Roy Garland: Flags Protests

Roy Garland

The Irish News – 18 January 2013

John Hume told us “you can’t eat a flag” and the PUP’s David Ervine said precisely the same thing. But flags are more that mere pieces of cloth.  They are imbued with meaning and represent people’s core identities.

Flags therefore have the capacity to inspire or infuriate.  They are almost sacred symbols sometimes used to manipulate or encourage people to fight and die for their country. Hence strict rules usually govern their use.

The Union Flag and Irish Tricolour are both theoretically inclusive. The Union Flag represents a coming together of all parts of the United Kingdom whereas the Tricolour represents a hoped for coming together of Irish and British traditions in Ireland.

Yet both flags can be used as aggressive symbols or alternatively burnt on bonfires as the ultimate insult to another tradition. This is deeply offensive but after a violent conflict enemy symbols may seem fair game for expressing antagonism.

But flags should be treated with utter respect in a divided society like Northern Ireland. They are powerful symbols that can evoke love or hate. Politicians can garner votes with flags. As has often been said, put one on a donkey and people will vote for it.

Yet the main Irish religious traditions are Christian, which means that national flags are respected but not accorded semi-sacred status. The faith of Jesus, St Paul and St Patrick was not nationalistic. They respected the sensitivities of other people. Christianity has misused flags but also helped minimize the impact of national symbols by encouraging respect for all human beings.

Given the significance of flags in NI, people should always respect their neighbour’s flags and symbols. But when Nationalist Councilors attempted to stop the flying of the Union Flag at Belfast City Hall they were not being respectful. The Union Flag remains the flag of Northern Ireland and should be respected as such.

However flying flags all years round is also disrespectful and could reduce the flag to the status of a tribal symbol. It was also disrespectful for the DUP/UUP to distribute 40,000 leaflets claiming the Union Flag was being “ripped down” thanks to the Alliance Party.

Faced with flying the Union Flag everyday or on no days whatever, the Alliance Party supported a reasonable compromise. The flag is to be flown on designated days in line with the best of British traditions by accommodating differences and avoiding giving offence.

Since the start of the protests I suspected that many protestors took the cue from those who wish to manipulate the symbolism of flags to promote a reactionary agenda. It brought me back to the early Troubles when activists manipulated the potential of such symbols to influence perceptions. Hard liners infiltrated the UUP to stop progress towards greater inclusion. Just as today, people were sometimes treated as little more than pawns to be manipulated for political gain.

Many of the sentiments of today’s protestors echo those used at the start of the Troubles. Even some of the faces seem eerily familiar. There are legitimate grievances but these should not be allowed to give credence to those who resort to violence and risk destroying everything we have worked to achieve.

During the 1970s the Alliance Party seemed too removed from traditional communities to make a significant impact. But recent events have encouraged many to revise their thinking. While the Unionist Parties failed to lead their people into a new reconciled future where all traditions are respected, the Alliance Party sought to promote the interests of the wider community.

In contrast, when Peter Robinson called for Catholics unionists to join the DUP his people were also invited to wave Union Flags. The assumption was that unionists wish to flaunt Union Flags. But this is not necessarily so.

Many unionists including some senior Loyalists do not fly Union Flags. They know that flags have been too easily used to manipulate. There are also Catholics unionists with a small “u” who resent the flaunting of Union Flags.

In a college I once taught in, the Union Flag was flown every day. Some students deeply resented this and a few would not walk under it. One student from a Catholic background attended Pentecostal meetings and could be described as unionist. Yet he found walking under the flag every day a painful experience.

Many problems underlie the flag protests including the need for a party to represent working class interests. These should be spelt out and dealt with politically.  But the most basic problem is about finding a way to live and work together in mutual respect and tolerance.

Article reproduced courtesy of The Irish News