There is nothing republican about tying identity to a tricolour

“This decision will put back community relations…people are telling me their culture is being eroded, people are angry!”

While this quote is reminiscent of the infamous flag protests of 2012, the main result of which being the increase in Jamie Bryson’s Twitter followers, the above comments are actually only weeks old and refer to a Councillor’s response to rumours that a Strabane St. Patrick’s Day parade would not allow the Irish tricolour to be flown. While Derry and Strabane District Council later clarified this rumour as untrue, the emergence and vocalisation of this fear of restriction of the tricolour raises questions over how the tricolour could be incorporated (or wouldn’t) into any future United Ireland.

Following a turbulent year which culminated in Stormont elections returning an unprecedented majority for non-unionists and a Brexit vote that has seen the northern remain vote and the resulting EU frontier on the Irish border lead to calls for “regulatory alignment”, the constitutional future of the island has been a newsworthy item worldwide. Michelle O’Neill has this week called for a border poll within the next five years, just as Martin McGuinness had following Scotland’s independence referendum and Gerry Adams did on the centenary of the 1916 rising in 2016. However for momentum for such a referendum and debates to be realised, conversations over reunification need to begin, the nuts and bolts, not merely the idealistic vision so often heard. This includes discussions over emblems and flags like the fears raised in Strabane.        

2012 saw what many saw as an overreaction (to put it mildly) following Belfast City Council’s decision to limit the days the British union flag could fly from Belfast City Hall. In this context is it healthy to have such an attachment to a flag while disregarding the symbolism it represents? If a united Irish republic is to be successfully realised, genuine republicans ought to align themselves with a nationalistic vision espoused by Wolfe Tone, as opposed to the thoughts and musings of Willie Frazer and co. A united Ireland in 2018 would not equate to an Ireland that would have existed had colonialism never occurred – the conversation must change to align with this!

Wolfe Tone, the father of Irish Republicanism and the rest of the United Irishmen did not need a piece of cloth to represent the ideals of their envisioned Irish Republic. Indeed, the state that later adopted the tricolour was, and in many respects still is, a far cry from the republic envisioned by the United Irishmen or the 1916 signatories. While the northern part of the island developed into a sectarian statelet, the southern “Free State” developed in many ways to justify the suspicions of “Rome Rule” that many unionists feared it might. If the price to pay for a chance to implement the genuine republic envisioned in the tricolour – one of peace between orange and green, is the tricolour itself, how could any genuine republican not seize this opportunity? Any flag is a symbol of an ideal; it may be an ironic truth that the fulfilment of the ideals of the tricolour may come at the cost of the tricolour itself. 

Despite the original meaning, it must be accepted that the tricolour has been associated with acts that have made it difficult for some to ever attach themselves to it as their national flag. A confident nationalism or republicanism would not crumble under a new flag, a new representation of a new Ireland. A united Ireland shouldn’t be centred on ‘waving two fingers at the Brits’. Instead, it should be the realisation of centuries of idealism and a realisation that Irishmen and women on this island are best placed to dictate policies regarding its governance, without British interference (as evidenced with the recent Brexit negotiations). Any united Ireland must not be a romanticised ‘Gaelic Ireland for Gaelic people’, nor a mere jigsaw puzzle with the extension of the southern state. Discussions must be realised as such. It needs to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of unionist voters who have also been abandoned by Westminster.

A new republic must “cherish all the children of the nation equally” as recognised by the 1916 proclamation. In 2018, this means accommodating the hundreds of thousands who vote for unionist parties into this new Ireland. A confident nationalism can adapt new symbols, flags and emblems to demonstrate a new Ireland centred on the core principles of equality, prosperity and diversity and correcting the mistakes of the past. Nationalism should run from any Jamie Bryson-eque argument that equates symbolism and nationalism. 

To paraphrase James Connolly – if reunification is achieved tomorrow all efforts would be in vain without recognising a new Irish identity, not green or orange, but one that encompasses both! If those espousing a unified Ireland cannot sacrifice the tricolour at least to achieve that, what true prosperity can be achieved?

Cathal O’Hagan is from the Monaghan-Tyrone border and is doing a Masters in Conflict Transformation in Queen’s University Belfast, focusing on housing reintegration.

My Twitter is : @CathalOHagan