Two Flags And No Clue

Sophie Long writing @ Long Kesh Inside Out asks questions of Sinn Fein. Sophie Long is a PhD candidate at the school of politics in Queens University Belfast.

Two Flags and No Clue: Is Post-Agreement Republicanism Politically Bankrupt?

On Wednesday the 5th May, I emerged from conducting a series of interviews, and checked my phone for news and emails. I had been occupied for around five hours, which is a long time in Northern Irish politics. However, I was unprepared for the image of two, Irish flags flying from Stormont buildings, and the nuclear fallout which resulted.

‘Someone’, possibly contractors, had hung the Irish Tricolour, and a United Irishmen flag, from the flagpoles at Stormont buildings on Wednesday. Both flags flew for around ten minutes before being spotted and subsequently removed. As with many things on this island, the act itself was relatively banal, but what it symbolizes, and how it is interpreted, is important for understanding where we are at as a post-Agreement, yet deeply divided, society.

Firstly, the divergent reactions to the flying of these flags reveal much about the attitudes of political elites and indeed, the divisions within Northern Irish society. After the Belfast Telegraph ran the story, the majority of commentators derided Unionism for calling for an investigation, and stated that there were other, more important problems to consider.

The politicians can be demarcated in this analysis, as they are in Stormont itself, along sectarian lines. Unionists, united it seemed, for the first time in months, took great offence at the act, decried it as criminal and provocative, and demanded an inquiry.
Nationalists, contrastingly, shrugged off the flag issue as inconsequential and Gerry Kelly, that well-known moderate and mediator, accused Unionism of “hysteria” and as having an irrational focus on the “wrong issues”, given the salience of Welfare Reform, and resultant existential crisis, which the Executive is currently facing.

Two points are implicit in Kelly’s comments. The first is that flags do not matter, therefore anyone who does see value in respecting a flag, or experiences positive or negative emotions when faced with particular flags, is operating under misplaced, nationalistic delusions, and really ought to consider more pressing, economic matters, should they wish to be taken seriously. Linked to this is the belief that Unionists should not, therefore, be taken seriously.

The second is that Unionism as a whole is reactionary, and by extension of this, less politically mature and adept than Republicanism. Both of these things tell us a lot about Sinn Fein’s attitude towards Unionism as a political ideology, in that they see it as an unfortunate obstacle to the ‘Irish awakening’, which we will all, of course, undergo eventually, prior to our willing incorporation into a United Ireland.

This patronizing and demeaning disposition, whilst morally repugnant,  goes some way toward explaining Sinn Fein’s ungenerous treatment of Unionists, in the December 2012 Union flag debacle, in Wednesday’s provocative comments, and more broadly, since 2007, when the ‘new ascendancy’ of Sinn Fein and the DUP, clumsily took the reins of power. Not only do Sinn Fein dislike Unionism, they also fail to understand it, and consequently fail to recognize it as a legitimate, political position.

What is ironic however, is that for the Shinners, who have honed and crafted their own nationalist mythology, flags probably do matter. No doubt, if a vote supported flying the Tricolour at Belfast City Hall, we would see Gerry et al celebrating the symbolic victory of further ‘greening’ the former bastion of Unionist political and economic power, and consolidating Republicanism’s place in the new Northern Ireland.

Therefore, Kelly is being deliberately disingenuous, in order to present himself and his party as serious politicians, and Unionists as flag-waving imbeciles. I’m not sure if claiming you are better at politics than the DUP is anything to boast about, but the Shinners clearly need to take their victories where they can find them.

Indeed, there is some truth in what Kelly said. Viewing Unionist as reactionary is not an unreasonable position to take, given the lack of proactive and independent policy ideas emerging from the Unionist camp. Robinson refusing to sign the Haass Agreement because “McGuinness seemed very eager to sign it, therefore something must be up”, is a depressingly accurate example of how we do politics here. If ‘they’ want something, it must be bad for ‘us’.

Further, these perspectives on Unionist short-sightedness are voiced by the Unionist people, and fairly regularly. Much of the complaints which emanate from the electorate are that Unionism has no strategy, and tends to be pushed and pulled by the various crises which we manufacture for ourselves here in Northern Ireland. However, that should not distract us from the fact that a substantial number of those crises are engineered by Republicanism, and for reasons which I will now outline.

Sinn Fein willingly entered into government with the DUP, on the understanding that power-sharing was a pragmatic solution to the ethno-sectarian divide. Since then, there has been little evidence of the development of a respectful, healthy politics between the two.

The question I have for Republicans is: why the small-scale, amateur attempts at winding Unionists up? Is it, perhaps because, you have found yourselves in power, ten months away from the hundredth centenary of the Easter Rising, with no idea where to go from here?

I have heard much reference to a ‘New Ireland’, an ‘Agreed Ireland’, and an ‘Ireland of Equals’. These abstractions, with their implicit benefits, are regularly doled out to Republican voters, to reassure them that this is not it. McGuinness sitting alongside Robinson is not where the Shinner train stops. A United Ireland will come.

