Flagging it Up
'History is the lies of the victors,' I replied, a little too quickly.
'Yes, I was rather afraid you'd say that. Well, as long as you remember that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated ... - Julian Barnes
The British these days are no longer as coy about flashing their long haul but conclusive victory over the Provisional IRA. In spite of the eye candy optics and the melodic media discourse that swathed the British Queen meeting Martin McGuinness, the British establishment sketched a backdrop to that meeting which reinforced the image suggested by one commentator that McGuinness was in fact ‘presented’ to the queen.
In a week that saw Sinn Fein make what party chair Declan Kearney described as serious compromises - the massaging of a rout to make it appear as an orderly retreat - the British were victoriously waving the Armed Forces Union Flag from Belfast City Hall for six days. Normally it is only one day but then nothing like rubbing the noses of the vanquished in the sour smell of an adversary’s triumph. And to rub salt into the wounds the party of the Justice Minister joined in. If ever justice had a British state inflection it is here.
The catalyst for it all was a letter from General Sir David Richards of the British Ministry of Defence requesting that all councils across ‘the UK’ fly the flag from Monday last week. Conor Maskey of Sinn Fein expressed disappointment at the council’s decision to approve any British military flag waving never mind six days worth. As did party colleague, and Sinn Fein leader on the city council, Jim McVeigh. In 2009 Gerry Kelly of Sinn Fein can be found protesting alongside Relatives For Justice at Belfast City Hall on the same issue.
All know that despite the reported claims of party leader Gerry Adams that the ‘Queen meets subject’ event was a good day for republicanism, the coat trailing triumphalism of the in-your-face flag waving tells a very different story. But nobody listened to the two Sinn Fein councillors or Gerry Kelly. Nobody had to.
Jim McVeigh objected that it would cause offence to nationalists. He could have elaborated and told his audience just why the British might wish to cause offence to nationalists in the same week that they blow off demands for an inquiry into the Ballymurphy massacre. They do it because they can. It is what they do. And they will continue doing it because there is no one yet capable of mobilising the moral power to stop them. Flying flags in the face of British Army murder victims whose relatives have have just been told to get lost, in the same haughty manner that Geraldine Finucane was dismissed, is not some inane oversight or insensitive error. It is a calculated affront from the victor to the vanquished, reminding the latter of their place in the hierarchy of victims structure. It ethical terms it has echoes of the celebratory Orange dance gleefully performed outside the bookmakers shop on the Lower Ormeau Road where in February 1992 the UDA killed five unarmed nationalists.
Tim Atwood of the SDLP, one of those ‘offended’ nationalists, added his voice to the ‘rejectionist’ cause although in terms less narrow than Sinn Fein, hitting out at war and British militarism in general. He too is being ignored on the question of flag waving. Which tends to put Sinn Fein down on the same lowly rung it long accused the SDLP of appearing happy to perch upon. Nobody listened to the SDLP, claimed Sinn Fein; it would be the armalite not typewriters that would bring equality for the Catholics. ‘God made the Catholics but the armalite made them equal’ and all that. Eaten bread is soon forgotten.
All of this cruelly reveals the paucity of Sinn Fein claims that last week’s events reflected some form of equality or moral equivalence at play. This incongruous assertion was brazenly articulated without even the slightest hint of self-parody by the former IRA prisoner Michael Colbert when he informed television viewers that the head of the British armed forces had met with the former head of the IRA.
The manner in which British forces contemptuously prevailed over his colleagues on Belfast City Council tells a different story: there is only one daddy on this block and it is not the IRA. Equivalence would have meant either one of two things. The British not having the power to flaunt their jingoism at Belfast City Hall; or Sinn Fein having the power to fly the Oglaigh na h-Eireann flag at the same time.
That is a demand unlikely to be made. Untested self-delusions are always the best ones.