In western Europe, national flags often represented a territorial area as well as the Christian faith, so that many included a cross. The French Tricolour was an important change in this tradition with the red, white and blue sometimes said to represent the values of liberty, equality and fraternity embodied in the French revolution and by the French Republic.
The tricolour format was subsequently widely adopted by republicans elsewhere and not least in Ireland where the Tricolour of green, white and orange was said to embody peace (white) between Catholics (green) and Protestants (orange) in Ireland.
While the Irish Tricolour is the flag predominantly used by nationalists and republicans, several others are significant. The Starry Plough flag is particularly associated with more left wing republicans and is associated with the Connollyite tradition and the Irish Citizens’ Army of the 1916 Easter Rising. Flags representing the four Irish provinces of Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connacht are also displayed fairly frequently.
The Union Jack, popularly referred to as the Union Flag, is the most widely used flag in Northern Ireland. Like many flags it has changed and evolved over time, from the flag representing the Union of England and Scotland in 1707 to the present day flag, which incorporated the cross of St Patrick, representing Ireland, after 1801.
Another relatively commonly used flag is the Northern Ireland flag, also referred to as the Ulster Banner. This was developed in 1953 by the Unionist government at the time of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. It was the official flag of Northern Ireland from then until the Northern Ireland government was suspended in 1972, and has had no official standing since that time. Despite this, the flag is still widely used to represent Northern Ireland in sporting events. The flag has also been widely adopted by loyalists, and was particularly prominent in the 1970s when loyalists often chose to display the Northern Ireland flag rather than the Union flag as a sign of their displeasure with UK government policies.
In Northern Ireland flags have often been a source of contention, hardly surprising since flags are often perceived as the symbolic epitome of national identity. Thus the Union Flag can be seen as the symbol of a proud past and a positive example to the world by unionists, but one of oppression by nationalists. The same can be said of the Irish Tricolour, for nationalists it can represent a stand for independence and opposition to oppression by a larger state. For unionists it might be exactly the opposite — the flag representing coercion and the symbol of terrorists.
In Northern Ireland, British symbols and identity were given greater value by the state than those representing Irish nationalism. The Irish Tricolour was not banned, but the use of the flag was generally restricted to nationalist areas or events such as GAA sporting events. In contrast, the Union Flag was given special status by the Unionist government at Stormont. In 1954, the Flags and Emblems Act gave special protection to the Union Flag. Police were required to remove any symbol which could lead to a breach of the peace — except the Union Flag.
The Act helped shape the outcome of the Divis Street riots 1964. Tricolour and Starry Plough flags were flown in a Republican office in Divis Street at the bottom of the Falls Road at time of the 1964 UK General Election. Rev. Ian Paisley and his supporters then threatened to march up to Divis Street and remove the flags from the office if police did not act. Under the Flags and Emblems Act, the police intervened and removed the Tricolours; this led to two nights of rioting in the area. The Act was eventually repealed in 1987.
The comprehensive political agreement of 1998 — known as the Good Friday Agreement — was relatively vague on the issue of symbols only noting that:
“All participants acknowledge the sensitivity of the use of symbols and emblems for public purposes, and the need in particular in creating the new institutions to ensure that such symbols and emblems are used in a manner which promotes mutual respect rather than division. Arrangements will be made to monitor this issue and consider what action might be required.” (The Agreement, Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity, section 5)
Following prolonged disputes (particularly surrounding the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons) power was eventually devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly in December 1999. However, the issue of flag flying on official buildings soon became an element in a renewed argument, when Sinn Fein Ministers refused to fly the Union Flag over departmental headquarters buildings for which they had responsibility and this led to a dispute with unionists.
The divergent opinions were highlighted by the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein views on the Union Flag given to a Northern Ireland Assembly Ad Hoc Committee on flags in 2000.
For the DUP: “The Union Flag is a constitutional symbol recognised internationally. As an integral part of the United Kingdom the Union Flag is therefore the constitutional symbol for Northern Ireland and should be accorded no less standing and acknowledgement than in any other part of the Kingdom.”
