Anyone who knows me would tell you that I like flags.
And maps with flags.
And especially flags with maps (yay for Kosovo and Cyprus!)
So, it will come as no surprise that I gave some thought earlier this year to the whole fleg protest, as they say back home in Norn Irn.
As has been noted by Am Ghobsmacht and others, (such as @NewNIFlag), Norn Irn hasn't actually had a flag of its own since Stormont was prorogued over 40 years ago (doesn't time fly when there's a low intensity civil war on!), despite the continued use of the 'Ulster Banner' at Orange marches and in international sporting events when Northern Ireland is playing.
The Ulster Banner: Doesn't actually represent Ulster; may not be a banner.
A common reaction to the suggestion that a way forward might be a new 'fleg' is quite often one of the following three:
1) "We already have a flag. The only flag of Northern Ireland is the Union Jack (and that other one we like to wave from time to time, even though it has no official status)." (see above)
2) "We already have a flag, it's green, white and gold."
The only green, white and gold flag I know of: Andes, a town in Colombia.
3) "Oh Christ, just what we need: ANOTHER fecking fleg."
Now, the point is of course, that reaction number 1 is for the most part correct: Northern Ireland has no other flag of its own, unlike England, Scotland and Wales, no matter what gets waved on a wet Wednesday at Windsor Park when going down to defeat by Luxembourg. Northern Ireland is unique in not having its own flag: as you can see below St. Patrick's Cross was used on the Queen's barge during the jubilee celebrations to represent Northern Ireland.
Even Cornwall has its own flag, and it's only a county. Scotland; dunno; Cornwall; Wales; Northern Ireland.
As for point number two, you have to be pretty stupid not to see the irony in waving the green, white and orange Irish tricolour while protesting against Orange parades (emphasis provided for the stupid).
So that leaves point number three, which is not an unreasonable response given all the disruption that has occurred over the past 12 months in Northern Ireland over the issue of what is currently the only legal flag for Northern Ireland.
However, surely if all this 'shared future' stuff we have been hearing from both Sinn Féin and Peter Robinson (how much he can drag the rest of the DUP along with him remains to be seen) is to mean anything, Northern Ireland can at least try and find some sort of agreed flag that everyone can unite around and be pissed off about.
Predictably this will bring about howls of protest from the sort of people who have taken to the streets with 'Ulster Independence' flags (behind Billy below) to protest the taking down of the Union Jack from Belfast City Hall save for designated days. But the fact remains that the Ulster banner was lost 40 years ago, but few really noticed (and it was only actually in place for less than 20 years).
Left to right: Will; Billy; Bill; William.
The reality is that people from a Catholic/nationalist/republican background don't feel comfortable or identify with the 'Ulster Banner', so shouting that it should be 'brought back'/'like it or lump it' isn't a viable option. It would also make it more likely that these same people would get behind the Northern Ireland football and other national teams and sportsmen and women, because as things currently stand the 'Ulster Banner' is associated with a form of unionism that, to quote David Trimble, "made a cold house for Catholics".
A shared flag for Northern Ireland also poses challenges for Sinn Féin. Although they still often like to carry on pretending that Northern Ireland doesn't exist, the fact that Martin McGuinness is deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland (and he put a lot of effort into making sure that it was deputy and not Deputy) is a bit of a give away. The fact that Sinn Féin want him or Conor Murphy or whoever to be First Minister of Northern Ireland come 2020 (or whenever, or never) is another big clue that it does. So if a shared future is to mean anything, refusing to accept a new flag for Northern Ireland would be a difficult position to hold.
And therein lies the crux of the problem for Sinn Féin, why a Northern Ireland flag and a Sinn Féin First Minister pose a big, long-term problem for them: as the North gets 'greener', with a majority from a Catholic background, and a Sinn Féin First Minister, and a booming middle class, the reasons to push for a united Ireland recede further into the background. Ulster, even after 1916 retained a stronger Redmondite/Joseph Devlin vote from its Catholics in the face of the Sinn Féin tidal wave of 1918 than elsewhere. In the Belfast Falls constituency, Devlin handily beat De Valera for the seat (though some argue it was partly out of fear of loyalist reprisals if they elected a Sinn Féiner). In the only other seat in Belfast where the Irish Parliamentary Party put up a candidate against Sinn Féin, he beat him by almost 10:1 (though the Unionist candidate, one Sir Edward Henry Carson, still won by a landslide).
'Wee Joe' Devlin: De Valera slayer.
The point is that Sinn Féin have to be concerned that nationalists will get too comfortable in the new North and decide that uniting with the 'banana republic' is not worth the hassle. For this reason, to some extent, loyalists are correct when they say that it suits Sinn Féin to have tension over Orange marches (though I don't believe that Sinn Féin initiate the tensions: they don't need to). Loyalists, however, much like Fine Gael in the Republic, never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The 'in your face No Surrenderism' of the fleggers is enough to keep CNRs voting Sinn Féin, even though polls and the census tell us there is no real appetite for Irish unity, at least in the short term.
No Surrender! Votáil Sinn Féin!
Which brings us back to the new fleg. Flegger loyalism is too blinded by bigotry to see that a new flag for Northern Ireland has the potential to shore up support among Catholics for remaining within the UK, so they won't support it. Sinn Féin's longer term political goals make them worry about a new flag for Northern Ireland for the same reason. However, (though they will probably try) it would be difficult for both to put up a strong argument against a new flag if it were chosen by the people at the ballot box.
The Single Transferable Voting system that everybody in Northern Ireland is very familiar with is designed for this sort of thing. Put the Ulster Banner on the ballot with 5 others and let everybody decide on the same day as the Assembly elections in 2016.
Hopefully at the end of the process we would have a flag with 50% support. We'd probably not end up with everybody's favourite flag, but we might end up with one that people can accept, or least one that everybody hates equally.
So, in that spirit, below are a few suggestions that I put together, and a few others that I thought weren't bad. A to F are mine, the rest are suggestions from @NewNIFlag.
Comments are welcome.
Vote for your top 5 at the top of the page! (Click here for full site if on mobile to see the the poll).