As Northern Ireland's flag debate rages on, could a new neutral design be the answer?

A row over flying the Union flag at council buildings all year appears destined for the courts.

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Flags might just be mere strips of fabric but in Northern Ireland, there’s a world of meaning woven into every stitch.

Flag debates have raged in the province since it was first created. Unionists favour the British Union Jack and splash its red, white and blue stripes over "their" streets, events and institutions in the province. In the run-up to the annual Orange Order parades every July, lampposts and pavements in Protestant areas are painted in the iconic colours. On the day of the parades themselves, revellers incorporate the colour scheme anywhere they can, with Union Jack wigs, face paint and onesies making the parade route melt into a sea of red, white and blue flickers.

For Unionists, the flag is symbol of Northern Ireland’s Britishness and a sign of its non-negotiable membership of the United Kingdom. However, for Nationalists, the flag is not something to be proud of, but rather, something designed to intimidate and cause fear.

For nationalist communities, the flag does not symbolise British culture, but British dominance. It is seen as a symbol of Britain’s imperialist and colonial relationship with Ireland and of its continuing oppression of Ireland’s citizens in the North.

The debate has many parallels to discussions in the US surrounding Southern states’ relationship with the Confederate flag. Whilst members of the African American community see the flag as a symbol of racial oppression and slavery, white politicians argue that the flag is simply part of local culture and not offensive.

Many nationalists feel greater national allegiance to the Irish tricolour and wish for it to be flown alongside the Union Jack as a compromise. But Unionists argue that the flag is linked to IRA iconography and as such cannot be flown.

Shortly before Christmas 2012, the debate came to a violent head as riots erupted in Belfast. The city hall voted that instead of being flown from the council’s buildings every day, the Union Jack flag should only be flown on ‘designated days’; special royal occasions, such as the Queen’s birthday or those of other key royal family members.

Within minutes of the vote, violence erupted after loyalists protested against what they saw as a slight on Protestant culture. Months of violent protests followed, resulting in more than 200 arrests.

In response to the violence, Stormont agreed to commission a report into the flying of the Union Jack flag above parliament buildings. The results were released last week and have made for surprising reading for the country and concerning reading for many Unionists.

The report has agreed with Stormont’s current policy of flying the Union Jack on designated days. However, it has made a request which few would have anticipated. It has suggested that Northern Irish politicians work to design a new "neutral civic flag" around which both Unionists and Nationalists can unite.

The report, compiled by external consultants, concludes: “There is a chill factor for those from a nationalist or republican community which makes the building less welcoming on days when the Union flag is flying… it was reported that visitors [to Stormont] had regularly commented likewise.”

It asked Stormont to “consider flying a neutral, civic flag -the nature of which would need to be agreed among the political parties.”

The proposal is an interesting one which has been met with mixed response in Northern Ireland. Yet, what does a ‘neutral’ symbol look like in a society which is home to two culturally rich but deeply divided communities?

When a logo was designed for Northern Ireland Assembly’s crest, the only symbol deemed sufficiently neutral was the flax plant. The parliament subsequently bears sprigs of the obscure plant on its headed paper and on its website. However, if you were to ask anyone in the street in Northern Ireland what the grassy wisps are or even mean, you would be met with blank looks.

Unfortunately, the notion of ‘neutrality’ is paradoxical in the context of national symbols. To be neutral and not cause any offence to either ‘side’ of the Northern Irish divide, it would have to be something which provokes no emotional response or patriotic feeling in any of its citizens. However, the fundamental purpose of a flag is to create a focus of patriotism and pride.

If Stormont does succeed in finding a symbol so meek and detached from both communities that it can cause no offence, it would most likely be something so obscure and ineffective as to be unable to make any emotional connection with its citizens.

However, the suggestion opens up interesting discussions about community relations in Northern Ireland and whether we are moving towards a genuine shared culture, or if each side is simply learning to tolerate that of the other. The idea of a shared symbol which everyone can unite around is a noble and admirable one, but whether it is an accurate sign of the times or premature optimism will be seen in what, if anything at all, actually makes it to the top of the flag pole. 

Siobhán Fenton is a Belfast-based writer covering gender, politics and Northern Ireland.

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