Sinn Fein’s view, however, was: “The British flag, whatever political allegiance it may convey, has been used by unionism as a symbol of political dominance and a tool of sectarian coat trailing. Parity of esteem, equality, inclusivity and the promotion of mutual respect should underpin future decisions on the flying of flags at government and public buildings.”
The Assembly proved incapable of resolving the issue and Northern Ireland Secretary of State Peter Mandelson stepped in to introduce legislation (The Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000) stating on which buildings and when the Union Flag would be flown — these became known as ‘flag days’.
In previous decades, many unionists had flown the Union Flag and/or Northern Ireland flag at their homes for the Twelfth of July celebrations. By the 21st century this practice had become less common, but particular individuals (often believed to be linked to paramilitary groups) took it upon themselves to erect flags and bunting in streets and on roads, both as a form of symbolic commemoration but also often as an unsubtle form of territorial marking.
For loyalists, flags were increasingly flown on lampposts on main roads in working class Protestant areas from early June until after ‘Ulster Day’ in early October — a period of four months. For republicans, flags (predominantly Irish Tricolours) were flown for roughly a week before the commemoration of the Easter Rising and generally removed one to two weeks after the event. Republic flags also appeared in years with significant commemorations of the 1981 hunger strike campaign, while GAA flags were displayed in significant numbers in years when Northern counties reached the final of the all-Ireland Gaelic football competition. Overall the number of unionist and loyalist flags on display far exceeded the number of nationalist or republican flags (see Bryan et al., Public Displays of Flags and Emblems In Northern Ireland, Institute of Irish Studies, Belfast, 2010)
In 2000, a new intra-loyalist feud broke out between the Ulster Defence Association and Ulster Volunteer Force, which reached a peak in the summer of that year. An important phenomenon of this feud was the appearance of hundreds of UDA and UVF flags in loyalist areas. This highlighted a new factor which has had a continuing impact on the displaying of flags in public areas since then, that is, the availability of cheap flags (generally from the Far East) and the ability (due to new technology) to design and create many new types of flag. Incidentally this provides an added difficulty in the deciding exactly what does, and what does not, constitute a paramilitary flag.
In practice the police have often treated the UDA flag as one supporting a paramilitary organisation and the most common UVF flag as traditional even though both arguably show support for a proscribed organisation. The police appear, pragmatically if somewhat illogically, to support the view that as the UVF flag includes the date 1912 it is therefore a historical flag and not directly related to the post 1966 organisation of the same name.
The Northern Ireland Life and Times survey consistently found large majorities opposed to the flying of flags on lampposts in their own neighbourhoods, that most people believed that these flags were erected by paramilitary groups but also a willingness to accept the flying of flags for the duration of a few weeks. Most people were opposed to the flying of paramilitary flags and to flags flying for months at a time.
At grass roots level, flags still had the potential to act as a catalyst to spark a confrontation between communities, as was the Holy Cross dispute in 2001 between loyalists and (Catholic) parents over UDA flags being erected near the school. In an increasingly bitter confrontation on the ground, loyalists picketed the school and attempted to prevent school-girls and their parents getting to the front entrance. The protest continued from 18 June until the end of the school year on 29 June.
Belfast City Council decision
The most significant flags dispute in recent years has been a political one that spilled over into violence in December 2012 and 2013, following the Belfast City Council decision not to fly the Union flag at Belfast City Hall and other council buildings all year round. The decision by the council was supported by Nationalists and the Alliance Party, but opposed by Unionist representatives. Alliance believed that the decision to fly the Union flag on a limited number of days represented a compromise decision. For unionists, and particularly for loyalists, the decision was seen as a further symbolic ‘hollowing out of the Union’ and undermining their position within Northern Ireland. Unionist protests quickly spread beyond Belfast and across Northern Ireland. The Alliance party bore the brunt of loyalist anger, because they were perceived by unionists as supporting a nationalist agenda.
