The Truth About Flags

The 17th Century Scottish  Union flag
The 17th Century Scottish Union flag

What sort of a festive season was that for Richard Haass. Who would be a diplomat? His head must be spinning. He’s back in the States now and he’ll not be coming back.

So just to cheer him up a little here are a few facts that none of the delegates from our political parties would have told him when they failed to come to an agreement about flags.

Let’s start with the Union Flag (or Jack) which has not always been a great source of national pride. It was invented by James VI of Scotland when Elizabeth I died and he found himself ruler of England as well. The two nations had a history of conflict which he was determined to end forever. So three years after he came to the throne he issued a Royal Proclamation designed to bring the nations permanently together through the creation of a magnificent new flag.

Except that he didn’t create a new one, instead he combined the two existing ones, the Cross of St George and the St Andrew’s saltire in what he considered to be a masterstroke.

The result was not what he hoped for. The English didn’t like it one bit because the white background to their flag disappeared. The Scots liked it even less because the red cross was laid over the white. And let’s not even mention the Welsh! They didn’t get a look in because Wales was a principality and not technically a kingdom, despite the previous monarch being a Tudor, and thus part of a proud Welsh family.

The Scots expressed their displeasure by creating their own version of the flag by placing the saltire on top of the cross. In 1649 the English abolished the Union Flag outright when Parliament won the Civil War – the king was executed, his flag banned and the St George cross reinstated.  It wasn’t until 1660 that the Union Flag was re-established, and the errant Scots version disappeared a few years later.

The current flag was introduced by the very first article of the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland which came about when the Irish parliament voted itself out of existence – and the Union flag was extended to include the “Cross of St Patrick”, which confused many Irish people.

This was because the Cross of St Patrick wasn’t the Irish flag. Traditionally the Irish heraldic symbol was a harp on a blue background, which is still the standard of the Irish president. Irish rebels changed the blue to green and that was the flag adopted in the 1798 rebellion.

The Cross of St Patrick which is a red saltire on a white background was actually the emblem of a chivalric order, the Order of St Patrick, which, ironically had been specially created 18 years earlier to celebrate the independence of the Irish parliament. The fact that in heraldry crosses are emblems of martyrdom and St Patrick wasn’t a martyr added to the mystery of incorporating a flag that didn’t exist into the Union flag.

Republicans like to portray the Irish Tricolour as a symbol of peace and unity.

It made its first appearance in 1848 when it was flourished at a Young Ireland meeting in Waterford by the revolutionary Thomas Meagher who famously said he regarded “the sword as a sacred weapon”.  Meagher was later deported to Australia before resurfacing in the USA, where he played a prominent role leading the Irish Brigades in the American Civil War.

The green flag continued to be the flag used by those wanting an independent Ireland right up until WWI when it was used by the British Army in recruitment campaigns. The Tricolour was revived by the leaders of the 1916 rising who changed the order of the colours.

It was strongly associated with Sinn Fein and there were misgivings about whether it should be the official national flag, a decision which was finally ratified in 1937.

When you look back at history nothing is ever quite how it seems. And flags and other symbols take on different meaning to different people at different times in history. What the flag means today is not necessarily what it will mean in 50 or 100 years time. The Union Flag was once hugely unpopular, and in Ireland many people used to feel uncomfortable about the Tricolour.

In Northern Ireland things will change over time, but you could not expect that to happen over the Christmas holidays. When people feel more secure and less threatened by others they will feel more relaxed about flags, which is why we should move on and conclude agreement on everything else before we end up incapable of making any progress at all because of this most potent and powerful symbol of our cultural history and identity.




One Reply to “The Truth About Flags”

  1. A wise and realistic account Nick.Those who can live with the uncertainty of reality will appreciate the historical perspective.It encourages so thanks!

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