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RGOD2: Flags, fags and snags

Spending two weeks in Northern Ireland because of my mother’s unexpected death put me back in touch with the daunting challenges of the Irish peace process. My cousin Suzanna who, like me, is another Irish exile (she lives in Paris), so we choose to stay in the Stormont Hotel given the influx of other family members for the funeral in Belfast. We held a family dinner there on the evening of the funeral and the staff in the hotel could not have been more helpful.

The hotel is directly across the road from Northern Ireland’s parliament and the venue for intensive inter-party talks on the use of national flags, dealing with the atrocities of the past, and parades –symbolic victory and commemorative marches that rekindle the sectarian divide every year. The mediation process was led by an American diplomat, Dr. Richard Haas, and every day the hotel lobby was full of politicians and members of the press -- all looking for some good news and a breakthrough, which of course did not happen! The delegates worked night and day right up to Christmas - still nothing, so the talks have resumed again.

Another damn opportunity for growth

The difficult work of peace-making is to find creative ways to move beyond benign apartheid (where both religious communities are happy to have their own separate societies, including schools, neighborhoods and cultures).

The conflict rekindled last year over what seemed a pretty minor issue: the flying of the British Union Jack flag over Belfast City Hall. The Nationalist community is pushing for less and less symbolic British influence, preferring to either limit days when the flag is flown or having the green white and orange tricolor of the Irish Republic to be given parity with the Union flag on all public buildings.

Some of the other more difficult issues are how to now deal with the perpetrators of violence on both sides, agents of the state as well as paramilitary members who committed some atrocious acts of terror against the civilian population (a kind of truth and reconciliation commission process). The annual parades commemorating victories of long ago, symbolic of Protestant dominance over Catholics, still need heavy regulation given the choice of parade routes can create immediate conflict between both sides. These are all tough issues for a society that has made the phrase “No surrender” their national mantra.

Respecting the flag

Ironically, as we drove up from Dublin to Belfast, we saw how Protestant areas use the Union flag as a marker of territory, and almost all of the flags were in tatters. The communities that erected these flags months or even years ago clearly do not have the same respect for their national symbol as, say, Americans do about the Stars and Stripes. It would be unheard of for an American flag to be left flying in tatters in any part of this country (and I believe potentially illegal).

So Protestant loyalists have a deeper identity issue: how to police the flying of their flag and to stop using it as a rag to mark territory. Their main concern, however, is the pressure from the U.S. State Department to allow the nationalist community to fly the flag of the Republic over public buildings in Northern Ireland while diminishing the symbolic nature of the Union flag. Skeptics have compared this ridiculous scenario imagining the flag of China flying over public buildings in the USA! This is unimaginable.

When the Irish Republic was in deep negotiations with the British government to create the various peace accords, there was an important decision where both countries withdrew any claim over owning the six counties, preferring to use the term “consent by the will of the people of Northern Ireland.” This was a radical shift of national policy much needed to give the dreamt “shared future” for the people of Ireland to have a chance to root and grow. Similarly, each county pledged “parity of esteem” to the other, allowing for changes in laws that would give equality on both sides of the Irish border.

For example, the Northern Irish LGBT community has enjoyed civil unions for years and the Republic now has to offer the same kinds of benefits and opportunities to the LGBT community in the Republic. This is a strategic move to help bring both parts of the island together and makes good sense. But if we called for a referendum in the Irish Republic on the wishes of a million Irish Protestants to fly the Union flag with the tricolor on all public buildings in the Republic of Ireland , the notion would never have credibility. So it makes no sense why the flag issue has been allowed to get out of hand. It is now an almost impossible and unsolvable conflict.

Both flags are associated with national victory and dominance. The Union flag was created in 1800 when Scotland and Ireland were fully incorporated into the United Kingdom, and the threat caused by the Irish rebellion of 1798 she lost her own parliament. So the Union flag is younger than the American flag and the Irish flag was adopted in 1919 following the Easter Rising (the flag was historically created by a group of Canadian French sympathizers in 1848). Both flags are endowed with aspirations to unity and common cause (the white of the Irish flag is about peace between the Catholic Nationalist community and the Protestant Orange loyalist community. So symbolically, Irish Protestants could theoretically claim to own 50% of the Irish flag and could force a national discussion on changing the tricolor into something else. Why not?

We shape our symbols and then they shape us

Maybe something new and totally neutral is needed and God knows, we have enough creative people on both sides of the border to come up with something else other than flags that have become painful reminders of past wars and glories. There is also a very interesting flag depicting the four ancient Irish kingdoms of Ulster, Leinster, Munster and Connaught. Although the heraldry on the four quadrant flag is ancient, there is no record when this flag was actually created. It is used a lot by Irish rugby and other “All Ireland” organizations.

Then there is the beautiful blue European Union flag, and the flag of the President of Ireland has a harp in the middle and both Protestants and Catholics claim the harp in some fashion (Guinness is an internationally known Irish business that uses the Irish harp as its logo). So maybe it’s time to change the flags?

If Protestants really respected the Union flag, we would not have the road from Newry to Belfast festooned with tatters. The U.S. government and the Republic’s government need to allow the Union flag to be flown on public buildings while giving parity of esteem to Protestants by creating a different flag and symbol that is creatively about a shared future and less about a tragic past.

Gay symbolism in 2014

As far as LGBT symbolism goes, bringing this story right up to date with LGBT international issues, the rainbow flag has become the international symbol of the LGBT movement. Rainbow flags have been featured in several underground Gay Pride parades, and Russia will have to deal with the rainbow flag in a way that is expressing international solidarity against the Russian government’s recent clampdown on LGBT organizations.

Yet, one could argue that the pink triangle is historically an older international symbol of gay oppression and liberation while the rainbow flag is more recent invention expressing celebration and pride. Once again, our symbols have their limitations and invite us to create new and more inclusive points of commonality, designed to inspire and give hope rather than to be used as a victory rag or marker of gay territory.

In a May 2008 UK Gay News op-ed article, Gilbert Baker (creator of the rainbow flag) said, "In my view the rainbow flag is unfinished, as the movement it represents, an arc that begins well before me, its breadth far broader than all of our experiences put together, reaching the farthest corners of the world with a message of solidarity and a beacon of hope for those who follow in our footsteps."

RGOD2, written by the Rev. Canon Albert Ogle of St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, looks at faith and religion from an LGBT point of view. Ogle is known around the world for his work in support of LGBT rights and HIV-prevention efforts. He is president of St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation. Donations to the foundation can be made by clicking HERE RGOD2 appears on SDGLN and GLBTNN.