Hamill’s Beat - Fifty shades of red, white and blue

Northern Ireland- 17th December 2012 Mandatory Credit - Photo-Jonathan Porter/Presseye. Loyalist hold protests around the village area in south Belfast following the recent Belfast City Council vote to only fly the Union Flag from the City Hall on certain days. Loyalist protesters pictured blocking Tates Avenue.
Northern Ireland- 17th December 2012 Mandatory Credit - Photo-Jonathan Porter/Presseye. Loyalist hold protests around the village area in south Belfast following the recent Belfast City Council vote to only fly the Union Flag from the City Hall on certain days. Loyalist protesters pictured blocking Tates Avenue.

There’s something about devotion to flags that’s deeply primitive. It’s a throwback to an earlier stage of evolution.

In one respect it’s like sex. It’s an instinct that needs to be kept under control. Without that, we’re just like wild animals.

The most disturbing thing about the flag protests is that some people seem to have no idea that society expects them to control themselves. Add passionate patriotism into the mix and you have a recipe for turmoil.

We’re always being told about our wonderful schools and our world-class education. Evidence to the contrary is all around us. Even some of our elected representatives seem to be completely unaware that it can be a mistake to whip up patriotic fervour. Either that or they’re just cynical about it. They’re only too happy to fan the flames. Isn’t that what happened in Germany in the 1930s? Burning the offices of political opponents and attacking elected representatives’ homes is like Kristallnacht in 1938 Nazi Germany when Jewish owned homes and businesses were attacked.

We’re also tired of being reminded that the Union Jack is, “the flag of our country” and that, “people fought for it.” Those who say that don’t seem to have any idea that fighting for a flag and nationalistic jingoism may not be good things. Of course, the irony of mobs copying Nazi tactics whilst emphasising the fact that they fought for the Union Jack seems to be completely lost on many protestors. Don’t they know which side the British were on in the Second World War?

Still, we shouldn’t be surprised that some unionist politicians are happy to adopt their predecessors’ tactics. Throughout the 1950s and 60s Ian Paisley’s Ulster Protestant Action (UPA) frequently whipped up anger about flying the Union Jack. (The UPA were the forerunners of the DUP.)

“Rallies were held at the Ulster Hall demanding that the Union Jack be flown over every public building,” recorded Ed Moloney in his biography of Paisley. “After one rally in 1958, Paisley led a large crowd to the mixed Catholic/Protestant Docks area where, with a large force of nervous RUC men looking on, they hoisted a Union Jack over a children’s play centre and burned the Irish Tricolour,” he says.

Of course, Paisley is an older and wiser man now. Writing in the ‘News Letter’ he had nothing to say about the big issue of the week. Instead, he focused on, “the flag of the King of Kings”. “It either flies in your heart or it is folded away only to be opened and looked at on designated days – a Carol Service, a wedding, a christening or a funeral,” he says. It’s strange stuff from the man who never missed a chance to agitate about flying the Union Jack in the old days. That’s how age and no longer having to impress gullible voters with hard line rhetoric can change your priorities.

Meanwhile, his successor Peter Robinson recently told his party about the need to attract votes from Catholics. Faced with changing demographics, it’s obvious that unionists will soon need some Catholic support keep them above the magic 50 per cent of the votes cast mark. Likewise, it would be extremely useful for republicans and nationalists if they could attract a few more votes from Protestants. It’s a race for the 50 per cent mark.

In this race unionists have more to lose than nationalists. Stirring up unrest and making Nrn Irn ungovernable can only damage their chances of attracting greater support from Catholics. Yet, counter-productively, the unionist parties just can’t resist trying to prove they’re a darker shade of red, white and blue than their rivals. “Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad,” as the ancient quotation says.