Dec 04

We need a flag for Northern Ireland

Luke SprouleLuke Sproule is a politics graduate of University College London and a postgraduate journalism student at Cardiff University. He blogs on all aspects of politics, with a particular focus on Northern Ireland, Labour and post-conflict societies, and is a card-carrying member of the Labour Party.

Like many of the suggestions made by Richard Haass the proposal for a new flag for Northern Ireland is likely to be met with disdain from most of the political spectrum.

True, Alliance and NI21 (and perhaps the Greens) may well back it, but it would be surprising to see Sinn Fein, the DUP or the Ulster Unionists chomping at the bit to start in motion a process to create a new, neutral emblem.

The SDLP’s position is more difficult to guess, but their track record on flags and emblems suggests a traditional nationalist approach is more likely than not.

But if the unionist parties turn down the opportunity to help come up with a new flag for the province then they are missing a trick, for it can only help strengthen the union.

Peter Robinson and Mike Nesbitt would, I imagine, not agree. Their position seems firmly that the union flag is the only flag of Northern Ireland and any flag which could “challenge” the union flag would lead to a dilution of their British identity (and the perceived Britishness of Ulster).

But this need not be the case, and by calling the bluff of nationalists there is a victory to be won not just for the union but for Northern Ireland itself.

For Sinn Fein would find it hard to mount a reasonable case against such a flag. True we would no doubt see bluster from the party alluding to the heartfelt republican belief the tricolour is the only flag of Ireland and the Irish people, but this argument is fairly easily defeated.

Why should the “six counties” not have its own flag? If there is to be a Northern Ireland Assembly within a future 32-county Irish state then will that autonomous province not have its own regional identity (look at the effectively artificial creations such as the Australian Northern Territory for example)?

And why should an opportunity to replace the union flag as the only official flag of Northern Ireland be spurned? Sinn Fein would no doubt argue that there is no need, using the tricolour as their argument, but it is a weak one.

The tricolour is no less divisive in Northern Ireland than the union flag so they cannot (or at least should not be allowed) to pretend that replacing both symbols would be unacceptable.

For unionists the benefits are simple. A new flag, which would have to be accepted by all in a civic capacity, would be part of a process of ending constant arguments over the display of symbols. Put the new flag of Northern Ireland on every public building and demands to display the tricolour lose credibility.

A new flag would, in the long run, also increase attachment to Northern Ireland, rather than to either the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland and would be likely to promote acceptance of the status quo, hardly a bad thing for unionists.

Young nationalists are much likely to be convinced by pragmatic arguments for the union if they do not feel they are having to swallow contentious symbols such as the union flag.

And, of course, it would also bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the United Kingdom. Scotland, Wales and England have their own national flags, and yet are firmly part of the UK (unless one argues that Scottish independence is built around love of the saltire).

Both sides would also still be able to claim their traditional flags if they wanted. The union flag would remain the flag of the UK, and the unionist parties could stand in front of it at conference. It could still fly from lamposts on the Twelfth. The tricolour would no doubt still fly at Casement Park and be paraded at commemorative marches.

But it would not be the flag of the state, and that is what matters. Gradually it would become the flag of the Northern Ireland football and Commonwealth games teams. It could fly alongside the tricolour at the Aviva Stadium.

Of course the argument remains that this is a politicians’ issue, and that most people in Northern Ireland wouldn’t feel any attachment to a new flag. But then again most people don’t feel an attachment to the tricolour or the union flag either. In any case people’s attachment to the flag in the short term is secondary to its benefits in the long term.

So the DUP and UUP should jump at the chance to take a step away from the perceived creep of republican and nationalist symbols into public spaces. The public space should not be neutral, it should be unashamedly Northern Irish.

Editor’s Note: You can see some proposed flags for Northern Ireland at this Facebook page.

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  1. Andrew Charles

    I humbly disagree.

    Ireland, or Northern Ireland/Ulster, post-1920 is adequately recognised in the Union Flag under the Cross of St. Patrick. Giving this up will only recognise difference when Ireland as a whole is already identified and recognised as it is in the Houses of Parliament.

