Flags and emblems and ignorance

EARLIER this week former Irish deputy prime minister Michael McDowell said the Twelfth of July should be made a national holiday in the south as well as in Northern Ireland.

Mr McDowell said "genuine republicans" had to consider building an inclusive society.

I'm not sure what he means by "genuine republicans" and I'm not sure either that Mr McDowell really knows what he is talking about.

When he was asked by the BBC to explain what he meant, he said: "I was pointing out that in the Republic in particular, there is a failure to address the significance of the orange panel of the Irish tricolour, as in the part of Irishness which is not Gaelic or Catholic.

"I was pointing out that there were many, many things the establishment in the Republic could do to show all Irish people, north and south, that the Orange tradition in that broad sense was truly appreciated."

This is an extraordinary insight into the lack of understanding of the unionist tradition and of the history and significance of his own national flag. The Irish tricolour, which comprises the three vertical bands of green, white and orange, is often represented as emblematic of two Irish traditions, green and orange, with a white band of peace between them.

This does, of course, sound very inclusive indeed. Sadly it is not.

The only republican movement that did attract support from northern Protestants, the United Irishmen, marched to defeat under a banner of a gold harp with a green background.

The tricolour was first adopted in 1848 as a direct evocation of the French tricolour. It was a flag of revolution and of independence. It was the flag adopted by Sinn Fein in 1916 and the IRA – whose members presumably are "genuine republicans" - were furious when the Free State government that agreed to the partition of Ireland continued to fly it.

This was immortalised in Dominic Behan's song, Take it Down From the Mast:

"Take it down from the mast, Irish traitors,

The flag we republicans claim.

It can never belong to Free Staters,

You brought on it nothing but shame."

It could not be clearer that to republicans the orange panel is not a symbol of inclusivity but a claim of ownership and a repudiation of the existence of Northern Ireland.

But there's another aspect to McDowell's speech that many others will find offensive. And that is the assumption that so many otherwise intelligent people have in the Republic that being a unionist makes you Orange.

There are many, many unionists who do not belong to the Orange Order, and, metaphorically speaking, do not want McDowell or anyone else to be painting their kerbstones for them.

So being a unionist does not make you Orange, nor does waving a tricolour make you inclusive.

McDowell may be well-meaning but he is not a solution to the problem, his lack of understanding is part of the problem.

And to compound it he seems oblivious to the fact that the only place on earth that has official, State recognition of the 12th of July is the Republic of Ireland, whose president has a formal reception every year to celebrate the victory of William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne.