Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Northern Ireland flag: Cross of St Patrick speaks of the distinct identity of this region

New flag for Northern Ireland? 'The Cross of St Patrick brings together all traditions'
New flag for Northern Ireland? 'The Cross of St Patrick brings together all traditions'

One year on and it seems we are no further forward on flags. Richard Haass has asked the parties to consider a new flag for Northern Ireland.

The old unionist parties - seemingly oblivious to the fact that the other countries in the UK have immense pride in their own flags - responded by telling us that it is the Union Flag or nothing. As for Sinn Fein's position, this is a party that cannot even bring itself to say 'Northern Ireland'.

Admittedly some of the language coming from the Haass team has not been helpful. Flags are not, by their nature, 'neutral'. They are a symbol of allegiance, an expression of values and identity held in common. What we should be looking for is a flag which expresses the rich and diverse traditions of Northern Ireland.

To state what should be obvious - but seemingly, to some at least, isn't - the Union Flag is not the flag of Northern Ireland. The Union Flag is the flag of the United Kingdom, of which Northern Ireland, by the free and democratic consent of its people, is a part. The UK, however, is a family of nations and regions. That is what the Cross of St George, the Welsh dragon, the Cross of St Andrew demonstrate.

There is a justified pride in these regional flags in England, Wales and Scotland. This is what we in Northern Ireland should be seeking, and Haass has given us the opportunity.

The existing flag of Northern Ireland doesn't do it and hasn't for a very long time. If it did fulfill the purpose, we wouldn't be having this discussion.

We could, of course, hand it over to a committee of the 'great and the good' to design it. That runs the risk of having a flag which brings to mind the saying that the camel is a horse designed by committee. As for giving it to the Executive to design a new flag ... is it possible to think of a worse idea?

There is an alternative. In Downpatrick for some years now on St Patrick's Day, the Cross of St Patrick has been distributed for the procession and parade. It brings together all traditions. It has a place in the Union Flag, but also provides an expression of Irishness. It doesn't contain any symbols regarded as triumphalist. And it speaks of the distinct identity of this part of this Island and these Islands.

It is a flag we could all embrace, a flag which gives expression to what we have in common. It could proudly fly in any council area as an expression of a shared Northern Irish identity.

The Union Flag would continue to be flown on designated days, the compromise reached in Belfast and common throughout the UK and a sign of the constitutional settlement expressed in the Good Friday Agreement. But in adopting the Cross of Patrick as our regional flag, we would also have taken an important step in expressing our belief in Northern Ireland as a common place for all, with a common future.

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