gives no honour to whatever the flag stands for if one bastardises it for one’s own purpose. The way flags are flown here would be in contravention of the rules in GB and the Republic (the whole down at dusk thing etc) but they are used as a symbol of arrogance and arrogance is too often confused with confidence in these parts.

  • The Raven

    Weidm, I think that’s a bit of a misrepresentation of what I said; and if I can amplify, the apparent importance of these symbols only reinforces the complete failure of our politicians to lead on this. Confidence in security? I’d suggest the respective communities should look to their own for the real threat.

    I feel no threat or offence by either flag – I merely feel that the current recourse to these symbols as a MAIN means of so-called identity is frankly depressing and as productive as counting on a sunk ship for your marketing message.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Raven, I think things are improving, long way to go yet but moving forwards, getting more symbolism both sides can share might help, is it time for a new Northern Ireland Flag yet?

    Back to the article, the is one line that struck me, although it seems unbelieveable nearly 70 years later, “Charles Haughey, the former Taoiseach, burnt a union flag when a student in Dublin on VE 1945.” It seem Dev was the only one to mourn the death of Hitler.

  • JR


    Would he not have burnt a Russian flag if that were an act of solidarity with hitler?

    I think all anyone wants is a level of fairness when it comes to flags. Unionists need to accept that for a large portion of the population here have no allegiance to the Union flag whatsoever. A proportion that is now and has always been too big to ignore.

  • DoppiaVu


    “Symbols in this instance ARE important, if I walk into a government office and am met with Union Jacks everywhere around, I will feel very unwelcome and uncomfortable, similarly if a unionist walks into an building covered in tricolours.”

    But surely it’s about context. If I, as a unionist, walk into a government building in Belfast I would expect to see Union Jacks as Belfast is, whether you like it or not, part of the UK. Just as if I walked into a government building in Dublin – I would fully expect to see tricolours, and would not be offended or uncomfortable in the least.

    However, if I am driving through the NI countryside and happen to come across some village with flags everywhere I would be equally uncomfortable regardless of whether they were union flags or tricolours.

    The difference is that the flags on government buildings merely reflect the nation that the building resides in, UK or ROI. Whereas with flags in villages, that is more of a political statement and a territorial claim.

    And as a side-note, there’s a certain village I drive through every Christmas en route to visiting various relatives. Every year I see tattered old Union Jacks hanging off the lamposts. Presumably they’ve been there since the twelfth and are showing all the signs of having to endure a NI winter. In that context, I feel uncomfortable regarding the territorial claim side of things, but also disappointed that fellow unionists (presumably that’s what they are) find it more important to get one over on themmuns rather than having pride and confidence in themselves and in their flag.

  • Scáth Shéamais

    Back to the article, the is one line that struck me, although it seems unbelieveable nearly 70 years later, “Charles Haughey, the former Taoiseach, burnt a union flag when a student in Dublin on VE 1945.”

    Students from Trinity College took to the roof of TCD to celebrate the Allied victory that day. They hoisted a Union flag, a Red Flag and a French tricolour. As a crowd below watched, they ripped down the Irish flag, set it on fire and threw it from the roof. A crowd of UCD students, led by Haughey, held a counter-demonstration on College Green outside Trinity. They ripped down a Union Jack that was hanging on a nearby lamppost and burnt it in response. Haughey is believed to have been the one to light it up.

  • Greenflag

    It was time to move on 40 years ago and there will still be moving on to do in 40 years time . Of course sometimes history speeds up dramatically and what was once thought would last forever -The Roman Empire/British/French /Soviet /Japanese etc etc all collapsed inevitably . Nothing lasts forever not even the UK or indeed the Irish Republic .

  • Drumlins Rock

    thanks Scath,
    That puts a different perspective on it, thought it was a bit shocking even for Haughey, still bad but povocation played a part it seems, burning the Irish flag was wrong too btw.

    Greenflag, the only thing certain is change, yet for all that changes the more stays the same 😉

    However I think on the whole NI & Ireland are both settling into a more comfortable & inclusive view of the past and current identities, even the slanging matches are a little more constructive.

  • Greenflag

    ‘I think on the whole NI & Ireland are both settling into a more comfortable & inclusive view of the past and current identities’

    Not before time . Just finished reading Niall Ferguson’s ‘Civilisation’ The West V the Rest . I recommend it to anyone who’s interested in the bigger picture and the ‘economic ‘ future facing the west and the emerging economies .While change is certain -futures -political or economic are more problematic .Sometimes the future is to a large extent in our own hands but then there are times when ‘outside’ events can swamp even the strongest political and economic powers .

    I think it was Dev who iterated towards the close of his political career that there was not a whole lot that a small country like Ireland could do .But there were others less fatalistic like Sean Lemass and Whitaker who looked out and beyond the ‘Ourselves Alone ‘ failed doctrine .

    Interestingly Ferguson points out that the ‘ourselves alone ‘ doctrine or dogmas were the reasons why world economic leadership passed from the East to the West post the Reformation and why the Islamic World stagnated when it placed Allah above scientific discoveries . Ferguson also explores the reasons why North America became ‘rich’ while South America remained backward and why the USA has had only one written Constitution while some of the South American countries have had as many as 37 -each one arising from the collapse of the previous and all because these countries were totally under the control of the 1% and a land owning rentier elite buttressed by the conservative and often reactionary RC church .

    And now in 2012 income equality is on the increase in South America’s ‘progressive ‘ economies whereas the income inequality is on the rise in the USA and in the other anglophone countries . Changing times .

  • ayeYerMa

    Regarding the intent of flag flying and expecting to see flags on government buildings( as mentioned by andnowwhat and DoppiaVu) is that we have parties like Alliance who will counter-productively support the removal of flags from the place where they are meant to be in such a respectful manner.