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6 July 2006 Edition

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Mitchel McLaughlin Column

Flags - expression of identity or of insecurity?

Driving around the North one cannot fail to be aware of the proliferation of flags on display. I often wonder what tourists make of this. Accepting that it is not a phenomenon restricted to one tradition, it does seem that unionists are more preoccupied with such displays.

From a republican point of view, I profoundly disagree with the national flag being flown from every lamppost, invariably until they become worn and tattered from the elements. It shows little regard for the significance and symbolism of the green, white and orange. In the context of oppression and discrimination I understand what motivated nationalists to raise the flag as an act of defiance. But it was always primarily a celebration of a national identity hitherto suppressed. As nationalist confidence grew, imaginative projects emerged to limit flying of the national flag to specific times of commemoration and celebration.

While able to claim some insight into the republican psyche I cannot understand the extremes to which unionists go in displaying flags. It's not just one flag on every available lamppost but three and four. There are union jacks, UDA, UVF, UFF, YCV and every other combination of the alphabet imaginable as well as the self-proclaimed 'Ulster flag'. There are even Scottish and Israeli flags!

Nor do unionists restrict their proclivity for flag waving to interface areas but these flags appear on every main thoroughfare proximate to unionist areas. Even within overwhelmingly unionist districts not only are the lampposts festooned with an array of flags but homes, gardens, community buildings, halls and even business premises! How sad is that?

I can understand why some republicans believe that the flying of the Tricolour is an assertion of national identity, but I am perplexed by the unionist obsession with flags. Could it be that unionists suffer from an identity crisis of paranoid proportions? Is it insecurity about national identity? Perhaps some unionists are unable to cope with the fact that despite their attempts to create an alternative 'national' identity unionists nevertheless are seen throughout Britain and the world as Irish. Could it be that this identity crisis manifests itself in an ostentatious display of Britishness in the hope that it will persuade a British government not to abandon them at some time in the future? Are unionists so lacking in confidence about the future of 'the Union' that the flying of flags from every available lamppost provides them with a form of comfort blanket? Is the fear of sharing power with republicans another manifestation of this?

I believe that this identity crisis is born out of the state of isolationism in which unionism existed since the partition of Ireland. Unionists could not and did not, relate to their nationalist co-inhabitants in Ireland. At the same time unionists never fully trusted the British government on which unionism depended. Consequently, I believe that until unionists reconcile with the rest of the people of Ireland they will continue to suffer from such insecurity and lack of identity.

An Phoblacht Magazine

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