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Flags of convenience? January 19, 2017

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

Ah, normal service resumed by Newton Emerson in the IT after his thoughts on Martin McGuinness. And curiously at odds with his previous thoughts in regard to unionism not cutting a good deal with nationalism now rather than a bad one later. He writes;

Sinn Féin wants a new settlement at Stormont based on “equality” and “respect” – words it repeated prominently as the latest crisis deepened. There is no doubt the DUP has denied republicans both, but it is misleading to portray these terms as synonymous. In Northern Ireland, respect is vital because it is our agreed alternative to equality.
This does not apply to equality between the sexes, races, religions or the other six “categories of persons” specified by the law enacting the Belfast Agreement. The mistake is extending the equality of individuals to unionism and nationalism themselves.


Unionism is simply British nationalism, and two nationalisms cannot have equal standing within one sovereign state. Such a thing could only be attempted within some innovative new constitutional arrangement, and that is specifically not what the agreement or Irish nationalism seek to achieve.
Instead, the agreement states that Northern Ireland will be British until a majority vote for it to be Irish. British nationalism is therefore favoured pending the ascension of Irish nationalism, and as this a one-way process – no mechanism is provided to be British again – Irish nationalism is favoured overall.


In the meantime, the agreement grants both nationalisms not equality but “parity of esteem” – in other words, equal respect. It is a subtle yet critical distinction, fundamental to the dynamic balance of Northern Ireland.


Unionists have upset this by showing no respect; the comparable republican sin is wilfully over-interpreting equality. This is best illustrated, pathetically, by the issue of flags and emblems.
Unionism’s position is that British flags should adorn all public buildings, with views differing only on how often. Nationalists can like it or lump it.


Sinn Féin’s position is that no British flags should be flown unless Irish flags appear alongside, which appears superficially reasonable. So would the reverse apply in a united Ireland? Of course not. This is equality as an acceleration mechanism towards unity, after which it would be rapidly decelerated to zero.

Tellingly he pretty much stops there in relation to flags. He doesn’t say what his actual position is. He clearly doesn’t want both flags flown. So does he want one flag, that being the Union Flag flown? Or none? And the answer isn’t unimportant. Because whether he thinks the issue is ‘pathetic’ or not one thing we all know from long experience is that these issues have a power beyond their supposed immediate aspect.

And I wonder at his certainty about the GFA not accommodating two nationalisms, or the idea that in one sovereign nation (a bit fuzzy, at the least, that I’d have thought given cross-border political structures and contacts) there can’t be two nationalisms having equal standing.

But even if he believes that to be the case, why should the trappings of nationalism, which don’t as such give effect to it in any material way – and flags are a good example of same because I could fly a flag out my window for the Independent Socialist Republic of WBS and it would mean less than nothing in actual terms, not be given that parity of esteem? That’s as easy a win, without changing the substance as one can imagine really.

It’s odd because every time one thinks he might actually get it he demonstrates that he doesn’t. Take the following:

Equality lends itself to such creative expansionism: it is a difficult thing to argue against without sounding like one of Adams’ “bastards”. So it has been reduced to a buzzword slapped onto the same old constitutional battleground. Yet the battle is not for the permanent draw that equality implies, but about respectfully managing a process of victory and defeat.
The approach afforded to unionism – the eventual loser – is to show nationalists enough respect to blunt their nationalism, which would be difficult to manage even for those inclined to try. In failing to try, unionists have lost any authority to complain about the consequences.

Truish. I see this slightly differently. I think respect for unionism means parity of esteem afforded to them too, whatever their failings in reciprocating. Simply put pulling the Union Flag down – outside agreed contexts where shared or neutral symbolism can be used – short of a UI (and possibly not even then) is a bad idea because it breaches certain principles in regard to… parity of esteem. And if they are breached one way then they can be breached the other way.

But he continues:

Unionism is about defence of the status quo, not because it “fears change”, as Adams likes to say, but because it already has what it wants.

Not quite. I doubt unionism finds the current dispensation entirely to their liking. But perhaps like democracy it is the least worst option given the alternatives (and let’s not even get into the fractures within unionism over the years over the shape of Northern Ireland, devolution as against direct rule, etc.). But in a broader sense, yes, unionism sits within a polity that it finds tolerable/acceptable – diminishing that is a threat to it.

And the first part of the next paragraph is not without a certain truth either.

To unionists, political generosity can seem like trying to delay the inevitable by encouraging it. That concern deserves respect, too: republicans are far too glib about dismembering someone else’s country, considering that their grievance is the dismemberment of their own.

But that’s the whole point. That republican grievance isn’t cosmetic. It isn’t unreal. There was an actual dismemberment of Irish nationalism and one form of the Irish nation(s) in the twentieth century. And he cannot seem to understand why it is precisely because there are two nationalisms on this island, and focussed most immediately on the North, and that actual dismemberment that it is even more necessary that both are afforded respect, parity of esteem and yes, equality. Or, alternatively, remove such iconography from the public/state sphere entirely.

Moreover he seems unable to grasp that Northern Ireland might exist very far into the future (and as time goes on distinct from but in strong – possibly confederal relationships East and South). And that being the case the issue of what would happen in a UI (his point in regard to whether the Union Flag would be flown) is as moot as pretending that the status quo is the North being as British as…well, Finchley.

And if the optimal position, that is full union with the UK is no longer possible – and it is not, then it makes sense to move to the next best position or the next best after that and so on ad infinitum short of unity with the Republic, and that involves an acceptance that the Union Flag cannot if there is genuine parity of esteem, fly alone. And yes, that flag would fly beside the Tricolour, perhaps indefinitely.

What’s fascinating for me, and again speaking as a Republican, is to see how zero-sum his underlying approach actually is. It’s all or nothing, take it or leave it, Tricolour or Union Flag. It’s disappointing because he does understand the power of symbolism, and it is futile to pretend that it doesn’t exist just because one doesn’t like that power.

Northern Ireland is not England, nor is it quite like the rest of the UK. Nor is it the Republic. That is a basic outline of constitutional fact. That being the case best to accept that there are two nationalisms within it as there are, that there is nothing in the GFA that prevents flags being flown together (or not at all), and just get on with it for the time being. However long that may take. It was after all, as noted above, Emerson himself who talked about cutting good deals now.


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