March 5, 2021

By Kieran Harrahill

There are many aspects of uncertainty regarding how a successful border poll and the creation of a united Ireland could change Irish society and politics. At a cosmetic level, a common question is whether the tricolour would be retained or would a new flag be adopted. Creating a new, shared, and united Ireland will require more than simply changing a flag or anthem. In the context of debating a united Ireland, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP has outlined the need for issues surrounding identity and tradition to be addressed. Another crucial aspect of the unity debate will be economic issues. Speaking upon this matter, Donaldson referenced John Hume’s famous quote of ‘you can’t eat a flag’. It cannot be denied however that symbols create a sense of pride and belonging in people and the inappropriate use of symbols can spark irritation. This could be seen in the way Donaldson took umbrage with the presence of a flag perceived to represent a united Ireland in a Spider-Man PlayStation game. As David McCann notes, ‘nationalists need to realise and say it’s going to take a lot more than a vague offer of maybe re-joining the Commonwealth… it’s going to maybe mean things like keeping Stormont. It’s going to mean things like maybe changing the flag, maybe changing the anthem’.  

The question of changing the national symbols of Ireland is addressed in Brexit & The Future of Ireland: Uniting Ireland & It’s People in Peace & Prosperity, the first report by a Dáil or Seanad Committee on achieving a united Ireland. It states: ‘the momentous process of national reunification might involve the entire 1937 constitution including national symbols such as the flag and nonconstitutional symbols such as the national anthem and other public badges of cultural identity’ being changed as happened with articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution in 1998. The intention of this article is to firstly illustrate how the flag used to symbolise Irish nationhood has changed as the constitutional position of the island transitioned from All of Ireland in the Union to Part of Ireland out of the Union. Secondly this article will consider potential national symbols in a scenario where All of Ireland is out of the Union following the successful undertaking of a unity referendum. Thirdly this article will outline why these changes may be needed in order to support accommodation and a sense of belonging within a 32-county nation-state. This article will conclude with considerations as to why symbols represent the ‘icing’ of a nation. 

All of Ireland in the Union

Stretching as far back as the 1640s, a green flag with Brian Boru’s harp adorned upon it has been a symbol of Irish independence and Irish American pride in their ancestry. The importance of this flag to the people of Ireland is best illustrated by an event which took place at the 1906 Intercalated (Olympic) games when Peter O’Connor scaled a flag pole to raise this flag upon winning a silver medal. By the start of the 1910s, it was expected that the fulfilment of the campaign for Home Rule would see this green flag raised aloft Parliament House in College Green to mark the return of a seat of government to Ireland. The Easter Rising however marked a critical juncture which saw the campaign for limited self-governance superseded with calls for full autonomy and an end to Ireland being in the Union with Britain.

donegall place under home riule

Figure 1 : A 19th Century unionist portrayal of what Irish independence would look like. Note the flying of a green flag with a harp from Belfast City Hall (Source: Postcards Ireland)

Part of Ireland out of the Union

Although the Irish tricolour was first flown in Waterford in 1848, it was not until the Easter Rising that the flag acquired its significance as the foremost symbol of Ireland. Given its century long association with the goal of a 32-county Republic, it is unsurprising that many expect the tricolour to maintain its position of importance if or when a united Ireland is created. As noted by University College London’s Working Group on Unification Referendums on the Island of Ireland: ‘regarding the flag, some would argue for continuation of traditional Irish practice, and point out that the Irish tricolour of green, white and orange was itself designed as a symbol of the uniting of identities within Ireland’. While the tricolour may represent one message to certain groups on this island such as Fine Gael TD Neale Richmond who sees the tricolour as having ‘stayed true to what its original meaning was’, the lived experience of others will make it difficult for them to accept the tricolour as their national flag in a United Irish Republic. Within the Shared Ireland podcast series, the conversation with Frazer and Nigel, two men from Northern backgrounds, outline the complexities of the tricolour as a symbol for a shared Ireland. While someone from the South may associate the flag with happy memories, from a Northern unionist perspective it is telling that a first reaction to a tricolour are thoughts of it ‘being draped across bombers at funerals’. A similar view is held by Senator Ian Marshall when he outlines how when he lived through the troubles in South Armagh, symbols became weaponised and ‘the flag of the Republic was used as something that was anti everything I stood for’. The ‘death and destruction down through the years and the pain associated with’ the tricolour for those of a unionist disposition would make it difficult for them to identify with it as the flag of their new state.

