Will debates about the Irish flag obscure the dialogue around a united Ireland?

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Polling carried out by The Journal found it may be a red line issue.

This article is part of The Good Information Project, a new initiative from The Journal to help create greater understanding of big issues we face. This month we are focussing on the question ‘What could a shared island look like?’.
“WE SEEM TO spend a disproportionate amount of time in Northern Ireland displaying and arguing over symbols.”

That above quote is from a 2005 study by Queen’s University Belfast called Transforming Conflict: Flags and Emblems.

Fast forward 16 years and we can see that it isn’t just in Northern Ireland where flags can become something of a fixation. As of last week, the union flag is to be flown on all UK government buildings following new guidance.  

The BBC was even forced to defend why there were no British flags on its annual report last year. 

In Ireland, there is the possibility that the debate around the Irish flag could overshadow or derail any discussion about unity or the island’s shared future.

Our ongoing look at this topic has prompted many responses from people in which the status of the flag took on a central importance. 

Some simply said they would never vote for a new constitutional arrangement that involved changing the flag. Others were more open to a different political future but acknowledged that a new flag would be a difficult discussion. Some even suggested alternative flags. 

Polling carried out by Ireland Thinks on behalf of The Journal bore out what we were seeing anecdotally, that changing the flag may be a step too far for people in the Republic. 

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Source: The Journal

Asked would people be willing to change the Irish flag if it was required for a united Ireland, 50% of the respondents said they would not with 36% saying they would. 

The numbers were similar but slightly tighter on the question of changing the national anthem, with 47% saying they would not change the anthem for unity and 41% saying they would.  

By contrast, a recent Ámarach Research poll for Claire Byrne Live put general support for a United Ireland at 53% compared to just 19% opposed. 

The disparity shows the importance of symbolism to many people, an unsurprising fact but one that must also be respected. 

Indeed, a 2017 report by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement noted just this.  

The report focused on the impact of Brexit and the prospect for a united Ireland and frequently cites the book Countdown to Unity by High Court Justice Richard Humphreys. 

Humphreys notes in his text that “on the flag and language, we are probably close to the very limits of what southern Irish society will yield”. 

It further states that fundamental changes to matters such as the flag “will meet a degree of resistance that will surprise many”. 

As referenced in the above quote, the focus of the flag can often be on what it does or doesn’t mean to Irish people in the south.

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To republicans or nationalists in Northern Ireland the flag may have an equal or greater value, such was its importance in representing an identity that they were not otherwise free to participate in.  

The issue is of course what the flag means to those from a unionist or loyalist background and whether the  flag is too evocative of violent republicanism. 

As former senator Ian Marshall previously told the Shared Ireland podcast series, “the flag of the Republic was used as something that was anti everything I stood for…. death and destruction and the pain associated with that”. 

The question of the flag’s future is therefore often framed through a unionist lens and whether they could accept the tricolour if unity became the democratic choice of the people on the island.

But perhaps a better question is whether the tricolour would continue to be the best representation of a new Irish state. In a country that is rightly proud of its achievements in securing peace, it may also be a symbol that this process is ongoing and worthy of further compromise. 

It may also be the case that the flag may not prove to be a stumbling block at all. That by the time the island comes to discussing the nuts and bolts of unity, issues like healthcare are of far greater import. 

But if we were to reach the point where discussions were to take place over the flag, what might the best forum be? 

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Ireland’s new favourite vehicle for awkward questions – the Citizens’ Assembly – has been mooted on many occasions, but at what point such an assembly could or should take place is an unanswered question. 

The previous government was more open to the idea of a Citizens’ Assembly than the current one, but perhaps the key question is what will the next government look like?

But if a Citizens’ Assembly on the constitutional question did take place, would it even be useful if unionists didn’t attend? This issue was brought home last week by the Orange Order’s decision to pull out of the Taoiseach’s Shared Island United. 

And even if the flag question was to be discussed, what exactly would we be discussing?

The 2017 Oireachtas report does not go into detail on how any question of the flag could be answered, but it does say:

an alternative might be the ‘two flags’ approach, where symbols of both communities would be adopted for various public purposes. 

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The two flags approach is one solution, but what of the option of an alternative flag. One person who contacted The Good Information Project suggested the following: 

Our national flag is green, white and orange. I suggest we put the red hand of Ulster with a yellow background on the white centre as an inclusive statement.

The idea of coming up with a completely new flag is not unheard of either. South Africa’s new flag was accepted only weeks before the country’s historic 1994 election. 

Five years ago, New Zealand voted in a series of elections to choose an alternative to its current flag before ultimately deciding not to change it.  

The Kiwi experience could well prove a lesson should Ireland ever have to do similar, with the bewildering process at one point seeing 10,292 designs submitted that was seen to dilute the entire exercise. 

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Source: assets.gov.ie

Instead of a two-flag solution or an alternative, there have also been suggestions that Ireland could use an older flag, such as the green flag with harp associated with Eoghan Ruadh Ó Néill in the 17th century. 

Alternatively, the presidential standard of the golden harp on a blue background may be another option.  

But key to any flag is not what it looks like but more about what the state it represents looks like, both internationally and to its own people. 

And on that point, conversations about what this country’s future may be are taking place, united or otherwise. So perhaps it’s best not to let a flag get in the way. 

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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