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This debate has probably been done almost as much as any other (except possibly "but they started it") and indeed may still be flowing at Slugger, but I feel like giving it another airing in the wake of Sinn Fein's call for "neutrality or equality" on the flags issue. It's probably not what they had in mind, but in response I will present my argument for a new flag for Northern Ireland (pdf) . If you don't want to download the full document, what follows can be considered extended highlights. Please note that this is a draft (or 'beta version' if you like) and not the final product, so feedback (or at least constructive criticism) is welcome.
Northern Ireland may not be a nation state, but that does not preclude it from requiring its own flag. Firstly, Northern Ireland is legally a region that is distinct from the rest of the United Kingdom, in the same way that England, Scotland or Wales are. Even counties like Devon and Cornwall have their own flags and Northern Ireland should be no exception.
Secondly, Northern Ireland is often represented in international sport, be it international football, golf, or the commonwealth games. Using a flag that could be accepted and supported by both communities would aid the organisations involved in such events in attracting support from a wider range of individuals.
The arguments against a new flag can be summed up thusly: many Unionists and Loyalists do not wish to see Northern Ireland's links with Britain (and the Crown) undermined. Similarly, many nationalists and republicans do not recognise Northern Ireland at all, and therefore, see no reason for it to have any symbols.
The Situation Now
The white Ulster flag was designed by the Unionist government in the 1950s based on the coat of arms granted to Northern Ireland decades previously, and some nationalists may see this alone as a reason why they don't identify with it. Others will point to the inclusion of the crown, or the fact that the flag is similar to England's, and apparently incorporates the Cross of St. George. As well as the above, its use (and some would say abuse) by unionists and loyalists, has ensured that the flag is seen by many as the preserve of Unionist communities.
Part of the Good Friday Agreement made provision for the principle of parity of esteem. Republicans have called for both flags to be flown at government buildings, in the name of this parity. It is the belief of
many that this is a flawed interpretation of the principle.
Democratic Dialogue's research explains that the dual flag proposal cannot be accepted by unionists because as well as a symbol of identification, a flag is a symbol of sovereignty; this is particularly true of the Union Flag on public buildings. Therefore, an Irish flag flying, particularly over government buildings, would in effect symbolise joint sovereignty. This is something which unionists, en masse, have never accepted, and which not only isn't included in the Belfast Agreement, it in fact runs contrary to what unionists see as a core aspect of the agreement.
The Alliance party is one group who have already proposed a new Northern Ireland flag (see the pdf for details) and have explained examples to encourage debate. I don't believe any of these suggestions are appropriate. The Giant's Causeway Flag is too geographically confined to north Antrim and may seem much less relevant in Fermanagh or south Down, for example. The yellow Northern Ireland outline on a blue background is very complicated. It's generally accepted that flags should be kept simple. The flax flower is symbolic of the linen industry which has for a long time been declining - hardly a favourable impression of a new Northern Ireland.
There are also rumours that the UK government had been considering a new design in the late 1990s, but I have yet to see any substantiation of this - though it was an interesting design.
While some suggest a new flag would need to forget the past and look to the future, I prefer the idea that a new flag should find aspects of our past that we share. Getting into visions of the unknown future often results in vague concepts that are hard to symbolise and perhaps harder to identify with. To that end, I propose a relatively simple design for Northern Ireland's new flag.
Rather than use the red perpendicular cross, associated with St George, the flag bares the red saltire or cross of St Patrick. Saint Patrick is a man, and a symbol, both communities can identify with. He is the patron saint of the whole island, who came here at a time before any notion of an Irish state, Protestants or Catholics, nationalists or unionists ever
existed on the island.
The flag retains the centre piece of the current Northern Ireland flag, the red hand on the 6 pointed star. The red hand has been a symbol of Ulster (the province from which Northern Ireland was formed) for centuries and is one of few symbols used by both communities, appearing both on the Ulster Banner and badges of GAA clubs (as well as on the arms of County Tyrone, Antrim and Londonderry). The 6 pointed star reflects the 6 counties of Northern Ireland: Fermanagh, Antrim, Tyrone, Londonderry (Derry), Armagh and Down.