Flags, flags and more flags by Michael Lagan

Well, it’s getting to that time of year again when flags become the object of much contention in the North…and I specify the North.  Until recently you would be lucky to find a Union flag in England other than those flying from government and state buildings at certain times of the year.  However, recently the British government determined that the Union flag should be flown 365 days of the year, apparently to cement its local and national identity in the aftermath of Brexit.  

If it takes something as nationalistic as flying your country’s flag 365 days of the year from all government buildings to bring a semblance of pride to a country, one begins to wonder just how damaged the UK actually is post-Brexit.  Other nations would be standing proud, proclaiming how amazing their trade deals are, or how powerful the economy is…but the UK resorts to flying their flag all year round instead.  Which, in all honesty, says a lot about how those trade negotiations are actually going.

Anyhow, I digress.  Closer to home, as many will know, our Northern Irish breed of Unionist has been flying the Union flag 365 days of the year since the dinosaurs roamed the earth, well…depending on whether you ask the DUP about dinosaurs or when and how the earth was formed.  Our breed of unionism in the North has always been somewhat paranoid that the UK and the UK Government would betray them *cough cough* and so have always felt the need to visibly display just how British they actually are.  I’ve heard English friends call Northern Irish unionists “Ultra Unionists” or “Extreme Unionists” which says a lot about how they act compared to English unionists.

Recently, outside the now world-famous Holy Cross Primary School in North Belfast, two flags were placed overnight.  One was a Glasgow Rangers Football Club flag – innocent enough at any other time.  However, the other was a flag depicting the figure of loyalist murderer, Michael Stone with his arms in the air.  The words printed at the top of the flag proclaimed “Hands up if you’re going to be sectarian today”.  This would be seen as wrong, placed in any other flash-point in the North of Ireland, but outside a Catholic primary school?  That can only be seen as sectarian, the flag itself displays as much and one has to wonder at the mindset of the person who consciously erected a flag like that outside a primary school.  It caused such outrage within both unionist and nationalist communities that loyalist community leaders had it removed, and rightly so.

Flags in the North-Eastern part of this island are used to mark out boundaries, sometimes by nationalists but most certainly by unionists.  If you walk or drive past any unionist or loyalist estate in the North you will, more often than not see numerous flags adorning the lamp posts.  A large percentage of the time they will be loyalist paramilitary flags paired with the Ulster flag or the Union flag or both. Consistently the flags are left to tatter, tear and decay and after a few weeks are at times unrecognisable.  

So, it begs the question, how proud are unionists of their national flag if they allow it to become so dirty and bedraggled that it looks nothing like the flag they claim to hold so dear?  Do they really use it as the flag of their nation, or is it a symbol to throw in the face of those who do not see themselves as British?  The Union flag is regularly used by loyalists, almost in place of the proverbial pair of tennis shoes thrown over the telephone lines to mark drug territories.  It is used to mark territorial lines between rival loyalist paramilitary groups like the UVF and the UDA and as intimidation on the boundaries between blatantly nationalist and loyalist communities.  One of the few places I have seen the Tricolour flown en masse is outside Dunclug Estate in Ballymena at the time of year when the 1981 hunger strikers were passing away.  During this time, they are flown with the faces of the hunger strikers placed below them.  When that anniversary is over, they are taken down, and to be fair, that’s generally how the Tricolour is flown in the majority of nationalist areas.  Usually, the Tricolour is flown on a few select days or on certain anniversaries and is then taken down again.

In reality, the massive overuse, 365 days of the year of the Union flag in the North, shows a very dark shadow of paranoia and fragility within Northern Irish Unionism and its constitutional place within the Union.  It lays bare just how worried Unionism and Loyalism are about their place in the United Kingdom and is an attempt to compensate for being let down time and again by a motherland and their mother parliament which, recently, has shown in polls, couldn’t care less if the North “fell into the sea”.  

“We fly the flag, therefore we are”.

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