But how? And when? Who will vote for it? And what will it look like? Because, despite the demographic changes, which the esteemed and benevolent Gerry Kelly so graciously displayed in his electoral leaflets, support for the Union has increased steadily since 2007, when 48% of Catholics wanted unification, compared to 2013’s figure of just 28%.

Professor Peter Shirlow refers to this attitudinal change as down to the “settlement”, which gave Catholics the rights and opportunities which they desired, and so removing the need to alter the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. However, that figure of just over a quarter looks positive when compared with the Protestant support for a united Ireland, which was sitting at 2% as of 2013 (Northern Ireland Life and Times online).

How do Sinn Fein plan to persuade the reluctant, or downright opposed, 98% of Protestants, and 72% of Catholics? By continuing to pursue a schizophrenic, inconsistent approach to policymaking across the island of Ireland? Anti-austerity in the Republic, and, for the most part, implementing Tory austerity in NI? By taunting and insulting Unionists as a grouping, criticizing their attachment to the Union flag, and working, where possible, to block parades from progressing?

As a Unionist voter, I can only assume that life in a united Ireland, with Sinn Fein in power, would be very unpleasant indeed. Given their silence on what shape this Ireland would take, and how we, the irrational, but nonetheless resident, minority, would be welcomed, all we have to go on is their conduct towards Unionists to date.

In addition to this inconvenient survey data, the recent Westminster elections brought bad news for Republicans. Sinn Fein’s vote share dropped for the first time since 1987, with the Ulster Unionist Party emerging as the victors of the election. Furthermore, the votes for ‘other’ parties, that is, Alliance, the Greens, and People Before Profit, and UKIP, increased. These parties sit outside of the ‘Orange and Green’, and they too, would have to be persuaded of the merits of Irish unification.

Finally, there have been some symbolic blows to the Republican psyche in the past year, which have perhaps derailed their grand plans for 2016, and all it promised to bring. Firstly, Gerry Carroll took a West Belfast seat in 2014, no mean feat in Gerry Adam’s former fiefdom. The people of West Belfast, it appears, are disillusioned with what the Shinners have to offer the working classes, and would prefer to lend their support to a new, genuinely socialist, candidate.

Looking east, toward the mainland, it might also be worrying Sinn Fein, that for all their supposed political capital, their tight party discipline, and their elastic approach to “talking to the Brits”, the SNP brought the Union closer to dissolution through democratic argument and persuasion, than the Shinners ever did through force.

Switching from the Armalite to the ballot box has brought Sinn Fein into Stormont. But that appears to be the upper limit of political Republicanism’s reach. This might be why, then, such attention is paid to the ‘small victories’ of irritating Unionists, given that they have failed to achieve their objectives, and are now “the Establishment”, which they once criticized so fiercely.

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Anthony McIntyre

Former IRA prisoner, spent 18 years in Long Kesh. Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher.

12 comments to ''Two Flags And No Clue"

  1. "....hey also fail to understand it, and consequently fail to recognize it as a legitimate, political position....."

    " Over on the mainland...."

    You see here's pert of your problem about atamping your foot and demand to be taken seriously.
    If you live anywhere on the island of Ireland..The Mainland is the European continent,...
    NOT Britain..or anypart thereof.
    The only people who can justify calling Britain the mainland..are people who live on the small offshore islands.
    Britaibn itself is an island...Ergo it's a mainland to nobody except of one of those tiny islands.
    Ireland is the world's 20Th largest island.
    So write this down and keep it.
    Mainland to Ireland = European continent.

    Cut out and keep it.
    This verbal gynamsitics of Unionism lend itself to been seen as the joke it is.
    Similar verbal gynmastics also occur over Ulster etc.
    Further making your cause out to be a joke.
    stamping your feet and demand to be taken seriously..Just ain't going to cut it.
    And you know I'm right.
    But good luck changing it.
    Unionism does change like Mid Staffordshire NHS does Patient care.
    i.e Not very well

  2. Sophie

    You asked "The question I have for Republicans is: why the small-scale, amateur attempts at winding Unionists up?" You then answered your own question in your closing paragraph.

    Martin McGuinness made three promises to me in April. He has since refused to respond to my requests for an update. At first I took it personally but then I realized that it is probably because he cannot admit that his own choice of Justice Minister, David Ford, has blown him off and there is nothing he can do about it. SF sacrificed a lot of lives to be part of the Stormont administration and "small-scale" is better than to admit defeat on the substantive issues.

  3. Sophie,

    I often wonder about the excitement over flags. They matter if people make them matter and I suppose at that level we can't dismiss them. But given the victory political unionism won over republicanism with the GFA and the fact that not one volunteer who ever fought in the ranks of the IRA will live to see a united Ireland, you would imagine that matters more substantive would tax the minds of a party like the PUP.

    The lack of generosity is not restricted to SF. I would not characterise the arrangement in the North as power sharing but power splitting. Sharing implies generosity where as splitting doesn't.

    Keep writing - always good to see someone stand up for their opinions and risk whatever flak is thrown their way.

