Soapbox: Respecting the constitutional position endorsed by all the people 1998 is fundamental

Here Trevor Ringland responds to Chris Donnelly’s proposal to co-opt the Irish Tricolour as the only way of resolving the raft of flag disputes. He argues that the issues left unresolved by the longest period of sustained political violence in Irish history cannot be addressed by returning to old arguments, but by creatively breaking new ground within the terms of the historic Belfast Agreement. 

The reasoning behind my comments at the Platform for Change meeting was that under the Agreement Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom unless the majority of the people of Northern Ireland say otherwise. Hence the appropriate Flag is the Union Flag. However I also appreciate our history of conflict and the way in which that Flag has been used by some in the past and so I would support that it is flown on designated days across Northern Ireland and a small number of other days, if and when appropriate, such as a visit by the Queen. While there is a generally recognised Northern Ireland Flag I am open to a new one being agreed because again of our history.

In respect of Ireland there is no generally agreed flag though some would see St Patrick’s Flag as being one. The Tricolour is the Flag of the Republic of Ireland. If there ever is a United Ireland, and because of our history I believe that is highly unlikely, then new symbols will be necessary as while the Tricolour that flew at Lansdowne Road was in a friendly and inclusive environment to those of us from Northern Ireland and Ulster and who are comfortably both Irish and British, the one wrapped around violent republicanism has probably irreparably damaged the symbolism intended by the design of the Tricolour, and hence the Flag itself, as being suitable for any new all Ireland state.

So we could design a new Flag for Ireland as a whole, if St Patrick’s Cross is unacceptable for some reason, to be flown as and when appropriate. In addition the Tricolour could be flown with the Union Flag and the Northern Ireland Flag, when appropriate, such as a visit by the President.

I believe that because violence and exclusion has been the only method used to promote a “United Ireland” then it is unlikely that it will ever come about, particularly because those who did so continue to think that their actions were justified. However what we can do is strive to unite the people of Northern Ireland and all of Ireland even if constitutionally the Island remains divided and I believe this is achievable. Respecting the constitutional position endorsed by all the people of this Island in 1998 is fundamental to creating the basis for building constructive relationships across the Island and in that environment new inclusive symbols can be developed and used when appropriate.

For the record Unionism warned itself when Northern Ireland was established to ensure that it promoted a Northern Ireland for all and then ignored its own advice. I sincerely hope it does not do so again and it is at least encouraging that we now have two Unionist leaders who recognise that Terence O’Neill was right: as opposed to those who took some time to arrive at that reality. Sectarianism and violence from elements of Unionism was and is first and foremost wrong and also undermines Northern Ireland’s constitutional position and hopefully that lesson has been learnt.

Politically I am committed first and foremost to what is best for all the people of Northern Ireland. My constitutional preference, for a whole variety of reasons, is that we remain part of the U.K., with great relations with the rest of this Island and play an active and constructive role in Europe. I would like to see our politics move away from flags to the real issues that impact on people’s lives and more normal right/left politics emerge.

Chris – my generation have had to, rightly or wrongly, ignore murder to open up an opportunity to create a future different from the past. The key to doing that is inclusion and that means using existing symbols appropriately and in accordance with what was agreed in 1998 constitutionally and perhaps creating new ones to be used constructively. Ireland’s Call?!