Luke 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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