Updated: Mar 29, 2021
Hot on the heels of two BBC Breakfast time presenters having their knuckles rapped for scoffing at a Tory Minister’s excessive use of the Union Jack as the background in a remote interview, the government also announced this week that in England, Scotland and Wales, the national flag is to be flown at all times on government buildings. Note that Northern Ireland is exempt from such plans having gone through a painful history in this area.
When I was about 8 years of age I remember being quite excited about seeing a band parade coming along the road. It was in those days when children were allowed to roam, free range, on their own and it probably wasn’t for 30 years and a host of scandals (including those unearthed by Operation Yewtree) that I understood that kids were probably deemed to always be safer away from adult supervision in the 70s and 80s. Unbeknownst to me, it was apparently obvious to those following behind the band waving their little red white and blue flags that I was not from their side of town. I vividly recall one of them coming towards me with a contorted look on their face as they shoved and waved the Union Jack into mine before walking… sorry... marching on.
I may have misinterpreted the gesture, but to me, the expression said, ‘we’re better than you’, and from that date on I have suffered a degree of mild PTSD when I see my fellow countrymen flying the union flag. It engenders a feeling of fear and anxiety within me. Interestingly, I do not feel this way when I see hundreds of flag waving children and adults on the TV news smiling and fawning over visiting members of the Royal family coming to their home town or place of work.
That flag waving is fun and seems whimsical by comparison to how I feel seeing it in Northern Ireland - even though, physically, it’s exactly the same thing. About a year after the band-groupie-flag-in-face-incident, the big 12th July parade came to our town. And so it was that perhaps thousands of band members travelled on the road outside our house on their way to the meeting place near the park.
We had a large wall, about 7 or 8 ft tall, built around our house and whilst there was a cattle grid at the entrance there was no actual gate. After a while I began to notice that random bandsmen would leave their well drilled team to break off and run in behind our wall so that they could urinate in our garden.
I was incensed at what I saw as the rampant disrespect being shown, as I was still smarting from the incident the previous year. I took it upon myself to go out and try to put up a makeshift barrier to stop the marauders entering the grounds of the house, but it was to no avail. I had managed to diagonally lay one large piece of old plank of fencing across between the two walls, but it was a pathetic San Marino football team level of defensive capabilities.
Even as I stood trying to put it back in place after it had been knocked down by full bladdered drummers and trumpeters, more would just step over and pass me, then do what they needed to before running back out to catch-up and continue playing their tunes back in their place. With hindsight, having now done my own fair share of public urination in any number of alleyways down the back of pubs and against trees, and indeed in on-street urinals in Amsterdam – yes, that’s a thing- I actually now have sympathy for those people that I was trying to prevent from dealing with their emergency. Far better that they did it behind the wall with a degree of privacy instead of in front of it! Don’t get me wrong – it’s still pretty disgusting what us men get up to- but I have more empathy now as a grown-up and can also appreciate that they were not the ones who had created the situation previously. In that moment I saw them as ‘all the same’; or, as we colloquially talk about it in Northern Ireland, it was part of the dispute between ‘Them-uns’ and ‘Us-uns’.
A number of years ago, my family and I had the pleasure of travelling to two annual children’s dance competitions where one of my daughter’s dance school was taking part. They entered dancers in a mixture, solo, duet, and group dances of various age groups and styles from modern to ballet to tap.
For me, it felt like going on a school trip with all the exuberance that that entails. All the parents and kids getting on the bus at an ungodly hour, travelling to the airport together, a few drinks on the Aer Lingus flight to Vienna and a four-hour bus ride to get to the destination.
Being the only school from Northern Ireland, the dance company were by default assigned to represent that nation. Similarly, whilst there were multiple dance groups from England, they were all representing England; and the same for various other troops and their nations of origin.
Unbeknownst to us, therefore, the hardcopy competition brochure thus showed the flags of the world with the list below of the dance groups associated with that country.
There was a chill in the air as an 80-20 split arose with the majority of the parents’ group expressing offence in being associated with the flag of Northern Ireland, which was seen to be overtly British. The minority either didn’t care or were in favour. I had spent many happy times in Windsor Park supporting Northern Ireland soccer teams in the heyday of Billy Bingham's management and the Northern Ireland flag seemed entirely benign to me.
A small committee formed without mandate and decided to design a new ecumenical flag for the Northern Ireland team which could be flown at the opening and closing ceremony, as well as hopefully being flown on stage when any competitor won a medal.
What they came up with was a white flag with a green shamrock in the centre. It appeared to be non-offensive, potentially it looked like it had been nicked from the airline on the way out, but otherwise was imposed upon us in the manner of ‘we can’t have (an Irish) tricolour but this says Irish without excluding people from the North and unless you have a better idea just shut up and say nothing.’
Whilst we all knew the score, when the flag did get brought out it was viewed with bemusement by those who didn’t, and we were forever having to explain what it represented and why.
It’s only when you try to verbally articulate something like this to a stranger with no appreciation of the emotions involved do you realise how totally bonkers it sounds.
The following year the same thing happened, and despite most people having thought that the shamrock flag would never again see the light of day, sure enough it was dragged out again; and just like Naga Munchetty and Charlie Stayt, my wife and I could not help but roll our eyes at each other and scoff.
The uneasy peace between the parents broke down when a soloist who won their section decided that they would, in fact, like to wrap themselves in green, white and orange to collect their award.
Whilst it didn’t make sense, as we were classed as Northern Ireland not Ireland, it didn’t offend me. But then I’ve never had one shoved in my face in an intimidatory fashion, as might well have been the case with those that were upset about it.
During my year of studying in America in 1995, I worked part-time in the campus post office and bookshop with a Korean war veteran who was spending his retirement volunteering at the college for a year. Tom Horn was several generations above me but was a gentle, soft-spoken man who was professional in his commitment to the role he had undertaken and acted as if he was a fully sworn-in official of the US Postal Service, despite that not being the case.
The one time I saw him take on a noticeably even higher level of stoicism was when I happened to be there when the US stars and stripes flag, which flew outside the shopfront, was being taken down from its flagpole.
I had been previously unaware of the pomp and ceremony surrounding such an event. As far as I was concerned you just rolled a flag up and threw it up on top of a bookcase til you wanted it again.
This was something entirely different, and whilst I do not know the reasons for it, it seems that when being put away, the national flag of America must be folded 13 times into a perfect triangle as a mark of respect. How I knew this was something to be prized was that another co-worker, seeing what Tom was doing, stopped in his tracks and immediately went to help, taking one end of the flag and while looking directly in Tom’s eyes said ‘my father also served.’
The two men then went about their mission with intensity, it was a powerful moment, and that was all it was- a fleeting few seconds. It was not triumphant, it was done with total regard for what the flag symbolised.
I am sure that Mr Horn was a US Republican voter, but I never heard him say a negative thing about any of the issues that so vex Old-Glory-flag-waving-Trump-supporting Republicans of today. And as a result, I don’t feel the same regard or positive disposition to that emblem as I once did.
We’ve heard stories of pirate ships from centuries ago fooling merchant boats by flying national flags rather than the Jolly Roger so as to get close enough to board and pillage unsuspecting crews protecting valuable cargo; and that’s how I feel things have evolved to on land in the 21st Century.
The honour that a flag used to stand for can no longer be trusted if its being held aloft by someone here to beguile us, to fool us into falling for the seeds of division rather than of hope and strength in coming together as one group of humans.
I fully accept that BBC presenters must be impartial, and there must be zero tolerance on their falling below professional standards, but if they can’t point out what is happening, who will?