The flag protests continued intermittently over the following year, often spilling over into violence and costing tens of millions of pounds in policing costs (£20 million by March 2013) and with numerous police officers injured during violence. Social media sites played an important role in the dispute with websites being used to express, often heated, opinions on the issue as well as to organise protests and counter-protests. In January 2013 Northern Ireland business leaders said the protests had cost businesses in Belfast £10–15 million in lost trade over Christmas.
While no official survey was conducted on the impact of the flags protests on the number of flags on display the author conducted his own survey of the loyalist Newtownards Road, Albertbridge Road, and Templemore Avenue in inner east Belfast, and found a significant increase in the number of flags on display in 2013 compared to 2012:
The number of flags on display was also impacted by the UVF centenary. In 2014, the number of flags in the area remained roughly the same as in 2013. In 2015, the number of flags had declined but remained higher than had been the case before the flags protest.
In mid 2013, United States diplomat Richard Haass was invited by the Northern Ireland Executive to produce a report recommending ways to address the issue of flag disputes. The Haass Report failed to achieve widespread report, however, and was unable to present any steps to be taken.
In November 2015, the Fresh Start agreement between the DUP, Sinn Fein, and the British and Irish governments made yet another attempt to address the flags issue, noting that plans outlined in the Stormont House Agreement of December 2014 would now go ahead. This included a Commission of Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition, which should have been established by June 2015.
Behind the dispute over the displaying of flags lies a broader question of what the nature and culture of Northern Ireland should be. Since 1998 this issue has often focused around the interpretation of the Good Friday Agreement in relation to, or in counterpoint to, Northern Ireland’s position as part of the United Kingdom. For nationalists the assumption, whether spoken or unspoken, is that the Good Friday Agreement represents the fundamental political point of origin from which all policy flows. Most significantly this implies issues of equality and parity of esteem between unionists and nationalists. For Unionists, however, the primary point of reference is Northern Ireland’s position as a constituent part of the United Kingdom. The attitudes of the various political parties and to local actors to the display of flags owes much to this geo-political orientation.
For the SDLP, therefore, the answer to flags disputes is generally no flags or a neutral flag; Alliance has often taken a similar line. For Sinn Fein, however, parity of esteem means flying both the Union flag and the Irish Tricolour. For unionists, the Union flag is the flag of the state and should therefore receive special recognition. To do less is to try to imply that Northern Ireland is less than a full member of the United Kingdom or to symbolically ‘hollow out’ Northern Ireland’s position within the UK.
In February 2016, a report from academics at Queen’s University argued for politicians to take a rational position with regard to the flying of the Union flag and that the flag should be flown on a limited number of flag days by all district councils. (Nolan and Bryan, Flags: Towards a new Understanding, Institute of Irish Studies, Belfast, 2016)
To do so, however, would require some unionists to accept the dilution of what they interpreted as their Britishness. For nationalists, and particularly for republicans, this would require a greater acceptance of Britishness and (symbolically at least) the role of the British state. For Sinn Fein in particular this would require a re-interpretation of ‘parity of esteem’ in relation to the flying of flags.
Another of the same report’s recommendations called for the removal of flags from lampposts and telegraph poles within weeks of the event being celebrated. In practical terms this was likely to face most difficulty of acceptance over the prolonged loyalist marching season which includes 1 July, 12 July, the Apprentice Boys of Derry parade in early August, the last Saturday in August and Ulster Day (28 September). It seems unlikely that those erecting flags on the main roads of Northern Ireland (with flags numbering several thousand) could be convinced to remove the cheaply produced flags and then re-erect them several weeks later.
The displaying of flags as a reflection of ethnic and national identity is an almost universal practice. In Northern Ireland conflicts surrounding flags have reflected contested political allegiances and contested histories. The realm of politics is often said to be ‘the art of the possible’. To date, an acceptable compromise in the displaying of flags appears to have defeated politicians in Northern Ireland.
Research by Gordon GILLESPIE, published 20 March 2016.
Last updated: 10 December 2016
Transforming the Conflict: Flags and Emblems (NB 27MB file)