Divisive politics and Northern Ireland’s obsession with flags

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Northern Irish citizens, whichever side of the political spectrum they find themselves on, have an undeniably unhealthy obsession with flags, or ‘flegs’. While these pieces of coloured cloth are used as symbols of cultural or political identity the world over, in few places have they provoked such controversy and violent protests as here.

Growing up in Northern Ireland means being marked by the presence of these rectangular fabrics. I remember playing a car game with my mum in which we would try to guess which side of the ideological line a given town we were driving through was, before any flags came into view. 

This required speedy detective skills, as no self-respecting town would leave you in the dark for very long. And god forbid there be no flags to be found. Such would leave you doubting whether you were really in Northern Ireland at all. A more sinister reminder of their over-usage and abuse here is the annual twelfth of July celebrations that are taking place as I write.

The festivities commemorate the Battle of the Boyne when protestant King William III beat the Catholic King James II, which ultimately aided in ensuring Protestant ascendancy in Ireland. At the core of these events are bonfires set up and lit around Northern Ireland on the night of the eleventh (Eleventh Night). While problematic for numerous other reasons such as lack of safety precautions and the pollution they emit, often these fires engulf effigies of Irish politicians, the Pope, or most often, the Irish flag itself. 

Sometimes even the poor flag of the Ivory Coast has found itself caught up in the fervour, an error which is a helpful reminder of the essential madness of the whole act which masquerades under the banner of protecting loyalist British “culture”. This is not to suggest that this is a one side issue, with Nationalist bonfires, although less common in occurrence, also often burning Union and British Army flags.

If burning flags is a supposedly essential part of our culture in Northern Ireland, then we are in need of a serious cultural overhaul.

Their political salience can be traced back to the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921, but a more precise historical pinning of the polemic these symbols cause can be found in the Flags and Emblems Act of 1954.

Although later repealed in 1987, when Northern Ireland was under direct rule from Westminster as a result of the Troubles, the Act gave the RUC (the overwhelmingly unionist police force) a duty to remove any flag or emblem from public or private property considered a breach of the peace. 

In a sectarian fashion that is unfortunately commonplace on our corner of the island, the British Union Jack was curiously exempt from violating peace. In other words, the Act was directed at the Nationalists’ Irish flag. 

Flash forward to the twenty-first century, and the picture does not become any more hopeful. On 3 December 2012, Belfast City Council voted to limit the days that the Union Flag flies from the City Hall, reducing it from every day to no more than 18 days a year, as per British government guidelines for government buildings in the rest of the UK. 

This decision, although in line with the very political power to which they profess loyalty, caused outrage among loyalists who took to the street, accusing the vote of being part of a wider ‘cultural war’ against ‘Britishness’ in the province.

On the night of the vote, protestors tried to storm City Hall, leading to the conversion of Ian Paisley Sr’s famous phrase “No Surrender” into an eternally meme-able video. The popular-culture humour of this is undermined by the fact that some loyalists sent death threats to Belfast city councillors over the council’s decision. The offices and some homes of members of the Alliance party (one of the few cross-community parties to exist here) were also attacked. Flags do not just incite strong words in Northern Ireland, they incite threats to human life.

The absurdity of the way in which we have allowed flags to poison our political and cultural atmosphere peaked in the drafting-in of US diplomat Richard Haass, who chaired talks between political parties in Northern Ireland in 2013. While this intervention may seem ridiculous on multiple levels, the USA has regularly taken a baby-sitting role to ease political tensions here since American involvement in the Good Friday Agreement. US mediation has been made more viable by the fact that intervention from either the Dublin or Westminster is inevitably interpreted through a sectarian lens. 

However, even the all-powerful USA found itself stumped by this issue. The resulting draft proposals, which of course were neither agreed nor adopted by Belfast, included the idea of a new flag for Northern Ireland. Beyond the social and public order issues that are the product of this flag obsession, the endless debate translates into a waste of time and money. 

Given that the status quo has remained unchanged in years, it is somewhat of a surprise that since June 2016, Northern Ireland has a Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition. Even the need to have such a Commission constitutes a warning sign. The Commission shortly preceded the collapse of the Northern Irish executive in January 2017. Meanwhile, the Commission has cost the taxpayer over £800,000 in fees and expenses whilst it is yet to publish its report, having been put on hold during the three-year gap in functioning politics here.

The size of the challenge that flags poses, in conjunction with other identity symbols, was laid bare when the co-president of the Commission, Professor Dominic Bryan, stated that he believed they had been given “too big a brief.”  Such a statement, in conjunction with the historical incompetency of our politicians, suggests that this issue can only be solved by the people through a fundamental change of attitude on flags.

Their political salience has only further increased since Brexit. Frequent talk surrounding the potential of a United Ireland is pushing hardcore unionists into defensive and offensive positions. Only on Tuesday past, an UDA (Ulster Defence Association) paramilitary flag, which is illegal to fly in Northern Ireland, was erected outside the Causeway Coast and Glens council offices. When council members proceeded to try to remove it, they were subject to intimidation and prevented doing so by “sinister elements” as described by Deputy Mayor of the Council, Ashleen Schenning.

Flags, in whichever form, context, or colour, continue to have a net negative result for Northern Ireland. They inspire yet more division in a country where we have more than our fair share. We have fallen into an identity spiral in which dyed fabric is king; in which flags become yet another arbitrary symbol of identity – be that British, Irish or provincial. Short of the radical move of banning flags altogether, we must find a way of recognising their importance for some while not letting them endlessly become another weapon for infighting. It does not matter if the fabric is red, white and blue or green, white and orange, it is high time those of us from this wee corner of the world gave up this unhealthy obsession.

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All views expressed are the writer’s own.

Article Image Source: Geograph

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