Although the negative aspects of the tricolour for someone from a Protestant, Unionist or Loyalist background are clear, the Irish tricolour also has positive, non-political merits. Within the conversation with Nigel and Frazer, Nigel outlines how when he was in New York for work, he saw the Empire State Building lit in the colours of the flag. As he notes, having a well-known brand for a very small place is massive. External to the issues surrounding the use of the tricolour in the past is the fact that it is often mistaken for other flags due to its similarity to the Italian and Ivorian flags. As Emma De Souza outlines: ‘the process of reunifying the island of Ireland will be cathartic for this region (six counties of Northern Ireland) and for the people because it will be the start of a new chapter that we’ll be able to write for ourselves and be able to have a say in and create a new vision and it will close many difficult chapters for a lot of people that has continued for centuries upon this island’. The adoption of a new national flag could reflect this new chapter.    

Figure 2: The Easter Rising as a critical juncture in Ireland’s history (Source: Galway Advertiser,  2016)

Figure 2: The Easter Rising as a critical juncture in Ireland’s history (Source: Galway Advertiser, 2016)

All of Ireland out of the Union

Just as the Easter Rising was a critical juncture which led to radical change on the island of Ireland, the Brexit debacle has accelerated the possibility of a united Ireland at a rate which would be scarcely believed a decade ago. If unity results in the tricolour no longer being the flag used to represent Ireland across the world, what will be? Discussions on symbolism is one area where the undertaking of a Citizens Assembly can provide clarity as to how a reunited Ireland would be represented differently to what has come before. One approach to deciding the national anthem, flag, coat of arms and other symbols may be that of the New Zealand flag referendum process. Submissions from the public are broken down to four options which are then voted upon by the members of the Citizens Assembly in order to decide what the symbols of a United Irish Republic would be.

The flag that I would propose for a united Ireland is the Irish rugby flag. I believe adopting this flag as the national flag of a 32-county Republic would be appropriate for three reasons. Firstly, there is a degree of familiarity with the flag given that it represents a sport which operates on a 32-county basis. Even when Ireland was most divided during the Troubles, there was still one rugby team representing the entirety of Ireland. Secondly it emphasises the geographic diversity of the four provinces of Ireland rather than religious diversity linked with the politics of DeValera’s Catholic Ireland and Craig’s Protestant Parliament and a Protestant state. Finally, I believe that the inclusion of the shamrock on the national flag can create a new understanding of the trinity made famous by St. Patrick which resulted in the shamrock being synonymous with Ireland. The Irish nation comprises of three unique experiences yet who’s roots are based on this small island in the Atlantic: the people of the North, the people of the South and the people who reside in every corner of this planet yet whose origins are that of Ireland. The diversity which this interpretation of the shamrock trinity represents can be the hallmark of a new, shared, and united Ireland.

Figure 3: An bratach rugbaí - a flag to represent four proud provinces and three distinct Irish  experiences (Source: The Flag Shop)

Figure 3: An bratach rugbaí – a flag to represent four proud provinces and three distinct Irish experiences (Source: The Flag Shop)

In terms of symbols that define a nation, the importance of an anthem ranks closely to that of a flag. Similar to changing the tricolour, replacing Amhrán na bhFiann may also be met with resistance. As Andy Pollack notes however, ‘perhaps because I am a Northern-born Protestant, I don’t like it’s lyrics. I don’t like singing (in Irish) ‘mid cannons roar and rifle’s peal, we’ll chant a soldier’s song’. I believe that a reason why Amhrán na bhFiann would not be a representative anthem is because it would not reflect how a united Ireland will be created. While the 26-county state resulted from the War of Independence/Tan War, a 32-county Republic will not come about through cannons and rifles. Rather, it is through dialogue, agreement, and co-creation that a new state which accommodates the liberties and identities of all groups upon this island will come into being.

