Union Flags and Tricolours

Dec 21st, 2012 | By | Category: Ireland

Trying to explain what might be the motivation of Loyalist protesters in Belfast seemed a pointless task; talking about the years of alienation, the emergence of an under class, the hopelessness in communities, all was to no avail. The lady looked at me and said, ‘They were always like that up there’.

Having lived decades longer than me, perhaps she felt that her conclusion was reasonable and I was mistaken.

The supposed liberalism of many middle class people in the Republic often disappears completely when it comes to thoughts on Northern Protestants. A friend who had lived abroad, who had travelled the world and who had a postgraduate education once spotted I was reading Ruth Dudley Edwards’  book on the Orange Order ‘The Faithful Tribe’. Seeing the book, my friend commented, “There is nothing good that can be said about those people”. If such comments had been made about any other group, the same person would have launched into a heated lecture on tolerance and diversity.

Perhaps the Orange Order has been its own worst enemy, perhaps it suffers from falling into the politically incorrect categories of being white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant and male, but the reaction it elicits in some quarters suggests a very illiberal liberalism.

Objections to the flags and symbols of the Loyalist community are rarely balanced by an acknowledgement that there are Nationalist flags and symbols that many Northern Protestants find alienating.

I remember being on an Irish ferry and seeing an Irish Tricolour flying from the stern and thinking for the first time that the flag was something other than the badge of those who bombed and murdered members of my community, something other than a declaration that one was in an area from which Protestants had been driven.

When one feels a sense of frustration at news reports of Loyalist protests, intimidation and street violence and it seems impossible to get inside their mindset, perhaps the question might be turned around: how readily would the southern liberals give up the Tricolour? It’s everywhere, even at shopping centres; what reaction would there be if a suggestion came that to facilitate a more inclusive Ireland, the flag should be removed and only flown on particular days?

Maybe the lady of ninety years was correct, maybe they were always like that up there, maybe the mindset derives from a deep Calvinist sense of  ‘election’ and decades of listening to demagogues, but simply restating views brings no progress, no reconciliation of the angry and the alienated.




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  1. Ian, This Englishman would like to know how a collection of Scots men could be described as “Anglo-Saxon” …

  2. How is the Orange Order a collection of Scots?

  3. The Protestant working class in NI is alienated and leaderless. Traditional industries have closed and unemployment and loss of hope endemic in some of these communities. Their politicians just seem them as ballot fodder and seem to do little to improve their lot. Your earlier piece about the lack of engagement by clergy in talking to loyalist paramilitaries suggest that many clergy don’t want to get involved either. They have more important issues to face like discussing human sexuality for example. I dread to think who might fill the leadership vacuum

  4. David – red herring in the context of the blog.

  5. Is the vehemence of the protests not the same as when the Sunningdale agreement was being opposed? – As for the Orange Order not being PC; I am white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant and male with no desire to murder or be murdered. I don’t consider myself to be politically incorrect. Others may of course. Perhaps then it is other characteristics apart from those mentioned that illicit the illiberal response you speak of. Regarding the tricolour, I have never been comfortable with it’s hijacking by murderers and I would have thought many who honour the Union flag would not appreciate it being used as an excuse for violence and thuggery, whether they would like it to be flown over a public building or not.

  6. Opposition to Sunningdale was something coherent, there were leaders who could articulate the demands. The political class represented by that leadership is now well represented in the corridors of Stormont, the Loyalists now on the street are a left behind group, without leadership and without coherence. Were they any other minority, I think there would be a greater attempt at understanding them,even if we felt no sympathy for their cause.

  7. Ian,
    (And I know that this is a side issue, Martin) I was using Scots to mean “Native Celts of Ulster and thence Scotland”. No way are Peter Robinson, Mr Nesbitt and similar Anglo-Saxons. We must not be misled by faux-English surnames, either ! D.

  8. The Orange Order originated in an area of English plantation – it was, and remains, explicitly Anglo-Saxon and not Celt.

  9. @Perhaps the Orange Order has been its own worst enemy, perhaps it suffers from falling into the politically incorrect categories of being white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant and male, but the reaction it elicits in some quarters suggests a very illiberal liberalism.

    It is not by accident that the Orange Order falls into the politically incorrect categories. They don’t welcome anybody else into the group. If you are negative towards others, expect the same back. Ten years ago I was in Ghana and shocked to find Orange Order, although they were not all white, hatred of Catholics was expected.

  10. The qualifications of being an Orangemen explicitly prescribe “…ever abstaining from all uncharitable words, actions or sentiments, towards his Roman Catholic brethren”.

  11. I had that same moment of seeing the tricolour flying in a non-contentious way – I was walking through south Dublin and saw the flag flying on a police station. Instantly I tensed up. Then realised it was just a normal thing. Just the one flag. No big deal. It took me longer to realise that the building was a police station – not the same as those up north of course.

    As for giving up the tricolour – I could imagine the red, white and blue being flown wherever and whenever on official buildings in Great Britain (as long as the Scots don’t mind), the green, white and orange in the same way in the 26 counties and some restricted day arrangement for both flags north of the border. Does that sound like a double compromise? (Hmm – maybe not.)

    And of course, it could still leave streets festooned all year round with whatever combination of colours, fresh or tatty.

  12. I think there should be a total ban on flags (and election posters!) being attached to public property and that bunting should be allowed for a limited period, otherwise everywhere just looks tatty.

  13. There were two immediate causes of the Flegs trouble, Republican/Nationalist politicians on BCC proving a point to “themmuns” and the deep cynicism of the DUP and UUP circulating a leaflet designed to do political damage to Naomi Long MP. While NI is locked into the view of British and Irish identity being an “Either” /”Or” thing, this will continue to be a fundamental problem. The other aspect is that Northern Ireland’s politicians appear quite happy to have thousands in a situation where education and opportunities appear to be non-existent. Would it be too cynical to suggest that situation entirely suits loyalists and republicans so that a simmering sense of rage against “themmuns” can be maintained?

  14. It doesn’t sound cynical to me. Politicians in many places seem to have been content to allow poor conditions to endure and so ensure electoral fodder at the ballot boxes.

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