Flags have been in the news of late, perhaps as a late hangover of the disruptive protests over Belfast City Council’s decision to fly the Union Jack from Belfast City Hall only on the United Kingdom’s designated flag-flying days. Ironically, this would have brought the Six Counties further in line with normal British practice, but disgruntled unionists viewed it as a diminution of “their” flag and a bit of a fracas ensued with the once-traditional death threats and intimidation returning.
The BBC raised the issue of how Scottish independence might affect the Union Jack. (Pedants only refer to the British flag as the “Union flag”, but the Flag Institute points out both terms are perfectly acceptable). Scottish independence would have no automatic effect on the flag whatsoever, but it has provoked a round of speculation over what changes, if any, should be made to the Union flag.
Then Richard Haass, the American diplomat charged with chairing the inter-party talks on unresolved issues in the Six Counties, waded into matters vexillological when he wrote to party leaders seeking their views on the possibility of a new flag for Northern Ireland. There are almost no symbols or emblems which have a broad basis of cross-community support in the Six Counties. Shamrocks and harps are about all, but they are not specific to Northern Ireland. and even then unionists prefer the shamrock with a big old crown lobbed on top. Unionists prefer crowns and Union Jacks while nationalists prefer sunbursts and Tricolours.
That just about leaves the flax plant, which the Northern Ireland Assembly has adopted for its emblem, and the hexagon, which has a side for each of the Six Counties and also brings to mind the basalt columns of Giant’s Causeway. The Red Hand, the symbol most closely identified with Ulster, is cross-community, and features on both the flag of the province of Ulster and the former flag of Northern Ireland, but it has been employed more frequently by unionists than nationalists.
No one even knows what Northern Ireland is. Is it a ‘province’? No, that’s Ulster, and three of Ulster’s nine counties are outside Northern Ireland. Is it a ‘country’? Well, England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland are countries. It is an odd hodge-podge. It is a constituent country of the multi-national state that is the United Kingdom. In football and some other sports it is independent, whereas for Olympic purposes it is part of ‘Team GB’ (though many of its athletes compete for Ireland instead), but then for rugby it is unquestionably part of Ireland. (I’ve often thought the way forward to a United Ireland is for Stormont and Dublin to cede their sovereignty jointly to the Irish Rugby Football Union). Ultimately, Northern Ireland in its current form is a statelet of carefully crafted ambiguity.
Anyhow: enter Facebook, wherein a new group called New Flag for Northern Ireland covers the issue and collates a number of proposed flags for the province/country/entity. The quality of the designs varies widely: some of them are interesting and incorporate historic elements while others have a bland corporate feeling.
I don’t imagine any of them will take off: unionists are wedded to their Union Jacks and our lot are fond of the Tricolour. Call me a sceptic but a new flag for Northern Ireland would likely end up as the sectarian banner of Ulster’s newest, smallest faction: the goody-two-shoes anti-sectarian brigade. It would only be flown from Stormont, from the Alliance Party headquarters, and from the homes of a half-dozen well-meaning but otherwise clueless individuals. I’ll keep my Tricolour thank you very much (and my Union Jack, too).