Row of flags in front of the UN General Assembly building, Manhattan, New York
In a comedy bit from a few years ago, British comedian Eddie Izzard describes the way that European countries colonized most of the world: with flags. A British dignitary lands on India’s shores and claims the country for his sovereign. When the local people say he can’t do that to their country, the official responds, “Do you have a flag?” When the Indians respond that they don’t but that shouldn’t matter, the dignitary gleefully exclaims, “No flag, no country; you can’t have one! Those are the rules that I’ve just made up.” He then goes on to enforce that rule with his gun.
Besides the fact that the Mughals, the Marathas, and most, if not all, Indian states at the time had flags (a fact ignored for comedic effect), the underlying message of the sketch rings true: flags are very powerful instruments, easily associated with specific ideas, histories, and groups, and often intricately linked with certain types of violence. This is certainly the case in Northern Ireland, where the most recent round of peace negotiations concluded this Christmas. These latest talks resulted in agreements on several budgetary problems, but only succeeded in tackling one of the three most persistent issues in resolving the legacy of the Troubles, which are dealing with the past, parades, and flags. Yes, the British and Irish governments, and the five main parties in NI, reached an agreement on how to deal with the legacy of terror, kidnappings, and murder in the province but not on flags (or parades, where marchers often carry flags).
That flags arouse strong feelings in people is nothing new. One could argue their main reason for existing is to induce such feelings, for good or for ill. The new South African flag, for example, was designed to evoke the fresh start and renewed sense of togetherness the nation experienced after the collapse of the apartheid regime in 1994. Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s famous description of South Africa as the “rainbow nation” can be seen in its flag, with the black, green, and yellow from the African National Congress flag alongside the red, white, and blue from the Union Jack, Dutch Tricolor, and the Afrikaner flags. Flags that before had represented opposing sides were now united as one.
While some flags are designed with hope in mind, others are designed to induce fear. Whenever most people today see the red, white, and black flag of the Nazi Party, they have a visceral, negative reaction. To many people, those colors mean war, genocide, hatred, and crimes unspeakable. It is for this reason—that the flag is considered to represent ideas so threatening and so destructive as to warrant its complete banishment from public display—that the flying of this flag rises to the level of criminal offense in a number of European countries.
The trouble is, of course, that most of the conflicts surrounding flags involve ones that mean different things to different groups. The Confederate Battle Flag is seen by many Americans as an emblem of slavery, oppression, and racism. Others, however, see it as an expression of Southern pride. This disagreement has led to hundreds of political battles and arguments over the years, and will undoubtedly lead to more in the future. In Japan, the Rising Sun flag is still in use by the Japanese Navy, whose members invoke the flag’s strong association to maritime tradition and Japanese heritage as a whole in their defense of its continued use. The flag’s critics however, mostly from China and Korea, see the flag as a painful reminder of the era in which they were under the brutal thumb of the Japanese empire, an era that lasted for much of the first half of the 20th century. Even the American flag is controversial in many places around the world, due to the U.S.’ record of military interference in these places. And don’t even mention the Israeli and Palestinian flags—they deserve an entire article unto themselves.
Northern Ireland, however, might have it the worst in the world when it comes to flags. In 2012 the Belfast City Council changed from a Unionist/Loyalist majority to a Nationalist/Republican one. The new parties in power passed an ordinance decreeing that the Union Jack, the flag of the country Northern Ireland is a part of, was no longer to be a fixture above the Belfast City Hall, but could rather only be flown on 18 specified holidays. This created massive unrest in the city, as the Unionist/Loyalist community felt their British identity was being threatened. Rioting cost the city millions of pounds, dozens were arrested, and many police officers were injured. Protest marches against the decision still occur today, over two years later. Belfast isn’t the only place in Northern Ireland where flags are used as proxies for larger battles, however. Indeed, across the province, bonfires with the Irish tricolor on top are lit every summer by the members of the unionist/loyalist community to celebrate the British victory in a particularly important 17th century battle that took place between the two sides.
There can be no doubt that the issue of flags is a real impediment to genuine peace in Northern Ireland. The Union Jack, the Irish tricolor, the provincial flag of NI, and many others are hung everywhere. People put these flags outside their houses, on their street corners, inside their pubs, on their cars, on their clothes, etc. They use them to mark territory, asserting which side of the divide a given house, street, or neighborhood stands on.
This phenomenon makes political identity immediately present to visitors to the province, and particularly in the capital city of Belfast. Across the province, people hold and display these flags, which to them represent their heritage, their community, and even part of their being. It is for this reason that actions such as those taken by the Belfast City Council in 2012 were taken so personally by the residents of Northern Ireland.
In another comedy bit that broaches the flag issue in Northern Ireland, a comedian suggests to then-American peace negotiator Richard Hass to toss a number of flags away that had previously been brought on stage. “No flags, no problem,” he quips. While that solution is clearly untenable, the reality is that not many better solutions have been proposed. Every year, there are protests and marches about this issue that further divide communities across the province. While other good work is being done to solve the numerous dilemmas that affect the province, genuine peace will not come to Northern Ireland until a reasonable flag agreement is reached. Flags are incredibly meaningful, but if common ground can be found on this issue, there is good reason to believe that solutions to other issues may not be quite as distant as most might think.
Michael Alter is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University, majoring in Government and Economics and minoring in History.