    If Republicans’ object to the Union Flag, being a ‘butcher’s’ apron (ref. to Danny Morrison), that is a matter for them – but many could say the same of the Irish tri-colour.

    Republicans fear Britishness – water it down anymore and your nearly there on the road to unity. Remember, Federalism is an option under a Reoublican plan for unity.

  2. Luke Sproule

    Scotland is adequately recognised in the union flag yet has its own national flag. Wales is not even represented.
    The fact of the matter is that a large chunk of the population in NI do not feel represented by the union flag.

    Republican objection to the flag isn’t really the point, the point is that you’re never going to convince a lot of young catholics to accept the union if they have to accept symbols that they do not feel represent them.

    Republicans fear of Britishness is rather irrelevant, for what they seek to do now is simply remove the symbols of Britishness or display their own symbols alongside them. Replace those symbols with symbols of Northern Ireland and they have no longer got a case. Thus the creep of nationalist symbols ends.

    1. boondock

      There is no creep of nationalist symbols

  3. Andrew

    A flag for Northern Ireland isn’t actually a bad idea. Some unionists’ objections based on ‘eroding Britishness’ are, I think, misguided. This is partly because what has been termed ‘Britishness’ has largely been consigned to the subjective. And if unionism is to have a long term future this won’t do.

    Unionism needs to get over its line in the sand mentality. How many times have we heard ‘here and no further!’ It’s the same mistake over and over again, and its always defeated in the same way. We need to shift the terms of the debate.

  4. Stephen Cooper

    An emotive subject to debate Luke, but one which necessitates careful scrutiny of the flag, and what it represents, and of course, how it came to be.
    At the time the flag was incorporated, Ireland was united within the union, and represented by St Patrick’s cross, as correctly pointed out by Charles.
    The fact which continually gets omitted is that the free state broke away from the rest of the UK, and decided they would manufacture their own flag, and one which was subsequently used to drape the coffins of many ira terrorists throughout their savagery against British citizens. The tricolour has been discredited by these sordid scenes.
    The same cannot be said of the Union Flag, which was not used by loyalist paramilitaries in the same manner, with the uda and uvf and other smaller factions creating flags of their own to adorn coffins at funerals. The chunk of people in NI who object to the flag itself are minimal, and only those within the republican movement and their support who have been manipulated by terrorists are now seeking with their usual fervour the removal of the National Flag altogether. These actions are contributing nothing to a shared future, nor are they bringing communities together. The opposite is the case, and more and more moderate Unionists are now becoming increasingly enraged at the antics of rabid republicans who insist on their way or no way on almost every matter pertaining to unionist democratic wishes.
    You did however, miss out on an important angle, Luke. The fact that the whole of Ireland is quite magnanimously represented in the flag, should be pointed out to the chunk who want change, and perhaps armed with this realisation, can come to understand that they have an identity which is represented within.
    I think it is a fair compromise that the St Patrick’s cross is left intact, as that covers those who aspire to be Irish within the UK, and rather than diminish the design, many unionists might actually pose the recommendation that a red hand should be added in the middle!
    ‘Be careful what you wish for,’ I suppose is the warning across the bows for nationalists, as the lesson from Belfast City Council has been one of now knowing that as soon as nationalists have the numbers, they will not hesitate to use it to eradicate anything British from our society. Unionists will remember that in future and that version of selective democracy will never beat true democratic practices, which on a larger scale will eventually rectify the mistakes of the past.
    Fly the flag, and respect the democratic wishes of all NI citizens to remain within the UK, anything contrary is anti-democratic and infringing on our National identities which are wholesomely represented in the current Union Flag. Wales of course was a principality of England at the time of the first design, and as the link below points out, St Patrick was born in Wales, so perhaps they have representation too.

