Friday, 7 February 2014

Flags and Languages

The Belfast Telegraph reports that the Tánaiste, Éamon Gilmore, has called for respect to be shown towards the Union flag and the Irish language, "two key cultural symbols at the centre of controversy north of the border". All well and good, but the collocation "cultural symbols" consists of two elements that more thoughtful consideration suggests may be quite different. In fact, the Union flag is a political symbol, while the Irish language is cultural. Although culture and symbolism can overlap, there is nothing particularly cultural about a flag, and, as Linda Ervine has been showing in East Belfast, there need be nothing symbolic about a language either.

Another question is what one means by "respect". In the case of Irish, respect would probably mean allowing it a place in public life, and Mr. Gilmore argues for just that, rightly pointing out the double standard inherent in the treatment of Celtic languages in Northern Ireland and Great Britain:
"Steps can and should be taken [...] for affording the protections and status to the Irish language that are already afforded in Wales to the Welsh language."
Flags, however, are another matter. Are Union flags commonly subject to symbolic destruction? In some places in Northern Ireland, undoubtedly, though tricolours on Twelfth night bonfires certainly have a higher profile. On the other hand, it is surely harder to argue that Nationalist-controlled councils show disrespect merely by declining to fly any flag from public buildings, or that councils where the Alliance Party holds the balance of power are acting in that way when they limit the days on which the Union flag flutters over a town hall. In fact, the Alliance policy on flags is that followed by most public bodies in Great Britain.

Which brings us to an interesting point. If anything is disrespectful to a flag — and utterly alienating to people from Great Britain — it is its flying from every lamp-post, railing, peace wall and Housing Executive shoebox, sometimes upside-down, often flanked by paramilitary or even sporting flags, and petulantly left there until its tatters are removed in favour of another Taiwanese import next marching season. And while this is by no means a problem limited to one side of the house, it is a fact that the CNR community does it rather less, despite not generally having the opportunity to fly its flag from public buildings the way that Unionists can. As the late Séamus Heaney said when discussing Loyalist "culture" in one of his last interviews — in which he made similar points to Éamon Gilmore — "they wipe the floor with it".

Give them half a chance, and they might.

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