If Amhrán na bhFiann is not a suitable choice for the national anthem of a United Irish Republic, what could replace it? In keeping with the rugby theme of this article, Ireland’s Call would be a potential candidate. To say that many have a maligned view of Ireland’s Call would be generous. It has been criticised for its vagueness while also lacking anything that emphasises the uniqueness of Ireland when played at international sporting occasions. This contrasts with rousing anthems such as La Marseillaise or Il Canto degli Italani or the sound of the entirety of Murrayfield singing The Flower of Scotland without the need of supporting music. It is however notable that, particularly in the context of COVID-19, the phrase answering Ireland’s Call has increasing entered the nation’s lexicon. As opposed to the bland first verse of Ireland’s Call, the second verse provides a far more vivid depiction of the contrasting landscapes upon our island. One aspect I believe should be a prerequisite when selecting a new national anthem is that it is bilingual. The first verse of the New Zealand national anthem for example is sung in Maori while the second verse is in English. A potential arrangement could be the singing of the first verse and chorus of Glaoch na hÉireann as Gaeilge and singing the second, more vivid verse and chorus in English. Another possible anthem could be the reworking of Oró sé do bheatha bhaile. Just as there has been a Jacobite version of the song and one written by Padraig Pearse, an updated version could be created to put into words the feelings of hope now that the summer of Irish unity has come into being. Again, the selection of a new national anthem could be a role provided to the members of the Citizen’s Assembly on the future of Ireland.  

A third national symbol of significance is the coat of arms. While this would not be as embedded in the nation’s consciousness as the national flag or anthem, it is on the cover of Irish passports, arguably one of the greatest symbols of how Brexit is beginning to alter views among people in Northern Ireland. As Sinn Féin Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile notes, the day after the Brexit referendum, the post office on the bottom of the Newtownards road in East Belfast ran out of Irish passport application forms. A potential coat of arms could be the adoption of a crest containing the symbols of the Irish four provinces. While items containing the four provincial symbols are common, they do tend to vary in terms of where each province’s symbol is positioned. One means of overcoming this is by stating in the constitution the correct arrangement of the coat of arms. Similar to Article 7 in the Irish constitution currently, matters relating to symbolism could form part of a new Irish constitution should such be devised with the creation of a United Irish Republic. 

There may be the viewpoint that changing the national flag and anthem in a united Ireland is too much to give up and sticking with the status quo would be better. I would be of the view that this would greatly impinge the ability to create a genuinely united country. I believe the Irish cup final of 2018 represents this issue. When God Save the Queen began to play, the Cliftonville players bowed their heads while boos rang out from supporters. The issue of why the British national anthem is played at Northern Ireland football matches compared to what occurs in Scotland or Wales is a separate issue associated with players born in the North opting to play for the Republic’s team. The actions of Cliftonville unsurprisingly led to a backlash from elements of the media as well as Northern and Southern political figures. Based on this scenario, what would happen if an Irish cup final took place and a team with a predominantly unionist fanbase such as Linfield, Crusaders or Ballymena began to boo Amhrán na bhFiann?  It is likely that similar comments to what appeared on social media following the Cliftonville incident would be replicated by other sections of society.

