Let’s not kid ourselves, a new flag won’t solve root problem

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

  • by Alex Kane

There is, I would bet, more likelihood of my Christmas Day turkey returning to life and flapping through the window in search of a vegetarian sanctuary than there is of Richard Haass announcing anything resembling a ‘breakthrough’ in the next couple of weeks.

There isn’t one scrap, not one tiny piece of evidence which suggests that the parties have even identified common ground on the three issues they’ve been mulling over for the past few months.

So Mr Haass will have a team of lexicographical elves beavering away on a new Christmas miracle: a form of words which might, just might, convince the peaceniks here that all is well.

A clear sign of his desperation was the decision to ask the parties to consider the possibility of a new flag.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP can barely bring themselves to say – let alone write – the words ‘Northern Ireland’, so there’s no way they are going to agree to a spanky new emblem called ‘the flag of Northern Ireland’.

And because they would insist on it being the flag of ‘the North’ or the ‘Six Counties’ or even ‘Turquoise Narnia’ there is equally no way that unionists would agree to it.

And let’s not kid ourselves that a new flag solves the root problem. Those who believe in and continue to work for a united Ireland do not regard the constitutional position as settled.

They still want Northern Ireland to cease to exist, either in name or as part of the United Kingdom.

So the mere act of producing and agreeing on a new flag would not mean that Northern Ireland’s future had been guaranteed: it would simply mean that republicans/nationalists (along with a bizarre mix of ‘others’ who don’t really seem to know who they are in terms of ultimate identity) would chalk up another little victory.

In a TV interview on December 3 last year I said that I wasn’t aware that the Union Flag used to fly at Belfast City Hall every day of the year.

I didn’t know and it didn’t really matter to me all that much, because my sense of identity doesn’t require seeing the flag every day.

So I have no particular difficulty with the ‘designated days’ solution.

But I would have huge difficulty with a solution which embraced the disappearance of the Union Flag on some of those designated days.

I would have huge difficulty with a ‘new’ flag whose purpose was to dilute pro-Union identity and make life ‘a little easier’ for those who don’t actually want Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom.

I don’t want to and I don’t need to see the Union Flag flying everywhere all the time, particularly when it’s tattered, upside down and hoisted as some sort of turf-marking exercise. I don’t want to see it carried by loyalist paramilitaries, either.

There is room for compromise: and ‘designated days’ is a very good compromise. But it would, in my opinion, be very foolish to assume that some sort of new flag would help our ongoing problems.

It would, in fact, make the problem very much worse, because it would make so-called ‘moderates’ like me (and regular readers will know that I hate the term) feel very uncomfortable.

The other huge difficulty with a new flag is this – what do you do with the other ‘old’ touchstones, benchmarks, symbols and emblems of the Union?

Because you can better your bottom dollar that as soon as you agree to the ‘new’ then those who are anti-Northern Ireland (in political/constitutional terms) will turn their attention to the ‘old’ and argue that the ‘old’ sits uneasily with the ‘new’.

A new flag will never be about parity or equality, or about all of us bound together in a new common identity.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP believe in a common identity, but it’s a common identity within a newly united Ireland.

They do not believe in ‘Northern Ireland’ and they never will believe in ‘Northern Ireland’. And because they don’t believe in ‘Northern Ireland’, nothing that the unionist electorate or unionist parties do for them can ever be enough.

Their identity matters to them and my identity matters to me: but I don’t see how we square the circle.

And because we can’t agree on identity, or on the shape and constitutional future of Northern Ireland, we will not be able to agree on parades: because parades (from whatever side of the fence) are about identity and one-sided commemorations.

Any mechanism which seems designed to restrict or place conditions upon a parade or protest must, inevitably, become a battle about restricting identity and diminishing the fundamental essence of a commemoration.

Neither the existing Parades Commission or any alternative can get around that reality.

If we cannot agree on the present or the future we will not agree on the past.

Or you can put that the other way if you want: we will not agree on the present or the future because we cannot agree on the past.

That’s why we invited Richard Haass to help us and it’s why Haass will walk away empty-handed.

It’s not his fault. In the same way that it isn’t the fault of George Mitchell that the Good Friday Agreement has delivered so little in terms of producing a new era Northern Ireland.

In a few weeks’ time we will be presented with a fudge. We will know it’s a fudge because it will talk of ‘useful progress’, ‘work to be done’ and ‘the parties will continue to meet and discuss’.

A fudge is all it could ever be.

The parties don’t like each other and they don’t trust each other. So, thanks for coming Mr Haass and better luck with Syria, Israel, Iran and all those other countries with whom America seems to be at loggerheads or war.




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