By Jack Traynor
In March 1939 the Cambridge Union Society was the scene of a heated debate on the proposed motion, ‘This House extends its fullest sympathy to Eire in the conflict of interests between Northern and South Ireland’. A Cambridge barrister from Northern Ireland named J.L. McQuitty excoriated the motion employing vituperative rhetoric which was, then as now, a shibboleth of all good Unionist speechcraft. He argued: ‘We in Ulster will not have our Union Jack torn down. We will not have it replaced by the Tricolour Republican emblem, conceived in conspiracy, born in bloodshed, and raised in rebellion’. The debate included notable participants like Edward Carson’s son. Ill-conceived comparisons were made between Northern Ireland’s populace and the Sudeten Germans (the Munich Agreement had only been negotiated a few months prior in September 1938). In the end, the motion was supported by the Cambridge Union.
Although bombastically expressed, McQuitty’s inherently hostile attitude to the Tricolour and all it represented to him rings through the ages: The same sentiment resonates amongst today’s Unionists – perhaps even more intensely, considering their experience of three decades of bitter violence. The history and meaning behind the Tricolour flag are well known: Green representing the Gaelic/Catholic Irish tradition, Orange representing the Protestant tradition, and white symbolising peace and friendship between the two. Additionally, the Protestant origins of Irish Republicanism via the United Irishmen have often been repeated as a catchword by Nationalist politicians to flaunt their non-sectarian bona fides.
In the post-1998 Good Friday Agreement era, it is mutually assumed that previous Republican theories of a Protestant ‘false consciousness’ which will someday wash away when the essential unity and general will of the whole island is recognised can no longer be relied upon to justify ‘coercing’ Unionists into a United Ireland against their wishes. All the good intentions and Republican paternalism in the world cannot alter this new dichotomy. In the wake of Northern Ireland’s pacification, the ‘parity of esteem’ ideology was enthroned to provide formalised pluralism within the confines of the overarching United Kingdom constitutional settlement. Although Northern Ireland’s new millennium ‘age of good feeling’ was built on feet of clay, various liberal-minded Unionists, political moderates, and associated think-tanks such as Democratic Dialogue were quick to propose tokenistic moves towards reconciliation, notably including the creation of a brand-new flag for Northern Ireland. It was hoped such a flag would be neutral, non-sectarian, and truly pluralist. However, such proposals have so far come to nil.
Nonetheless, the neutral flag for Northern Ireland idea has become a recurring motif of liberal and moderate political platforms. In 2013 Richard Haass, the former US Special Envoy for Northern Ireland, raised the spectre of a new flag again at a time when the City Hall Union flag dispute was in full swing following Belfast City Council’s decision to decrease the number of days the Union Flag was to be flown over City Hall. Neither Unionist nor Nationalist opinion were convinced by Haass’ intervention, with both clinging to the supreme importance of the Union flag or Tricolour for their respective communities. Recently in the southern Irish media and amongst its intelligentsia, the ‘new flag’ question has become a fixation. Opinion pieces have insisted that a new flag would be required to replace the Tricolour should an island-wide unification ever come about. Indeed, a new flag is but one item in a bag of concessions to be offered to Unionists as an enticement to accept a thirty-two county state, according to various commentators.
Their premise holds that whilst Northern Protestants may harbour a natural aversion to the Tricolour as the symbol of Irish Republicanism, the creation and adoption of a new ‘neutral’ flag will ameliorate Unionist anxiety and opposition to a United Ireland. The claim, with much justification, holds that even though the Tricolour was originally designed in the nineteenth century as an emblem of peace and goodwill, that today this is immaterial for modern Unionists whose negative opinion on the flag mirrors the same views expressed by Mr. McQuitty in 1939.
The faultiness of the ‘new flag’ proponents’ logic lies in the simple truth that Northern Irish Unionists will never accept the political unification of the island of Ireland as an independent democratic state. This is the fundamental article of faith of their worldview. As such, hypothetical questions of neutral flags, consensus anthems, and other elements of superficial symbology are of little concern to the Northern Irish Unionist. The recent southern debate on the flag question has focussed on the necessity of Southerners offering a gesture of goodwill to their Northern Protestant co-nationals. Willingness to sacrifice the Tricolour is regarded as a sign of maturity by Southern journalists. The implication being that those who remain steadfastly attached to the traditional Republican Tricolour are therefore ‘immature’. Underpinning the concessionary narrative is the Southern media’s expectation that Sinn Féin, in recent history Ireland’s most successful Republican political party, must genuflect before the altar of centrist ‘New Island’-ism. The process of Sinn Féin’s ‘normalisation’ has been accelerated in the wake of their undeniable recent electoral advancement. Defanging Sinn Féin of the last vestiges of outward Republicanism seems to be the prime focus of many in the media, under the guise of propelling the United Ireland debate forward towards greater inclusivity and maturity.
Finally, it should be noted that the concept of a new flag for a United Ireland is not an inherently bad idea nor is this article intended as a dogmatic defence of the Tricolour’s eternal longevity. But the recent ‘debate’ in the Southern media has largely been a red herring. Unionists remain trenchantly opposed to the political reunification of Ireland, rendering the internal debate amongst Southern intellectuals on how best to ‘welcome’ them into a United Ireland (of which they want no part of in the first place) a condescending non-sequitur. The ‘new flag’ debate deliberately misrepresents Unionist opposition to a United Ireland as a series of trivial concerns swirling around emotional questions of feeling welcome and tit-for-tat cultural politics. This wrongheaded setting of parameters on the ‘United Ireland debate’ ignores more major issues, such as the question of whether there is a continued British interest in Northern Ireland.
In the foreseeable future an agreed neutral flag of a hypothetical United Ireland remains an unattainable chimera. As Sinn Féin continues its rise in opinion polls, the Southern Irish establishment and its associated intellectuals continue to feel uncomfortable. By subjecting the public to ever more bizarre bread and circuses centred on hypothetical flags, the Southern establishment are offering a fig leaf to conceal an old-fashioned Southern nationalism and are distracting from far more important issues of sovereignty and independence.