The argument could be made that it doesn’t matter what anthem would be played, an anthem representing Ireland would still be booed. As John Hume noted, ‘Ireland is not a romantic dream; it is not a flag; it is 4.5 million people divided into two powerful traditions. The solution will be found not on the basis of victory for either, but on the basis of agreement and a partnership between both. The real division of Ireland is not a line drawn on the map, but in the minds and hearts of its people’. The argument for unity must not be one where a certain group aims to get the better of another. A central message must be that unity will result in people in Northern Ireland having a greater influence on how the matters which impact their lives are legislated and resolved while ensuring the protection and celebration of their unique British identity and heritage. A government could not break their promise to the people of Northern Ireland as occurred with Brexit because unlike being part of the union, people in Northern Ireland will have a crucial role in deciding who is it that will govern the entirety of this island. By retiring the symbols which embodied all that occurred since the Easter Rising, the argument can be made that a United Irish Republic will not follow the route taken in the early 20th century which saw unionist fears of Rome rule and economic stagnation become a reality. Ultimately with regards to the question of whether the national flag should be put up for discussion, Dr Margaret Ward outlines how ‘it has to because otherwise what we’re saying is some things are kind of declared sacrosanct and you can’t negotiate with them so some people will then say what do you mean by negotiation if you say that then we’re going to say this and we’re immediately then at a standoff ’.  

Figure 4: The creation of the Irish sea border illustrates how the importance of the Union to people in NI will not be matched by government in England. Ulster to England mural in Crimea Street

Figure 4: The creation of the Irish sea border illustrates how the importance of the Union to people in NI will not be matched by government in England. Ulster to England mural in Crimea Street. Credit: Eric Jones

While this article has focused on symbols associated with nationalism, a relevant question is what place will symbols connected to unionism have in a United Irish Republic? It could be argued that no symbol embodies unionism more than St Patrick’s Saltire. Its position in the Union flag represents Ireland’s place in the Union. How could it and other symbols aligned with unionism be included in a new Ireland? Focusing on St Patrick’s Saltire specifically, one approach to ensuring inclusion is by having the three branches of government represented by three different symbols. This contrasts to the Southern state currently where the harp is the symbol for all three. For example, the four-province crest could be the symbol of the executive and government departments. St Patrick’s Saltire could take a similar role to St Andrew’s Cross in Scotland and become the symbol of the legislature of Ireland. Alternatively, and aligning with its use with the PSNI, it could become a symbol for law and order in a united Ireland by becoming the symbol of the judiciary while the shamrock is used as the symbol of the legislature.

On a final note, a potential analogy could be made between flags and other symbols and the icing on a cake. Given that it adds colour to a cake, it is something that is visual and can draw a person’s eye to the cake. However, if the cake does not have a good structure, if incorrect measurements are used and ultimately if it doesn’t taste good, it probably won’t be a popular cake that will be sampled again. The same can be said about symbols in a country. As Mike Nesbitt has questioned, ‘when I opened my curtains in the morning (after unity), is the post-box still red or is it green?’ Just as important as the colour of a post-box is the question put by Naomi Long when she asks: ‘if I put my letter in the post-box will it get to where it needs to go at the right time? Is it an efficient service?’ Ultimately, creating a United Irish Republic will depend on more than just inclusive symbols. It requires preparing a coherent plan that addresses the matters raised above by Jeffrey Donaldson so as to ensure people across Ireland are confident that the new state meets their needs and accommodates their identity. The potential that Ireland’s future holds is encapsulated best by Senator Ian Marshall when he says: ‘My Ireland in 30 years’ time is somewhere I’m happy to live, somewhere my kids are happy to live, my neighbours’ kids are happy to live, that’s multicultural, that has opportunity for people, that’s peaceful, and actually is less focused on flags and emblems and signage and colours than we currently’.

Kieran is a regular contributer to Shared Ireland and you can read his highly popular pieces here and here.

Kieran HarrahillKieran Harrahill is a 3rd year PhD researcher with University College Dublin and Teagasc, the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority. He is 24 years old and is from Co. Tipperary. Kieran has a BA in Geography and Politics and International Relations and an MSc in Environmental Policy from UCD. His research on Just Transition in the coal industry has featured in a television interview on ABC Television in Australia and has been cited in a report by the Stockholm Environment Institute. The emphasis placed in his research on ensuring that a more participatory approach is taken in environmental policy is highly relevant to a number of policy areas, including the co-creation of a new, shared and united Ireland. His Twitter handle is @kharrahill_phd




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