    See link: http://www.sovereignty.org.uk/features/articles/uk4.html

    ‘St Patrick is, of course, the patron saint of Ireland and is celebrated in both the North and South, but has come to be associated largely with the South.
    Many Protestants in the North — irritated by the South’s monopoly of St Patrick, work to reclaim St Patrick for the Protestants as well. They emphasise that St Patrick is not only an Irish symbol for some of the Catholic, or Republican, tendency but is a British symbol also.
    In this dual role, he has the potential to represent everyone on the island of Ireland.
    Some Southern Irish have an antipathy to the Union Jack, which is ironic and a pity given that the symbol of their Saint is included in the actual flag!
    The British flag has the Irish Saint’s Cross in it! What could be more inclusive of all the Irish people than that!’

  5. Luke Sproule

    I don’t entirely disagree Stephen, but if we look at it from a pragmatic point of view many nationalists just do not feel represented by the union flag (and a good deal I believe do not adequately feel represented by the Tricolour either).

    A new flag would not replace the Union Flag, it would remain the official flag of the UK and by extension NI, but as in Scotland, England and Wales, it would represent that country and its people specifically.

    Many nationalists also take issue with the legitimacy of the St Patrick’s cross. That’s an argument for another day, but why should we not compromise? The alternative is to live in a fantasy world where nationalists can be convinced to subscribe to the Union Flag. It’s a nice idea, but it isn’t going to happen in a thousand years. Nullifying the encroachment of nationalist symbols, however, would prove extremely beneficial to the union.

  6. Stephen Cooper

    Luke, Why do nationalists take issue with the St Patrick’s cross? What is the reasoning? A flag, which is the official flag of the patron saint of Ireland? This has to be explored and examined and I suspect, the real underlying reason will be as per usual a blind hatred or dislike of anything viewed as British.
    There is no logic to their objections other than their deep seeded opposition to British symbols, or indeed, unionism. I feel the effort to present the Union Flag as a viable compromise as it is; with it containing the St Patrick’s cross, and educate the many who don’t quite grasp the fact that their Irish aspiration or identity is already being recognised and represented by our National flag.
    You ask why should we not compromise? I ask simply, why SHOULD we compromise? Why should the majority of the electorate who are quite happy to retain our Ulster banner and our Union flag, kow tow to nationalists who are simply on a long term mission to eradicate any symbol of our British identity?
    I understand where you are coming from, in relation to creating a NI flag which copper- fastens our NI identity, which in turn then can ward off as you put it, encroachment from nationalists; but I disagree with that fundamental. You will NOT deter them, instead; you will encourage them to diminish the link between NI and GB further, and any new flag will be utilised to justify the continual attrition they will be encouraged to step up as a direct result. If Unionism compromises on this, due to a minority of the electorate’s wishes, then what next? We would be playing straight into the hands of sfira, and they will use a new flag to increase their insidious mantra of ‘equality’ in terms of flag flying and mutual respect, etc. It is another cynical attempt at trying to equate a minority’s wishes and aspirations on an equal footing with the majority’s, and that is the absolute antithesis of democracy.
    As for ‘living in a fantasy world’, I think that educating nationalists, (in the current climate of many of their number realising their future belongs in the uk), would be a much more viable option, and would bolster their economic reasons to maintain the union by promoting the Union flag and the Irish saint’s cross therein, and it would do a lot to harness that section and turn them away from wavering to any change in the union, or indeed, the flag of our country.
    Your last sentence has you hoisted by your own petard, ‘Nullifying the encroachment of nationalist symbols, however, would prove extremely beneficial to the union.’

    Au contraire; the pan nationalist front have the very same tactic; ‘Nullifying the continuation of Unionist symbols however, would prove extremely damaging to the Union.’

    The defence rests…

    1. boondock

      So to sum up Unionists when in a majority can do what ever they want but how dare the nationalists try and do the same thing. A Union flag is fine because Ireland is represented by the cross of St Patrick but a Tricolour is bad even though the orange tradition is represented on it (I get it, you associate the flag with terrorists but dont you think nationalists have a problem with the Union flag and how it has been used and abused in Northern Ireland).
      Keep it going Stephen the Union is long safe but the whole flegger mentality just helps desatbilise things.

