Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Haass' call for new Northern Ireland flag flies in the face of reason

All previous attempts to provide symbols to represent Northern Ireland have already been experiments in combining the traditions in one image, or emblem.
All previous attempts to provide symbols to represent Northern Ireland have already been experiments in combining the traditions in one image, or emblem.

What is there in common between the Ulster flag, the RUC badge and the Irish Tricolour? All were devised to represent the fusion of two traditions in Northern Ireland.

The Ulster flag merged the red cross from the English flag with the Red Hand symbol of the O'Neills, Gaelic chieftains. It is designed to pay due respect to both traditions in Northern Ireland, though it is taken now to represent one of them alone.

The RUC badge was a harp, representing Ireland, with the Crown above it; again, an attempt to symbolically imagine unity of purpose and identity between the British and Irish traditions in Northern Ireland. Yet it was scrapped, because it was seen as factional.

The Irish tricolour was designed to express the equality of the Green Gaelic and Orange traditions in Ireland. In fact, suggesting a balance between them, it would now be the perfect flag for the post-Agreement north, if it was not already taken and already freighted with nationalism and hostility.

Richard Haass, when he raises the question of whether people here would accept a new flag, should consider that all previous attempts to provide symbols to represent Northern Ireland have already been experiments in combining the traditions in one image, or emblem.

They all failed in that they all came to be associated with only one tradition and rejected by the other.

So, anybody who is wondering if the future looks Blue, White and Green, or Orange, Blue and Red can forget about it. There is no more discredited project in the history of Northern Ireland than the attempt to unite the people under one symbol, or flag, through inventive merging of traditions in one image.

So, trusting that the idea hasn't died already and accepting that it is not the solution to the flags dispute, what might a new flag of Northern Ireland look like?

Obviously, not a fusion of something vaguely Irish and something vaguely British. Anything but a replay of that failed idea.

One possible option is to elevate the symbol of the Northern Ireland Assembly, a bunch of flax flowers. This is a good one, for it relates to our traditions of agriculture and linen, and yet carries a reminder of the foul stench that pervaded the country when flax was grown here.

Younger people won't remember it, but you could not move around the Ulster countryside in the days of linen production without a sense that you were living in a sewer.

What flax says to me is that Ulster is pretty on the surface and pretty rank underneath. What better symbol for a society which is renowned both for civility and for murder.

The flax flower is the perfect symbolic warning. It says things are looking nice now, but just you wait. Seeping through the undergrowth is the putrid and obnoxious vapour of dampness and decay.

This is what I think about when I see the flax flower icon on the notepaper and website of the Assembly, which I am not ready yet to believe can give us good government. And this is the symbol that would remind me daily that peace is not sound and enduring.

But I am open to other suggestions, perhaps something based on the hexagon of the Giant's Causeway. Each of the six sides might represent one of the six counties.

The lava that cooled into those blocks would represent the volcanic tempers of local politicians, now mollified and settled. Basalt would speak of the hard-headed, implacable nature of people here.

Maybe we could have two hexagons, interlinked, representing the equally intransigent and black hearted extremes of both communities, bonded, at least in our dreams, in perpetual amity.

Not that either would be enough for those who love their Union flags and tricolours — both of which make me wince. Neither will ever be given up; that isn't an interpretation of the problem here, but a description of it.

And, in some ways, we have already chosen a symbol for Northern Ireland in the hull of a mighty ship, incorporated into an elegant building. What we tell the world matters most to us is the Titanic. That story really does seem to stir our hearts and express our nature.

It is the story of a monumental tragedy. The Titanic speaks of our mighty global ambition to retain a place as the best in the industrial world and the reality of our decline.

Ask yourself why everyone is happy with that and if it somehow speaks to a self-deprecation that we are comfortable with.

We know we are never going to be the best again. We have been put in our place and reflecting on the Titanic reassures us that we deserved that.

So, a flag with the outline of the ship like an inverted V rising giddily out of the broken ice and choppy waters. It shouldn't be hard to reduce that in a few simple lines and curves.

What then of the colour of our flag? Dark blue? The arctic sea under a bleak and chilly starlight? And perhaps a Green Harp and Orange Crown bobbing on the water, almost submerged.

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