Monday, 9 December 2013

Taking Ownership

The Northern Ireland media have been abuzz over the past week with the news that the US diplomat Richard Haass has suggested a new flag for the territory. Belfast Telegraph journalist Malachi O'Doherty has reacted sceptically, pointing out that the Irish flag, the RUC badge and the "Ulster banner" have already attempted to unite the two communities — only to fall victim to (Northern) Ireland's underlying instability and fractiousness.

Perhaps the key prerequisite to gaining the reflexive support of the two ethnicities is a basic absence of partiality. In employment, housing, and the conduct of elections, that has already largely been achieved. The cultural sphere is another matter, however. It has become commonplace over the last few years for politicians to speak of a "culture war" in Northern Ireland, whereby Unionist symbols (such as marches and flags) are usurped by Nationalist ones (such as bilingual signage).

While in the United States there may well be a reasonable number of small-state libertarians who would side with the Unionists on both marches and signage, one suspects that most European — including most British — liberals, considering each issue separately, would side with the Nationalists. After all, it would be surprising if many other cultures entertained the notion of something that is at once a "demonstration" and "traditional". Indeed, while BBC Northern Ireland may be loath to call Orange marches sectarian, there would be an outcry were BBC Scotland to claim the contrary. Bilingual signage, meanwhile, is de rigueur in Wales and becoming ever more visible in Scotland. By linking the two issues of marches and signage, however, Unionists have succeeded in muddying the waters, making the constitutional status of Northern Ireland part of what might otherwise have remained a question of (competing) human rights.

This all goes to the paradoxical heart of what has been called the "siege mentality". Were Northern Ireland to embrace bilingualism, and outlaw the Loyal Orders — or perhaps simply the sectarian marches that are their raison d'ĂȘtre — its existence as an entity would be assured, or at the very least greatly extended. At that point, it might be time to consider symbolically drawing a line under the past through the adoption of a new flag.

Unfortunately, however, that basic prerequisite of fairness remains to be fulfilled.

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