Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Scottish independence vote could flag up our divisions

It isn't just here that we are fascinated by flags. I was recently asked to take part in a discussion on the use of the Union flag on Voice of Russia's English language station. It was for the specialist – the Royal College of Arms and the Flag Institute were also there, along with an historian.

Russian flags fluttering in the Crimea got a mention, but the main focus was sparked by a survey of members carried out by the Flag Institute.

Sixty-five per cent of them felt the Union flag would have to be changed, or replaced, if Scotland went for independence. The blue background, after all, represents Scotland.

Another issue was that Wales doesn't feature. That would require a yellow cross to be added if a review took place.

Everyone wondered how Northern Ireland would manage and asked me to recap local flag disputes. It seems that a Union without Scotland would be deeply divisive.

When Richard Haass recently asked if a Northern Ireland flag should be considered, there was a flood of suggestions and it provided fodder for radio chat shows for at least a week.

The debate got angrier and angrier, but no party supported the idea. Unionists wanted the Union flag as it stood, while Sinn Fein said they had no real allegiance to Northern Ireland and would prefer the Irish flag.

One man sent me a book he had written proposing an Irish tricolour with a crown and other symbols in the white bit. A modified Union flag with a green cross on it was proposed, as were various modifications of the Red Hand motif.

Nobody suggested the flax plant, which adorns Stormont's official flag, should be adopted. It sits there; an uneasy compromise, which excites little passion one way or another and which most people wouldn't recognise.

If the ground-rules were changed by Scotland, it is a question we would have to face. There would be no status quo to stick with; things would change and we would either have to accept it, or find an alternative.

It is a sign of our insecurity that, judging by the reaction to Dr Haass's questions and the row over the reduction of flag-flying days at Belfast City Hall, it could paralyse politics.

The upside is that in a Union without Scotland, but with Wales officially recognised, there would be a brisk market in red, white and yellow bunting.

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