  4. Sophie

    I have to agree with AM. Why does the PUP invest so much in the flag issue? In my village in North Down we used to have flags and bunting up for the 12th week, now they stay up for all of July and August. The Village assoc are scared to ask for their removal and the local ind unionist councillor was told to stay out of it. The villagers don't want them up for more than a week, by August they are in tatters, and as a village which attracts thousands of day trippers and tourists during summer that is a disgrace. The NHS and the pound in our pockets are much more substantial demonstrations of our natioanlity than a flag on a lamp post.

  5. I don't know about you Ozzy but the mainland to me is the island of Ireland. If I was on one of Ireland's many smaller islands I would refer to the main body of Ireland as the mainland. Not Britain and certainly not Europe.

    I think Peter is correct when he says a big attraction for staying in the UK for many is security. His examples were income and the NHS.

    For me I am less interested in the pound in my pocket as my understanding is that economies of scale in a United Ireland would benefit all parts of the UK and Ireland. Ireland would work better as a unit and the UK taxpayer would contribute less in subsidy.

    As for the NHS it is a great institution and I would like to see free universal health care wherever I lived. In fact as a smaller planet I would like to see health care as a social and human right. Maybe more along the lines of the Cuban model but the NHS certainly led the way.

    There is much to be said about the benefits of being in the UK however I aspire to people in Ireland, North and South governing themselves as a unit. Particularly as the Tories are bullying the working poor into turning against the unemployed and immigrants. And running down the NHS.

    The system is using outdated American values and moving away from free healthcare, free education and what is it with the obsession with prisons? Hopefully the Tories will build a super prison big enough to house themselves. When the British people get fed up and put them on trial a superprison would come in handy. :p

  6. Sophie

    while reading this I couldn't help but reference back to your previous comments about the requirement for 'generosity' from republicans in your last post carried here ... AM has referenced that too.

    If you're really serious about 'generosity' one needs to practise it too ... especially given the stats you've quoted it seems churlish for Unionists not to do so.
    I'll quote Eamon Casey (former bishop of Galway and probably way before your time), from an old RTÉ Trocaire add, "Give a little, it'd help a lot".

    If your party is as progressive as your name suggests try and do what ye claim on the tin!

    (Christy, saddened but not surprised to hear McGuinness still hasn't delivered. As you say, it seems he doesn't have the capacity to deliver anything substantive).

  7. "Alliance, the Greens, and People Before Profit, and UKIP, increased. These parties sit outside of the ‘Orange and Green’, and they too, would have to be persuaded of the merits of Irish unification."
    I really don't think they do sit where you imply. Unionism is one of the most unyielding ideologies present on the 'Mainland' here in Ireland so to ask others to bend even further to your demands is just not cutting it.....

  8. Sophie said, "Not only do Sinn Fein dislike Unionism, they also fail to understand it, and consequently fail to recognize it as a legitimate, political position."

    It really is hard for anyone to see unionism as a legitimate political position. Do you seriously believe that Gerry Carroll sees it that way? It's all very well praising Carroll's efforts against the Sinn Fein electoral machine, but you fail to mention that he would have no truck with any flag.

    If colonialism, imperialism, oppression, etc were legitimate practices then yes Unionism might be easier to recognise as a legitimate political position.

    If the the PUP were indeed progressive, they would have been progressing away from the 'Unionist Family' over the last 20 years.

    There is another article here;, which unionists should read carefully. Just substitute the word 'racism' by the word 'sectarianism' in this article and you'll recognise exactly what unionism really is.

  9. Sophie
    You like many unionists are conflating Sinn Fein with republicanism. Real republicans see the demise of SF as a good thing. You should educate yourself about real republicanism.
    Also the majority of Irish people support reunification. What the majority in the north east corner of the country want means nothing. Unionist minority dictating over the majority must come to an end.

  10. Simon I agree with you..Ireland has it's own scale not really to require a mainland.
    And certainly Britain which is just over 2.5 times the size of Ireland and is also an island itself. Excludes it from been a "mainland" to Ireland.
    This "mainland" reference of unionism makes me cringe to be quite honest. it's part of a "learned helplessness" psyche.
    The argument could also be shaped with reference to population size..although I have stuck to geography.

  11. The OED definition of "mainland" is thus:
    A large continuous extent of land that includes the GREATER PART of a country or territory, as opposed to off shore islands and DETACHED TERRITORIES.
    When I look out of my living room window I see the British coastline of Dumfrieshire and Ayrshire, geographically, politically and emotionally "the mainland". It annoys republicans in the same way as "the North of Ireland" annoys unionists, but it only annoys if you are superficial enough to let it. Poor Ozzy "cringes" every time he hears a unionists say "mainland". Maybe now he understand what the word means he can lead a less cringeworthy life.

  12. You started of fine, but then launched into using language like "the shinners". This is always the prelude to an angry rant. This seems to be indicative of all sides in Northern Ireland, which is a shame as it is a country with a lot of potential. If somebody points out what any person within your society has done wrong, you automatically point out what they have done wrong, which is very childish because nobody accepts their own responsibilities and continually deflects their own problems. It's the exactly the same with addicts, it's why so many people are exasperated with Northern Irish people.


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