The Union Conundrum

Think about this: to ask a Northern Irish person, whether they think they are more British or Irish, is an incredibly sensitive issue.

Every blog post of mine has to be inspired by something. A seed planted in my head which develops into an idea, and blossoms into a well-written article of such to be shared with everyone. This particular post – as the title suggests – is about the union flag and its significant impact on me, inspired mainly by my experiences right here in the most controversial part of the UK – Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland has had its fair share of troubles over the years. Political troubles mainly, with religious tension brought in as a scapegoat to strike fear in the hearts of the people. The people are at a loss here. In order to understand why Northern Ireland has had its political troubles, we must first take a look at its history.

Great Britain was the most powerful and influential empire in the world, colonising other lands and whatnot. Ireland was just a wee island lying to the west of Britain. In all its glory as the greatest imperial power in the world, Great Britain absorbed Ireland and thus formed a country of countries – the United Kingdom. With Ireland under the crown, everyone was happy. The British Isles were united under one crown, one nation, one flag.

Now, this part can get quite educational.

The Crown would have been content with Ireland being part of the Union as things started to get out of hand. Things are never right. Ireland was almost entirely Catholic, and the English monarchy was the biggest proponent of Protestantism. Queen Elizabeth I sent a mass immigration of Scots and English to Northern Ireland – to the city called Belfast – with one goal in mind: to convert the Irish to Protestants.

What the Crown didn’t expect was a major backlash by the Irish people. Over the course of the next several hundred years, the people could take the threat from the Crown no longer. This resulted in an open and violent demonstration. They were against the spread of the Protestantism, against the unfair treatment given to Catholics while the Protestants in the area flourished under UK’s favouritism policies, and against the power of the monarch. They wanted to form their own Catholic state, and they wanted to form a republic, with no king/queen – just a fair government – much like the USA. The UK eventually gave in, and the Republic of Ireland was granted independence from the UK.

Then there was Northern Ireland. Its population split between two religious denominations; their political affiliations were also in line with their faiths. The Catholics call themselves nationalists, or republicans, and consider themselves more Irish than British. They have the everlasting dream of having a united Ireland. Most of these people are descendants of the original Irish who dwelled in the area. The Protestants, on the other hand, call themselves unionists, loyalists, and consider themselves more British than Irish. These unionists are descendants of the immigrants brought in by Queen Elizabeth I. Nonetheless, Northern Ireland had a slight majority in Protestants, giving the land to the UK crown and governance even though it technically has its own parliament.

Think about this: to ask a Northern Irish person, whether they think they are more British or Irish, is an incredibly sensitive issue.

So what happened recently?

What happened was that the Northern Irish parliament voted not to fly the Union Flag every day at the Belfast city hall. Why the sudden dislike in the Union Flag? Because  apparently there has been an increasing number of Catholics in the parliament. With more of the ‘nationalist’-minded politicians in the house, they now form a majority in parliamentary voting procedures, thus the decision to not fly the flag. And what reaction would you expect from the unionists here in Belfast? A major uproar. Protests. Riots. Violence. Raising of many, many Union Flags. Burning of Irish Republic flags.

You might think that the Northern Irish people – or the Unionists, in particular – are incredibly petty people: burning down police cars and causing chaos, all because of some simple flag dispute?

I’d suggest you take a step back and think about it. Put yourselves in their shoes. These people have seen troubles in their lands for the past several hundred years over the issue of national identity, which is why they take small things like simply raising a flag very seriously. I’d try not to think of these people as petty. I’d prefer to think of them as being politically aware and standing up for what they believe is right for them. They take this flag issue close to heart, because it defines who they are. They want to be British. They are afraid that the issue of not flying the Union Flag every day might eventually lead to the loss of their land to the Irish Republic – destroying their national identity.

People here always ask me this: do you think Northern Ireland should be part of the UK, or part of the Republic of Ireland? If you want me to be brutally honest, I’d say that geographically speaking, Northern Ireland should belong to the Republic. But demographically, Northern Ireland belongs to the UK.

I told myself, in times of tension such as these, to start a Unionist protest is easy, as all you need to do is head to the city hall carrying a Union Flag. To quote a senior of mine here,

During the Olympics, I saw Mo Farah wrapping himself with Union Jack. I saw the flag as a source of pride, a symbol of tolerance and diversity. Today, what I saw, was Union Jacks being used, by some, to justify bigotry, spread fear and sow hatred. – PC Wan

Much like the story of the American war of independence, the British crown is seen as being manipulative and power hungry. They intended to subdue the population of the Irish by twisting their faith, using religion as a tool. Their ulterior motive was to rule Ireland with an iron fist under the crown (because, well, the British monarch is to Protestants as the Pope is to the Catholics), for political rather than religious reasons. Unfortunately for them the Irish people were strong in their faith and never gave in to the tyranny that is the British crown.

The only good thing out of it was that the British crown actually realised its mistake in upsetting the demographics of Northern Ireland. But what can you do now? You can’t call up all the Unionists in the region and tell them to move back to Britain. You can’t get rid of the nationalists in the region and tell them to move to the Republic of Ireland. It’s irreversible. History cannot be unwritten or rewritten.

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Dental student at Queen's University Belfast. Concerned with everything that goes on around me. Highly opinionated, and highly obnoxious as well. Tweets:@wenkaifong Blog: mejournals.com/kai

Posted on 18 January 2013. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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3 Responses to The Union Conundrum

  1. Go..go.. Visit Indonesian Year 2013 … Gili Nanggu island, Bali island, lombok island, yogya city, raja ampat. Go..go..go… go a head…

  2. Go..go.. Visit Indonesian Year 2013 … Gili Nanggu island, Bali island, lombok island, yogya city, raja ampat. Go..go..go… go a head…

  3. Anomie

    This article reminds me of the day of extremist unionist, Ian Parsley. A protestant pastor no less!

    So mixing of religion & politics, bring chaos to the people.

    Could, the recent RCI in Sabah IC scandal, reveals the same mistake done? The only saving grace is that the 'original Sabahans' r the tolerated souls, unlike the Catholic Irish.