CAIN Web Service


the controversy over
flags and emblems


Robin Wilson, Democratic Dialogue
July 2000





This is a discussion paper from the think tank Democratic Dialogue. Further copies of the paper are available, as hard copy (2 plus p&p) or e-mail attachment, from DD. Details are on the back cover, as is our web site address.

DD is grateful to its funders, including the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, the Esmée Fairbairn Charitable Trust and the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council, for making its work possible.

The paper has benefited not only from discussion among colleagues but also from an interesting cross-sectarian dialogue in a project financed by the EU Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation, experimenting with the use of computer software to assist exploration of difficult issues. Responsibility for its final contents is, however, my own.

The issue of flags, whether above Stormont or on the streets, is clearly of great public interest and DD is publishing this paper with a view to stimulating wider debate. Any comments or criticisms are very welcome.


Robin Wilson



  1. The issue of flags over government buildings has proved one of the most divisive since the transfer of power to the Assembly and Executive Committee at Stormont. Alongside the arguments over decommissioning and policing, it has retained the capacity to destabilise the executive and imperil the future of the institutions. It is no coincidence that these issues have generated such high intercommunal tension. Each of them speaks to the key question of sovereignty: which state, now and in the future, is to rule over Northern Ireland?
  2. It is sometimes claimed that the Belfast agreement ‘solved’ the constitutional question in Northern Ireland, as if it had established a new, consensual constitutional arrangement for the region. In fact, its brief constitutional section reiterated the conventional ‘consent principle’, affirmed in every major intergovernmental statement since the Sunningdale conference of 1973: that there can be no change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom, except by the consent of a majority. What was new in the agreement was that the Republic of Ireland pledged to bring its constitution into line with its longstanding political stance.
  3. Thus the agreement left the polarised constitutional battleground in place. On the one hand stand unionists behind the flag, in defence of the ‘Britishness’ of Northern Ireland as upheld by the agreement. On the other hand stand nationalists, raising the banner of ‘parity of esteem’ to contend that, for as long as they are required to be part of the UK, their ‘Irishness’ must be given due expression. Unionists perceive this nationalist stance as reflecting a reluctance genuinely to accept the consent principle. Nationalists, in turn, perceive the unionist stance as reflecting a reluctance genuinely to accept the new relationship of equality the agreement envisages.
  4. This vicious circle of mistrust has the potential to sustain itself indefinitely. Indeed, worse, it could be associated with a further escalation of sectarianism, as already manifested in the profusion of flags on the streets–including paramilitary emblems–well beyond the corridors of power. Whether or not the paramilitaries’ ‘war’ is over, the cold war between representatives of the two main religious communities clearly is not.
  5. This simmering tension is, equally clearly, not going to be assuaged by a victory for one side over the other. As discussed below, neither of the options presented by unionists or republicans, however reasonable they think these may be, is likely to be a runner in this regard. And the initial restraint shown by the Social Democratic and Labour Party is not a long-term solution. Wholly new thinking is therefore needed.
  6. There is no need to rehearse the background to the flags issue. Bryson and McCartney (1994) do so comprehensively, and Patterson (1999) has cast fresh light on the controversy attaching to the 1954 Flags and Emblems Act. An important fact to which the former draw attention is the asymmetry in what unionists and nationalists invest in such symbols. For unionists, it is principally a matter of allegiance as a subject to a state; for nationalists it is an expression of an ethnic identity. Thus not only do unionists and nationalists experience strongly opposed emotions towards particular symbols; what these symbols mean is also different. It’s no wonder the problem is so difficult.
  7. And difficult it is. One might have thought that the degree of disinterest, or at least distance, associated with the governments in London and Dublin might have stilled such tensions. But the leaked memorandum about an exchange between the Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Mandelson, and the minister for foreign affairs, Brian Cowen, suggested otherwise. Whatever as to its claim, the tone was revealing. The author, allegedly a senior British diplomat, wrote (Irish Times, May 5th 2000): ‘Cowen’s line appeared to be that, beyond the constitutional acceptance that Northern Ireland remained part of the UK, there should be no further evidence of Britishness in the governance of Northern Ireland. It was an argument that was presented with all the subtlety and open-mindedness that one would expect from a member of Sinn Féin.’
  8. Nor, indeed, are flags a source of controversy confined to Northern Ireland. An obvious example of extreme tension, which now appears to have been (sort of) resolved, has been the flying of the confederate Stars and Bars over the state capitol in South Carolina. For conservative whites, this is simply a matter of ‘heritage’. For blacks in the state, however, it is an ethnic badge of slavery.
