SPENCER BrianNo Union flag here: Harold McCusker
‘The Historical and Social Impact of Flags and Symbols on Society’
by Brian John SPENCER for Northern Ireland Foundation
12 May 2015

Reverend Brian Kennaway and Dr Dominic Bryan featured at a seminar event at the Canada Room, Queen’s University Belfast: ‘The Historical and Social Impact of Flags and Symbols on Society’.

Mr Kennaway is a dissident in the true meaning of the word. His sense of alienation from his Loyal Order tribe is Kafkaesque and an exemplar of the modern Protestant state of mind.

Past President of the Irish Association, he began with historical depth; taking our minds back to 7th century China, he explained that flags communicate a message from the owner and to the viewer of the flag.

He then raced through the centuries, looked to religious symbols, and then turned to France.

His use of history was fascinating, as he described how the French tricolour inspired the Irish version. Where ‘Green, White and Orange’ represents the Gaelic and planter tradition, ‘Blue, White and Red’ represents the coming together of the socialist and conservative traditions.

In his true challenging form, Brian then pricked the modern sacred cow — unionist flags and parades. Coolly, he compared historically authentic standards versus the modern, bogus types.

What the reverend calls ‘fantasy flags’.

He compared the UVF flag of 1913 against Gusty Spence’s of 1966. Then he compared the South Antrim UVF of today versus the Central Antrim Regiment of the 1910s. It has to have the Union flag on it and not have ‘For God and Ulster’. And for that reason the modern variants fail.

The entertaining Dr Dominic Bryan, Director of the Institute of Irish Studies and Reader in Social Anthropology, gave his presentation.

The flag protests sparked in Belfast on 3 December 2012 is nothing new. That’s the moral of Bryan’s story.

“This is how we’ve done politics in Northern Ireland for most of its existence,” he said.

The ‘symbolic contest’ that apparently caught us unawares was actually anticipated by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

But flag love isn’t unique to Ulster. Bryan reviewed flag obsession in America, their fervent demonstration of civic pride. So while it may be flags galore, here our habit is to leave our flags to rot on lampposts, while Americans obey a code – flag up at sunrise, down at sunset.

Dr Bryan’s history lesson began at 1801, the year which bore to the world a new flag, the Union flag. An old symbol was “adapted”, rather than a new flag created, as Bryan said. Where there was contest and contention in Ireland, the Union flag was flown with more gusto, even back in the 19th century.

The suggestion that the contest over flags and emblems is recent and ‘invented’ by Sinn Fein is flatly false. Those who say otherwise “know nothing about the history of Northern Ireland”.

He then touched on the iconographic revolutionary that happened in post-independence Ireland. Shipping off statues of Queen Victoria, Leinster House sent one to Sydney as an ‘act of friendship’.

Then some law enforced flag flying. The Public Order (Northern Ireland) Act 1951, made ‘non-customary’ parades illegal.

Prime Minister Basil Brooke, feeling like a hardlined Peter Robinson, introduced the Flag and Emblems Display Act NI 1954.

Part one of that legislation made it illegal to interfere with the display of a Union flag. Part two made it illegal to fly a non pro-Union flag. The law was enacted in the face of RUC opposition, because they knew the on-the-ground practicalities.

The most famous use of the law was 28 September 1964, when Paisley forced the removal of a tricolour from a Republican Party street on Divis Street.

The Northern Ireland Act 1987 repealed this law.

Dr Bryan explained that during the 1974 Ulster Workers’ Council strike, the Ulster flag was more populous as compared to the Union flag. Strike politics promoted Harold McCusker to say he would never fly the Union flag again.

The Flags (Northern Ireland) Order 2000 was proposed by the Secretary of State Peter Mandelson, but did not pass.

Ironically, loyalist feuds and the free market created the proliferation of flags.

Jack Herman, Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland from 1980 to 1989, had a ‘real dislike’ for the loyal orders, as they were marching his officers into areas of true danger.

The disjunction between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is that a shared flag doesn’t receive a fair share of reverence, with mainlanders less enamoured to the standard.

Against this depressing backdrop, Dr Bryan said ‘symbolic contests’ can be resolved in intelligent and imaginative ways.

Though no concrete ideas or solutions were shared today.

He finished by saying that unionism is feeling aggrieved because republicanism and nationalism is more powerful than it used to be, and emboldened by using a strategy first written by unionism.

Brian John Spencer is a writer, artist and legal blogger: http://www.brianjohnspencer.com/

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