      1. Stephen Cooper

        Actually, boon, you have hit the nail on the head about the behaviour of nationalists in Belfast. As soon as they had a majority they showed their true colours and tore the national flag down.
        Unionists don’t ‘do whatever they want’ NI is a society with many checks and balances, both in employment and in terms of equality right through the system. The tricolour is the flag of the ira, and that is as offensive as it gets for many in this part of the uk.
        Our national flag should be flying, in line with international protocol, and in the same way every other country throughout the world flies theirs.

  7. NorthMunsterman

    Great to see unionists continuing to focus on rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

    1. OU Editors

      By discussing something proposed by a non-partisan figure on a site dedicated to discussing things?

  8. Stephen Cooper


    Free speech is valued, and I am impressed you are able to gurgle from the depths of oblivion from a submerged and bankrupt free state.

    You might even break the surface someday…keep kicking.

    1. boondock

      The last time I checked the Republic was on the road to recovery and recently was named best place in the world to do business. I guess we can laugh at the bankrupt state seeeing as we have such a sound financial position ourselves and most certainly do not need bucket loads of cash from London every year obviously.

      1. Stephen Cooper

        On the road to recovery after receiving millions from the UK, and we of course need supported after sfira destroying our cities and chances of inward investment for decades, and regrettably, many still vote for them.

  9. Andrew


    I don’t think supporting a new (‘official’) flag for Northern Ireland would diminish the Union. It certainly doesn’t follow logically. Personally I’d be happy enough for it to be Saint Patrick’s Saltire (SPS). In a certain sense it would be a good choice. This, of course, wasn’t the intention of Dr. Haas’ proposal but that doesn’t really bother me.

    What I’m not sure about from reading your comments is whether you think SPS should be the flag of Northern Ireland, or are you saying the Union flag should be the only ‘official’ flag?

  10. Stephen Cooper

    I am perfectly happy with the Ulster banner, which is used worldwide in sporting events as our ‘local’ flag. I am not in favour of changing that status, nor do I want the Union Flag to be in any way denigrated; in addition to that, I would like it flown all year round on the city hall and at Stormont.
    As for your first sentence, my reply would be, it certainly wouldn’t strengthen the union, therefore, I am not in favour of supporting it. If you think the St Patrick’s saltire would be ‘in a certain sense, a good choice’, then please outline why, as I do not agree that it is a good choice in any sense, never mind in any ‘certain sense’.
    Our national flag incorporates the St Patricks cross, which as I have pointed out represented all of Ireland when it was in the union. Nationalists fail to understand that central and important reality, and are only objecting to the flag because of not what it is, but what it represents, i.e., the union.
    There can be no ambiguity on a national flag; nations fly the flag they belong to, in recognition of their constitutional position.
    There is no excuse whatsoever to force the majority of the electorate to do so in NI, nor is there any precedent worldwide for a minority of narrow minded bigots to coerce the law abiding majority to lower their flag at the behest of threats of violence and blackmail.
    Why should we be any different?

  11. Andrew


    ‘in addition to that, I would like it [the Union flag] flown all year round on the city hall and at Stormont.’

    Me too. For me the issue is not should it fly but how we can achieve that.

    ‘As for your first sentence, my reply would be, it certainly wouldn’t strengthen the union, therefore, I am not in favour of supporting it.’

    So you’re saying that you would not support anything that wouldn’t strengthen the Union?

    ‘If you think the St Patrick’s saltire would be “in a certain sense, a good choice”, then please outline why, as I do not agree that it is a good choice in any sense, never mind in any “certain sense”.’

    I don’t think we should give up Ireland to Irish separatists. Neither should we give them up being Irish either. These are forlorn hopes to be sure but Saint Patrick’s Saltire well represents classical unionism on both. Carson was right about partition being a failure, necessary though it became. That doesn’t mean we should partition unionism.

    ‘Our national flag incorporates the St Patricks cross, which as I have pointed out represented all of Ireland when it was in the union. Nationalists fail to understand that central and important reality, and are only objecting to the flag because of not what it is, but what it represents, i.e., the union.’

