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.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty