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?!

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  • MainlandUlsterman

    On fisheries, does it not work both ways? I don’t know, I am asking. If so, you’d need to have the union jack flying in Dublin, on that logic. Are you/they ready for that?

    But the reality is, there is a big difference between the north-south bodies, doing mutual sensible cross-border stuff all neighbours should be doing for mutual benefit, and joint authority. ‘Joint authority’ as a concept doesn’t refer to cross-border bodies, it’s about the idea of the Republic gaining sovereignty over Northern Ireland on a shared basis with the UK. It may appeal to some nationalists, but it is not the deal we have at the moment and there is little sign of the people of Northern Ireland actually wanting it.

    The reality is, most people in NI are much happier with the status quo constitutionally than the more political nationalists seem to realise. There really is very little public desire for this stuff. Its purpose seems to be to give nationalist politicos something to muse about to take their mind off the long decades stretching ahead of NI remaining in the UK. It’s done out of the long habit of seeking constitutional changes most people don’t want – not one of nationalism’s most appealing traits, though nationalism has produced plenty to admire in other ways. Anyway, better surely to get on with what we have now. To borrow from one butter-selling Briton of Irish ancestry, “there is no future in Ireland’s dreaming.”

  • Jack Stone

    The only way to replace the Union Jack would be to leave the Union (which would happen if either Northern Ireland voted to do that or the United Kingdom’s nature changed). The idea is to have a second flag which more of the people identify with. The only remotely achievable position, I think, is a secondary flag to fly along side the flag of Union. Perhaps by flying a secondary flag alongside the Union jack, then it could perhaps fly more often (or all the time). It is a different sort of compromise. Would Unionists go along with it? I do not know (and I am not of that persuasion). I actually think the answer is probably not. Flying a secondary flag, even one without revolutionary history, would lessen the position of the Union Flag and thus the Unionist identity. Every compromise lessens the traditional position of Unionist identity. It erodes the very foundations on which Northern Ireland was founded. This is why I believe that it is doubtful that Unionists would compromise unless it gets them something. For example, if the sovereign (be that Parliament or the Queen) dictated rules on the flying of the flag on public buildings only on designated days then perhaps Unionists might be forced into a compromise by allowing the secondary flag on more or different days or allowing the flying of both to allow the flag to fly on more days.

  • Jollyraj

    Or Lenny Murphy. A broad equivalent of Sands, in my opinion. Not that I’d want a statue to either, mind.

  • NotNowJohnny

    A few points here.

    1. I note that you didn’t actually provide a reason. I’m not sure if this an oversight. It would be interesting to hear some reasons.

    2. Yes, it works both ways. It’s a similar arrangement whereby the NI Executive also has to agree (through its own representatives on the NSMC) to the making or amending of regulations relating to fisheries within the foyle and carlingford areas.

    3. I’m not disputing sovereignty at all here. The discussion is (I think) about the official flying of the tricolour in Northern Ireland

    4. Asking if I am ready for the flying of the union flag in Dublin seems odd. I don’t live in the south but I wouldn’t have any difficulty with it whatsoever. As I’m also advocating the flying of the tricolour in certain limited circumstance in NI, I would hope you’d have taken my position on that for granted. As for whether ‘they’ are ready for it, I guess that would be a question for the people/government in Dublin. In my view, based on recent experience, it is likely that ‘they’ would support a reciprocal agreement.

    5. I note your point re the term ‘joint authority’. Irrespective of how people choose to interpret it, there is no question that both the Irish government and the NI Executive jointly have authority over the law as regards the control of certain fisheries which lie wholly within Northern Ireland. That authority is derived jointly from both the Dublin and Westminster parliaments. I don’t think the nature of the functions of the body really matter – the key point is the principle that the Irish government does have the power to interfere in respect of matters in Northern Ireland. I don’t know, legally, (I’m not a lawyer) whether this has any implications as regards the issue of UK ‘sovereignty’ in NI (in a purely technical sense). It is interesting to note that I have heard the same people (not you) in recent days claim on one hand, that sovereignty in NI rests entirely with the U.K. Parliament, while on the other claim that the UK Parliament is no longer sovereign in respect of Northern Ireland (or anywhere else in the UK) and that only a majority ‘Leave’ vote will make the UK parliament sovereign.

    6. Finally, another question I’m afraid. Do you think that flying the tricolour officially (along with the union flag) on the headquarters of the north south ministerial council in Armagh on days (and only on such days ) when plenary meetings of the north south ministerial council are taking place inside should really cause anyone any difficulties given that the constitutional issue is now settled in law and the position of Northern Ireland cannot be changed without the consent of the people living here?

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    But would you say he was ‘demanding’ a change as opposed to ‘suggesting’ a change?

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    “The way others chose to interpret it is probably more to do with an opportunity for man playing against me: something which is pretty clear since they continued discussing me long after I have given up on the thread. ”

    Your last comment (with regards to myself and/or Seaan Ui Neill) was time stamped at ‘a day ago’ (as of the early hours of the 23rd of Feb).

    My last comment regarding you is time stamped at ‘a day ago’ (as of the early hours of the 23rd of Feb).

    Seaan Ui Neill’s last address to/about you is time stamped as ’15 hours go’ as of the early hours of the 23rd of Feb).

    Could you please explain to the gallery why you consider this to be “long after I have given up on the thread”?

    Or is the Slugger time stamping mechanism also ‘dishonest’?

    (I have not included Tmitch or Greenflag who have a time stamp of ’17 hours ago’ as of the early hours of 23rd of Feb).

  • Trevor is incorrect with regard to the status of the tricolour. It is not merely the flag of the southern state. The Irish tricolour is the flag of the Irish nation, which is an entity or body that exists across the entire island of Ireland. (Indeed, this national status is given explicit mention in the Irish constitution.) The southern state may have officially adopted the tricolour, but the flag existed before the state ever came into being. In fact, it was first unveiled in 1848.

    As we all know, a significant portion of the Irish nation reside in and are native to the north of Ireland. It would therefore seem reasonable that this community – the northern nationalist community – be accommodated symbolically, if not treated equally to the other national community with whom they share the region, in accordance with the principles of the bi-communal GFA.

    The flying of the tricolour doesn’t have to represent a subversive challenge to unionists or a threat to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. Only a referendum can change that; all tolerance of a symbolic piece of cloth needs amount to, as far as substance is concerned, is a gesture of courtesy and recognition.

    As Chris outlined in his piece:

    “History provides many examples of flags being flown from civic premises in the north of Ireland that were not that of the sovereign British state (as I outline below), and therefore the argument that the Irish Tricolour should not be flown nor formally recognised is rightly dismissed out of hand by nationalists.

    Furthermore, if unionists embrace the Good Friday Agreement and are at peace with the fact that they share this state with Irish citizens in a political-constitutional arrangement that is complicated precisely due to the long and troubled nature of our conflict, then agreeing to an arrangement whereby the National flags of both our traditions are flown from civic premises is a logical development- and that does not preclude an additional arrangement being reached to recognise UK sovereignty through the flying of the Union Flag.”

    It’s mildly amusing that after nearly a century of partition, political unionism has still failed to grasp ways in which it could make things a bit easier for itself.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    You’re still not getting it. Mike I.

    “”The Republic of Ireland” is the legally defined term to describe the state called Ireland.”

    What are you actually saying here? The ROI is still not in any sense the legal name of the state, only its description “Ireland” (the name of the state) has been a “Republic” since 1948, but the actual name of the state is still legally defined by the 1937 Constitution as “Ireland (Éire)” and this has not been superceeded by what is simply a description of a political system which the state currently governs itself under. I quote Wikipedia:

    “The Constitution declares that “[the] name of the State is Éire, or, in the English language, Ireland” (Article 4). Under the Republic of Ireland Act 1948 the term “Republic of Ireland” is the official “description” of the state; the Oireachtas, however, has left unaltered “Ireland” as the formal name of the state as defined by the Constitution.”

    The “Republic of Ireland” may be a description in a legal document, but the proper name of the state has not been changed in any way by this.

    If you are seriously concerned about ambiguities, I’d suggest taht you perhaps take the matter up with whoever made us an island……….which some might consider to be a quite unambigious statement of intent.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Liberal has always been a quite ambigious term, Greenflag. While some of us are thinking “human rights, humanity, freedoms” when we hear the term, others, frequently politicians are referring to a long tradition of free trade and the focused privileging of commercial interests over those very human rights in any direct contest. Its teh very essence of the Whig tradition.

    All political parties pull a sizable blanket over a wide variety of ideals in order not to scare off anyone possibly noticing these contradictions, which would be evident if the party presented them openly. But I always find it a matter of concern when any “liberal” speaks of being far more expert in knowing what is good for me than I may be without their assistance. But that’s probably simply Emma Goldman nudging me from my teens…………

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    It’s mildly amusing that after nearly a century of partition, political unionism has still failed to grasp ways in which it could make things a bit easier for itself.”
    I find it a strange mixture of amusing-cum-terrifying.

    There’s so many things unionism could do to enhance its position but the ‘from my cold dead hands’ mentality just perseveres and gives nationalism and reunificationism free points.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    1. I provided several reasons. The main one being, it doesn’t represent the democratic arrangements we have in Northern Ireland, where the agreement is that we have UK sovereignty, not joint authority.
    2. As you say, it works both ways, so you are arguing that Dublin should be obliged to fly the union jack – good luck with that.
    3. But you can’t decouple sovereignty and the official flying of flags. The choice of which flag(s) are to be flown from state buildings reflects the sovereignty of the region. It’s why I don’t expect council buildings in Lyon and Bordeaux to be obliged to fly the Italian flag but I do expect it in Milan and Genoa. They’re in different countries. Italian people in France accept that. French people in Italy accept that.
    4. It’s just following your logic through about the cross-border bodies. I’m not sure they are as relaxed about the union jack, even now, as you suggest in the South. By rights it should really be flown every time Ireland plays rugby, as the state flag of part of the island – but there does seem to be just as much cultural cringe there towards the union jack as many in N Ireland have towards the tricolour.
    5. Those arrangements do not affect UK sovereignty, any more than they affect Irish sovereignty in their areas. They are a limited relaxing of the usual split to make working in border areas more co-operative and smoother. The key is they are mutual – British vessels can go into Irish waters and vice versa. I think you’re trying to shoehorn more into those limited local bits of co-operation than they warrant.
    6. To be honest I have an open mind on that one, I can see both sides. Personally I think given the Republic’s history of making wrong and deeply disrespectful territorial claims over N Ireland, they would be well advised not to go back to the old threatening, encroaching behaviour that has caused so many problems. I also accept the union jack has a meaning for many in the south which makes it hard for them to see it flying officially in their country. But maybe we both need to be relaxed about it. I think flying the tricolour in the same way as any flag would be flown for visiting dignitaries is the kind of mature future I’d like to see. But we would have to avoid any hint the visitors are treating NI as their territory. The political culture in the South has a tendency to do that and it’s disrespectful and a bit old school in my view. Not part of the shared future.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Not in any way helped by the fact that the biggest party supporting the Union (and with the gift of “appointing” the First Minister here) is haunted by the very epitome of the “Not an Inch” school, the late Lord Bannside. No matter how far any one individual may stray from this centre of gravity, when the votes are needed, that is the song on everyone courting their core-vote.

    It would be interesting to see Unionism hatch out a real political party instead of what we have to endure. It’s not as if they cannot show many decent individuals whose personal actions point to the possibility, but always the dreary “steeples” resurface to block them out…….

  • Reader

    Jack Stone: The only remotely achievable position, I think, is a secondary flag to fly along side the flag of Union.
    More importantly, a flag to be flown when Northern Ireland is operating as a stand-alone entity. For instance:
    To replace the Union Flag at IFA Football games.
    To replace the Stormont Banner for the Northern Ireland Commonwealth games team.
    To replace the Assembly flag at Stormont.
    There’s definitely some value there for Nationalists, though not for the wreckers among them.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I’d love to see a few EU flags from lampposts, just because it’d spark a vitalized debate, but I feel using the EU flag without consent doesn’t do it nor the GFA principle of consent argument any justice.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Kevin, when someone is arguing that national sovereignty should determine which flag adorns our fair land, I’d feel that in all honesty the flag of that power which determines 70% of our laws and a major part of our public spending should be mentioned. I’m afraid that most of those commenting have a very confused understanding the concept of sovereignty, which should in its purity refer to ” the full right and power of a governing body to govern itself without any interference from outside sources or bodies” but even used in a vague manner should at the very least refer to the most powerful entity of those exerting authority.

    And, hey, when has trivia such as popular consent ever bothered the EEC!

  • Kevin Breslin

    I believe Nick Clegg when he says 7%, but I’m very much a “Aontaithe san éagsúlach” type of European. The UK has signed up to EU laws are from the European Communities Act an Act which has very little impact on anything else but non-discriminate access to the single market, freedom to move in it and the collective standards in a single market.

    In effect the UK is free from European Union in most things, and uses the EU as a mudguard too often.

    As an independent nation it can dispute its international waters inside or outside of the EU but there’s no guarantee any other European nation is going to surrender everything for them.

    It can make trading deals with other countries if it goes to those countries and works for them. Tariff fixing is really fiddling around the edges of trade, but pointless if there’s no trade going on, which in some cases there isn’t.

    Many people in Britain might look to the Entente Cordiale if their English, the Auld Alliance if they’re Scottish or the French Republican Revolution if they are Irish or the diplomacy of Lord Castlereagh in Vienna if they are a Unionist , heck even a few far xenophobic right wingers in Britain may opt to vote for Remain, on the basis European federalism for the Crusades if they “shut the borders” and keep out the Islamists… I think that diversity of opinions needs to reflect the broad individuality that exists on this continent.

    For my Europe, I look at Solvay Conferences and CERN and other pan-European bodies that keep this resource starved little continent fed, watered, sheltered, healthy, warm and free to expand our minds by learning doing and making things. I’m open to be persuaded by something better, but I just haven’t seen it yet.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Oh dear Kevin, while the diversity is there, the real problem was once summed up to me in that “people are still different, but in a very similar way.” I’m with Gellner on the issue both of the drift to homogeneity and in believing that the larger the state the less democratic it must of necessity be, not that small states have too many problems with undemocratic practice, as anyone who remembers before 1968 here will readily attest.

    I can imagine a Europe that benefits from a loose central stricture with the kind of bodies you mention employing benefits of scale but stretched over as much carefully crafted decentralisation as modern technology allows us to localise (Beppé Grillo’s challenge to centralisation quite interests me) but the EEC as it exists is far too obviously tailor made for Multinational economic interests for my taste. I’m a European by temperament, but not uncritically. But we’re probably a lot closer in thought on this (certainly “Aontaithe san éagsúlach”) than my “Ed Reardon” response lets on.

    Oh, and it depends on where we got on the tram regarding percentages of legislation. 7% may represent a portion of the entire body of English law many centuries in the making, but perhaps think recent legislation, where the amount of legislation working from EEC directives is a dramatically higher percentage.

  • Kevin Breslin

    I defend the right of Leave to self-determination, the very fact the UK will have two chances to leave shows the EU is no empire or caliphate, whatever they say about undemocratic nature. The nation states often gerrymander their euro-skeptics out of the picture than the EU Parliament does.

    I like Beppé Grillo, Mariane Le Pen, Nigel Farage and Luke “Ming” Flanagan when they are genuinely being skeptical about the European Union having too much power, or when their national governments aren’t doing enough to help their people’s plight at home. Eternal vigilance of course is needed in both cases.

    As I said on IJP’s page, they need to put real independence before separatism, separatism the buck stops with “them”, independence the buck stops with you. They need to say what Out can look like, and what actions Out will take.

    To me the continental EU separatists have it better reading some of their stuff. The British EU Leavers are Libertarians, Imperialists and the Depressed and Disillusioned for the most part, and the former is perhaps their strongest players.

    I think more people in the UK benefit from the EU and its networks than they would outside of it, certainly NI. I accept that with a major culture change they could prosper outside of it finding networks overseas and actually making stuff, negotiating the libraries of bilateral trade deals that Switzerland has, but I’m not sure there’s any grace to be found simply deporting Roma neighbours or scrapping the Human Rights Act.

  • NotNowJohnny

    First, just to clear up your point number 2. I am certainly not arguing any such thing.

    Ok, to the main point. While you may have set out your reasons, I do not understand them. You say that your main reason is that the UK is sovereign. I still do not understand how this prevents the flying of the Irish flag on a building in Northern Ireland in which resides a body over which the Irish state has a lawful, executive role conferred on it through a formal treaty adopted by the parliaments of the U.K. and Ireland and which has been voted for in a referendum by the people of Northern Ireland.

    As a lawyer you will realise, I’m sure, that the flying of the tricolour on the headquarters of a north south body in Northern Ireland would have no adverse effect whatsoever as regards the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. As you yourself have pointed out, the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as part of the U.K. is enshrined in law and cannot be changed without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. So there appears to me to be no legal impediment to the flying of the flag.