    It’s not a question of is Ireland represented but how Ireland is represented. And if one is an Irish separatist then objecting to the Union flag would make a good deal of sense. Not all, or even most, opposition is deliberative, a lot of it is reflexive. We can work with reflexive.

    My view is that the typical unionist hullabaloo is a mistake because it is a response based, or easily perceived to be based, on the assertion of one community over another. And if you have a ‘peace process’ that is predicated on ‘recognising’ both communities equally, which for the moment is the only game in town, then such assertions are doomed to fail. The more unionist symbols become bound up with the nonsense we saw last winter so much the worse for unionism and unionist symbols. Sinn Fein welcome it. Worst of all, the same episode has been played over and over again with the same results. And we keep doing the same thing.

    You keep asking why should we compromise, I don’t think that we should. This doesn’t entail an obvious action in response, however. It does seem clear that unionists have a lot of hard thinking to do, we are facing an uphill constructive task. One aspect of this is persuasion. Another is a corollary of persuasion, the rejection of the privatisation of public truth claims. And facing up to this will involve a good deal of self-reflection. Unfortunately our political parties seem to lack the imaginative range to carry this out. Peter Robinson has said some interesting things. The worst is NI21 whom, I hear, acquired a flat-pack liberal party by mail order from somewhere beyond the hinterlands.

  12. Stephen Cooper

    thanks for your response.
    As usual, I will respond to each issue as you have posted. We cannot retrieve decisions by the pan nationalist front via Stormont, thanks to the pro agreement uup/udp and pup who stamped the Belfast Agreement and the veto afforded to a minority. Logically, I would refer to the national assembly for a vote to reach and supersede the councils and set down the protocol for the flying of the national flag and not waste any more time, police or otherwise with such nonsense, which has been instigated by intolerant republicans. In normal democracies, the National flag would fly unhindered, but in NI, the appeasement of the ira afforded them shamefully a say against the wishes of the majority.
    If something doesn’t strengthen the union, than how can one be described as a unionist? I am first and foremost a unionist, therefore I support the continuance and strengthening of said union. I am at a loss why you question such an obvious position.
    ‘‘If you think the St Patrick’s saltire would be “in a certain sense, a good choice”, then please outline why, as I do not agree that it is a good choice in any sense, never mind in any “certain sense”.’
    Your response is vague and at best irrelevant. I want to know exactly why you said in a ‘certain sense’, i.e., that of certainty why the sps would be a good choice. It is already incorporated into our national flag, so to go back to your point, why separate it?
    Nationalists and republicans are very good at hullaballo, and unionists have watched on as the cnr community have relied on the ‘let’s all be friends strategy’. It is my stance that the flag can be portrayed in the same sense and illustrate the inclusiveness of the Union, within its flag.
    We may ‘recognise’ each communities, but NEVER forget, that the democratic rights of the population must not only be recognised, but OBEYED. Democracy is the will of the majority, and also, the nonsense of equating the irish flag with our national flag is given short shrift. NOWHERE in the world is a foreign flag given equal status with the sovereign state’s flag.
    I am pleased you allude to persuasion, as that is my central tenet of educating the oscillating nationalist community who realise the uk is where they should be, and if we can show the sps within the Union flag to be more inclusive, (which it undoubtedly is), rather than the ira’s tricolour, then that would form a firm foundation for generations to follow.
    In short, there can be no deviation from flying the flag of whatever constitutional state any country belongs to, the only exception would be a state which has surrendered to armed terrorists on an ongoing appeasement process.
    NI is undoubtedly in that category, but I and others will stand opposed to the dilution of not just our viewpoint, but democracy and our adherence to international legislation and protocol that agrees with the author in the latter paragraph.
    Flags should not be discussed, and those who complain should be directed to the pedants within the failed republican movement who are stirring the pot to try and cover the fact that they have fallen way short of their objectives and who are only interested in division and retaining the easily led to vote for their unobtainable pipe dream next election.
    It is time to move on to a better future within the UK and under our National flag, which represents ALL of us.

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