  9. Both unionists and republicans think they have an answer to the flags problem–indeed, that their answer is a magnanimous one which others can reasonably be asked to support. For unionists, or rather for Ulster Unionist supporters, the answer is that the Union flag should be flown, but not in a ‘triumphalist’ fashion. It should thus fly over government buildings on the 20 or so days of relevant official significance. Nationalists should accept this, in line with the consent principle, and the SDLP has largely done so rather than inflame passions. But SF ministers have explicitly directed that their departments should not comply with this régime.
  10. There are a number of problems with the unionist position. The first is that it does not recognise what has changed with the Belfast agreement. Devolved institutions imply a focus on citizenship, not on subjecthood. And the bulk of the designated days are associated with the royal family, which obviously leaves not only nationalists but also many liberals and modernisers cold. Moreover, in Northern Ireland the flag has acquired an ethnic, Protestant connotation that it may not carry in the rest of the UK (though, indeed, many people in Britain feel queasy about flying the flag because of how it has been appropriated by Eurosceptics and the far right).
  11. This defence of the flag threatens to petrify unionism into a defensive mode, preventing it developing the civic character (Porter, 1996) which alone can give it an enduring relevance. In this sense, the agreement represents an opportunity for unionism to change, not the threat of change that many unionists believe it to be.
  12. Admittedly, the case of modernising unionism in this context is hardly strengthened by the insistence of republicans that change is something to be extracted from reluctant unionists by a process of ‘struggle’. Republicans claim that the flags problem has two simple solutions: no flags or two flags, the Union flag and the Tricolour.
  13. Yet neither of these offers a satisfactory resolution either. The no-flags position does not address the value of symbols which do not carry ethnic baggage in the mobilisation of civic pride and solidarity in a society of strangers. Every mairie in France flies the (French) Tricolour with pride. The two-flags position implies a constitutional status of joint, British-Irish authority over Northern Ireland which may reflect a republican view of the next step towards a united Ireland but goes well beyond the provisions of the agreement.
  14. It is true that joint authority is one way of achieving equality between the two main religious communities in Northern Ireland. But, in line with the Opsahl report (Pollak, 1993: 27), the agreement does not follow the course of joint authority over Northern Ireland but favours instead the democratic alternative of egalitarian power-sharing within Northern Ireland.
  15. Far from further sources of division, Northern Ireland desperately needs to build up the relationships of trust–what is nowadays described as the accumulation of ‘social capital’–on which the future prosperity and well-being of all its citizens depends. Otherwise it will continue to limp along as an under-performing economy and society in which such equality as prevails will be at a low level.
  16. But, looking beyond the borders of Northern Ireland, in as far as the agreement allows of dual citizenship (as against joint authority), it points to the possibility of the citizens of Northern Ireland conceiving of themselves as, variously, citizens of Ireland, of the UK and of the European Union in a new relationship of co-existence. These various identities and allegiances could be encapsulated in a variety of symbolic expressions, as in devolved Spain, where one often sees more than one flag flying from the same public building.
  17. A genuine, and novel resolution of the flags issue thus suggests itself. Yes, there should be a flag, or flags, over government buildings but it should have civic, not ethnic, connotations. Indeed, it should have the potential to take on a wider civic role, displacing the existing sectarian mobilisers which the Union flag and Tricolour have become in the public domain. It should be such as to embrace within it the wider relationships in which Northern Ireland is set or such relationships should be connoted by the flying of additional flags if desired. This resolution could take two forms, one which might be described as ‘traditionalist’, the other as ‘modernist’.
  18. The first proposal would be for the most shared ‘cultural tradition’ in Northern Ireland, the Irishness without ethnic baggage associated with St Patrick, to be built upon. The advantage of this approach is that the flag of St Patrick is distinctively Irish, the saint himself has a northern association, and the diagonal cross comprises the Irish section of the Union flag. By comparison, however well-intentioned the design of the Tricolour may have been, in placing the white of peace between orange and green, in reality the association of the flag with political nationalism has vitiated any cross-sectarian potential it might have had.
  19. The disadvantage of this idea is precisely that the flag of St Patrick might be seen as too traditional, not really appropriate for a region seeking to place its stamp on a competitive, globalising world in the 21st century, critically involving a European engagement. And it carries too little contemporary resonance to exercise the emotional ‘pull’ that flags must have.
  20. To be pedantic, the ‘modernist’ alternative should really be described as ‘late-’ or ‘post-’ modern, because it explicitly recognises the multiplicity of identities and allegiances citizens nowadays negotiate in their everyday lives (Wilson, 1999). For example, patrons of the Red Devils bar on the Falls Road in Belfast doubtless feel no less Irish for supporting an English football team (with a Scottish manager who used to play for Rangers).
  21. The core of this approach would be the design of a new flag for the region that is Northern Ireland, which could fly on its own or in company with others (see below). It is interesting in this regard that the Northern Ireland Assembly had so little difficulty in agreeing to the linen-based logo which graces its letterhead. (Whether association with a slowly-dying textiles industry is an appropriate symbolism is another argument.)
  22. One way to proceed would be to offer for public commission the design of a new flag. This could inspire the creativity of artists and designers in the region, who represent some of its most dynamic talents. Wider involvement of school students could also be considered, which would go with the grain with the emphasis on citizenship education which the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment has boldly advocated in a reformed school curriculum (CCEA, 2000). Such a flag could be the basis for a ‘rebranding’ of Northern Ireland as a normal, civic society with a distinctive, regional cachet, and the image should be capable of reproduction, on official publications, for regional sports teams and so on.
  23. Clearly, such a new flag would need broad democratic endorsement, such as by a weighted-majority assembly vote. But it would be important that the design process was a creative one, not subject to an ideological straitjacket. When accepted as legitimate after wide public debate, the new flag should be flown at all times from public buildings in Northern Ireland, and could optionally be flown by other organisations if they so determined.
  24. It might be thought implausible that a new flag could act as a focus of a gradually developing common, popular commitment. Yet the initially much-derided ‘Y-front’ flag of the ‘new’ South Africa has managed to achieve such a status in a matter of a few years.
  25. While this should be the dominant public image of Northern Ireland, the combination of this flag with another or others could express wider symbolic affiliations. The EU Stars have never caught on as an exclusive object of popular affection–and indeed the rather gauche efforts to generate a ‘European identity’ in the 80s with the flag and Ode to Joy have been dropped. But there is a good case for the EU symbol flying alongside the new Northern Ireland flag, as a reflection of the very strong relationship the region has built up with the European institutions. Indeed, at the very least, it would be a reciprocal recognition, not before time, of the considerable goodwill the wider European community has shown to Northern Ireland in the 90s. There would, however, be no requirement that the two flags should be flown together.
  26. And what of the Union flag and the Tricolour? The protocol, as expressed in a legislative instrument, could be that these flags can be flown but only as a supplement to the Northern Ireland flag, only if the other ‘state’ flag (Tricolour or Union flag) is flown too and preferably also in the company of the EU flag. This approach would properly convey the reality that the two state flags represent no more than two of the contexts in which Northern Ireland as a region finds itself.
  27. It would also have the decided advantage that the Department of Regional Development could then, with cross-party support, legitimately take down flags improperly erected on public property, notably lampposts, and clean kerbs painted in red, white and blue or green, white and orange. Apart from acting as massive ‘chill factors’ against inter-community contact and integration, such ethnic markers and the associated graffiti represent a major disincentive to development of the tourism industry and a distinctive cheapening of the quality of life for all the citizens of the region.
  28. Perhaps more important than the substance of any of these suggestions would be the significance of agreement on the issue. When the tone of the institutions should be all about self-government through successful dialogue, leaving it up to the Northern Ireland secretary to adjudicate–which of course he was unable to do–sent out all the wrong signals. Conversely, agreement between the parties on how these problems can best be solved would not only greatly enhance mutual trust but would also give a big fillip to public confidence in the durability of the new dispensation.




Bryson, L and McCartney, C (1994), Clashing Symbols: A Report on the Use of Flags, Anthems and Other National Symbols in Northern Ireland, Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies

Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (2000), Proposals for Changes to the Northern Ireland Curriculum Framework, Belfast: CCEA

Patterson, H (1999), ‘Party versus order: Ulster Unionism and the Flags and Emblems Act’, Contemporary British History, vol 13, no 4

Pollak, A ed (1993), A Citizens’ Inquiry: the Opsahl Report on Northern Ireland, Dublin: Lilliput Press

Porter, N (1996), Rethinking Unionism: An Alternative Vision for Northern Ireland, Belfast: Blackstaff Press

Wilson, R (1999), ‘Beyond either/or: the politics of "and" in ethno-nationalist conflicts’, Democratic Dialogue discussion paper, Belfast: DD

[List of Reports] [List of Papers]

Democratic Dialogue {external_link}
53 University Street, Belfast, Northern Ireland BT7 1FY
Phone: +44 (0)28 9022 0050. Fax: +44 (0)28 9022 0051

Back to the top of this page