Identity (and Flags)

by belfastunicorn

I promised to blog on identity, so here is part one of what I fear may end up the length of a PhD.

I am a unicorn; this means I was born in the catholic community and yet am also a small ‘u’ unionist.  (


To many a flag is a symbol of pride and allegiance. People across the world and for centuries have died for their flag and killed in its name. It is a symbol of belonging to those in favour and, to those opposed, a symbol of the enemy.

To some of those who spoke and protested in recent weeks the Union Flag is “the flag of our country, of freedom, of democracy. The flag for which our fathers and grandfathers died”, to others it is the detested symbol of “imperialist British oppression across the world”.

Similarly to some nationalists and to our southern neighbours the tricolour is “a symbol of unity between green and orange, a flag of tolerance and respect” and yet to some of us it is also “the flag of murderers and of rebellion”.

I hold a British passport and I am also Irish. I am a proud Ulsterman (nine counties by the way), but, first and foremost, I am a citizen of Northern Ireland which is both British and Irish – like me.

When I see the tricolour flying in Dublin, it is simply the flag of the Ireland. When I see a Union flag flying in London, it is simply the flag of the United Kingdom. And like a good unicorn I see nothing wrong or offensive about either. In Northern Ireland, however, this unicorn feels that flags are too often used for much baser purposes.

My beloved phoenix comes from a border town which is, at certain times of the year festooned with tricolours. I grew up on the edge of a small town where every July, despite being mostly mixed, the local loyalists made sure every lamppost had a flag (often paramilitary) and every kerb a good coat of red, white and blue (to be fair the paint work was very neat). The message both of us received was clear:

“You are not one of us, if want to live here, keep your head down. This town belongs to us, not you.”

A large part of the problem here is that we have never properly mixed. We have predominantly protestant towns surrounded by catholic countryside and vice versa. We have ghettos and postage stamp estates surrounded by or interfacing with ‘the other’.  So how do we make it clear that “I am here to stay! This is my place and not yours.”?

Stick up a flag.

The problem is that act debases the very flags to which those hanging them profess allegiance. To me the need to festoon an area with flags and fly them every day (my council proudly flies the Union Flag at the dump) is a sign of insecurity.

When the Union Flag is flown on designated days in proper civic settings I see it is a sign of civic pride and of belonging. Where this is done I tend to notice the flag and will often do a quick check to find out what is the occasion. This has increased this unicorn’s knowledge of royal birthdays and my Dad’s mortification at my politics.

This Northern Ireland we inhabit is a shared space. I have no wish to abuse or show disrespect to my neighbours. That is why I found the City Hall row both painful and sad.

Belfast is the capital city of Northern Ireland. It is a shared city in a shared country. Unionist, loyalist, protestant, nationalist, republican, catholic, Hindu, Muslim, atheist and others share this city which has moved so far in recent years. I want to see the flag fly at the City Hall in a way which can be respected and also be respectful of the fact that this country will remain part of the United Kingdom for as long as the majority of all its people (and, yes, that includes many catholics) wish it.

To fly it on designated days, and possibly at the cenotaph all year, would seem an honourable way to treat the Union Flag and also show respect to all of our citizens.