    You also state that ‘The choice of which flag(s) are to be flown from state buildings reflects the sovereignty of the region’. I’m not sure that this is in fact true. The Scottish saltire flies over Scottish government buildings and yet the UK is sovereign in Scotland. Indeed the people of Scotland recently voted in a referendum to reject any other form of sovereignty other than that of the UK. The Welsh flag flies over the Welsh Office in London, a state building which is not part of the devolved Welsh assembly, and therefore does not at all reflect the sovereignty of the region (in which it flies) as you seem to claim. What’s more the tricolour flies outside the Irish embassy in London and this (obviously) does not impact on the sovereignty of England.

    Perhaps what you meant to say was that the choice of which flags are flown from state buildings reflect the nationality associated with the state body which resides within the state building? In this case it would seem proper for both the tricolour and the union flag to fly from the headquarters of the north south ministerial council in Armagh as this accurately reflects the nationalities associated with the body which resides in the NSMC building. Or perhaps you meant to say something else entirely.

    I hope this demonstrates why I still don’t understand your reasons why the tricolour cannot be flown from government buildings in Northern Ireland (along side the union flag) in certain limited circumstances with the agreement of the relevant authorities.

    Finally as to your point about others treating Northern Ireland as their territory. This issue was resolved long ago by the Irish government acting in accordance with the express wishes of the people north and south voting in a referendum. The main unionist parties have accepted that long ago hence their full participation in the north south ministerial council. I believe therefore that it is disengenious to suggest that this remains an issue. The necessary constitutional change was made long ago. One cannot on the one hand claim that the sovereignty of Northern Ireland is settled based on the GFA and then call into question issues which are also settled elsewhere in the GFA.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Excellent reply, Kevin. Thank you! While I am an eternal critic I am not unaware of the value of what the EU can offer, only very worried about the seemingly inevitable melting down of all difference that Globalisation strives for, to even out the field for a consumption culture, ant the part that the centralisation of the EU plays in this. My problem would be that while some believe multi-national states of escaping from the problems of nationalism, they seem to exacerbate those problems if one employs Gellner’s models. And I’m a long term acolyte of Gellner……….

  • Kevin Breslin

    The odds are very much against Leave, who are playing for pride effectively. Let’s say Leave do win the vote, even with half his party rebelling, Labour, SNP, SDLP, LibDems, Greens and possible the 3 non-DUP unionists … maybe even some who supported Leave will opt for an EU light option, which will be EFTA or EEA and bilateral treaties.

    The rest of the grumblers cannot be appeased.

    They wanted the sovereign parliament to take control but effectively what you’d get is a very strong pro-EU compromise which might be slightly more left wing than the Cameron deal with the EU.

    The UKIP person on Nolan show was talking about Norway and Switzerland being small countries, but they have European single market access with semi-harmonized trade rules with the EU. That’s the problem with trade, the trading country has to harmonize rules with the country they are trading with.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    I think we’ve said it all really on this one so I won’t go back over it all again. Just one thing to add though, when you use the analogy of Scotland: the Northern Ireland equivalent of the saltire is not the Irish tricolour, it’s if anything the Northern Ireland flag. And of course I’m fine for the region’s flag (I’d like a new one) to fly alongside the overall nation state flag.

    The point on why the tricolour flying in NI is sensitive – and I acknowledged the union flag has similar problems in the Republic – is one of being aware of the history of the Republic’s territorial claim over NI. Of course I recognise the Republic woke up and smelt the coffee back in the 80s and no longer claims NI as its territory now (though it still seeks to take over NI in the long term). It’s just that it claimed us for so long and that caused so much trouble, that it’s appropriate the Republic shows it has now genuinely changed by *not* pressing for its flag to be flown in NI as if it owns the place, even partly. We co-operate with the Republic with mutual respect, so either we fly both flags everywhere on the island or we keep their flag to their bit of it and our flag to ours. Flying their flag in our bit without reciprocating for the union jack in the Republic would obviously be unfair – a chauvinistic gesture that is completely unnecessary and out of keeping with the new atmosphere of mutual respect.

  • NotNowJohnny

    Yes, I think we’ve probably said enough. Anyway, thank you for engaging in intelligent debate. Regards NNJ.