Debate raged on the airwaves on Tuesday about a “Northern Ireland flag”. Again, some “Progressives” (as defined here yesterday!) seemed to suggest this is a simple thing – sure, just run a school competition or something, and that’ll sort it out.
It is much, much more complex than that!
This is a classic example of the “Progressive” blind spot – for all that the need for a new NI flag is obvious to them, they fail to realise its inherent unpopularity with most of their fellow citizens. Most people in NI don’t want a new NI flag – either because they are quite content with (and unworried by the associations of) the “Ulster Banner”, or because they do not wish to recognise NI at all. Far from being an obvious move, most people instinctively see it as a threat.
What is more, as Malachi O’Doherty points out in the Belfast Telegraph, most symbols now associated with one “side” were initially devised to be inclusive – from the Tricolour to the RUC badge (to the Union Flag, actually). It is not the symbolism but the use which counts – therein lies the real complexity.
To try to put all this another way… the Institute I founded, Breakthrough NI, has made a submission to the Haass Talks which I authored, and which I mean to keep confidential until the Talks are over. However, it was clear on one thing above all – before we try to reach agreement on flags, symbols, parades, the past and so on we need to agree the answer to one particular question:
What is Northern Ireland?
Without answering that, you are wasting your time trying to come up with a flag – as explained above, invariably, it will be adopted by one group (quite possibly “Progressives”!) and then rejected by the others. After all, one attempt (a mix of the flag of St Andrew and St Patrick with a Red Hand in the middle) ended up being adopted by the UDA – if ever there was a warning about how difficult this is, that was it!
Of course, fundamentally we disagree on the answer to the question. “Republicans” cannot even say the name “Northern Ireland”. For some, it is the appalling result of a gerrymandered partition which enabled them to be discriminated against for decades – hardly something they are going to want to develop symbols for. For others, it is the wholly justified Protestant Northern State to match the Catholic Southern one – so they will want their own flag (and thus see little wrong with the “Ulster Banner”). How on earth are they all going to agree on a flag for a territory whose history and even name they view entirely differently from each other?
I have suggested before that “Northern Ireland” be defined from an entirely different angle (horrible simplification alert): the Anglican English and Welsh have the “Kingdom of England” (incorporating the “Principality of Wales”), the Presbyterian Scots have the “Kingdom of Scotland”, and the Catholic Irish have the “Republic of Ireland”; the territory where these three broad “nations” meet and cross over is called, for administrative purposes, “Northern Ireland”.
So, what is Northern Ireland? It is a multi-national state. Can we agree on that? Maybe – there is certainly a better chance than if we try to find agreement on the answer among politicians!
Again, as outlined above the main thing to establish is not what the flag looks like but what it would be used for – and quite possibly what it would not be used for – in order to avoid its exclusive adoption by one “side”. For example, it may be that we would have to restrict it specifically to civic buildings (and perhaps sports events involving a Northern Ireland team and/or player). Perhaps its use would be restricted only to organisations which have demonstrated clearly the capacity to represent everyone in the jurisdiction without favour or discrimination – a kind of “good relations kitemark” if you like. It would almost certainly have to be banned from any partisan political use (and thus, for example, from political literature).
There are also issues about what else needs to be done (an anthem, for example) – is there much point in the Northern Ireland football team entering the field to a snazzy new inclusive flag if members of the team from the Bogside or Ballymurphy are expected to be roused by “God Save the Queen”? These are tough choices, and they will take a lot of work (as no one knows better than the IFA).
Only once its use is resolved can we really begin to think about a design. However, even then the tendency is to try to include the three nations (or two, taking the “Anglo-Scottish” as one) – that too is somewhat crude, presenting the three as distinct pillars of this “Northern Ireland” territory, rather than interdependent and indeed intermixed. More to the point, as Malachi pointed out, it simply doesn’t have the desired effect – this is how a Flag with a Gaelic symbol got adopted by Loyalists and a flag with Orange on it got adopted by Republicans after all…
You could, of course, load as many symbols on as possible – take the PSNI logo. It does a reasonable job of bringing together all this competition. But the you have to ask yourself, could you faithfully replicate it without googling it first?! Anything which includes symbols short of all those on the PSNI logo will be rejected; anything which includes them all is too complex. So, you will probably have to do without any symbols at all.
Thus you get to the design stage realising that you really have to keep this thing incredibly simple, while at the same time reflecting the complexity of the answer to the question above. That’s astonishingly difficult. I have thought about it for a long time and the best I can come up with appears above. The diagonal cross deliberately hints at both the flag of St Patrick and the flag or St Andrew but remains distinct from either, using a distinct light shade of blue (the blue of St Patrick; himself a Briton brought to Ireland) on a distinct dark shade of green (the emerald of Ireland; which is, after all, where the territory of “Northern Ireland” exists), with the added benefit that the colour combination itself is a mix which really doesn’t exist anywhere else – just like the people of Northern Ireland!
But here is the thing – you certainly didn’t like it until I explained it, and you maybe still don’t… which rather demonstrates my point that this is incredibly complex and, well, not exactly likely to be resolved this side of Christmas!