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Should the Tricolour be replaced in a united Ireland? Jim O’Callaghan and Peter Feeney debate

Recent polling shows that attitudes to the flag remain deeply divided

Jim O’Callaghan: No, it should stay. Distorted assessments of the Tricolour must not obscure its true meaning

Republicanism in Ireland was founded on the desire to unite Irish people so that they could govern themselves. This was the objective that motivated Belfast’s Samuel Neilson and William Drennan to seek a republic where all citizens would be treated equally.

These Belfast Radicals had their cause complemented by similarly minded people in Dublin, led by Wolfe Tone, and operated as the Society of United Irishmen. This was not a society that sought the repeal of the Penal Laws on simple grounds of Catholic self-interest – it was a diverse movement of people from different religious and geographical backgrounds who wanted to emulate what had been achieved through the establishment of a republic in France.

French influence was evident again in 1848, when Thomas Francis Meagher and other Young Irelanders travelled to France seeking support from the second French republic for Irish independence. Unfortunately, the revolutionary promise of that French republic was of little help. Having praised the Irish people, the French informed the Irishmen that France could not help because Ireland was an internal British question. Although Meagher and the others went home disconsolate, they were given a remarkable gift. A committee of French women presented them with a Tricolour of green, white and orange.

Meagher flew that Tricolour for the first time from The Mall in Waterford. It is important for everyone on this island to recall his account of its symbolism: “The white in the centre signifies a lasting truce between Orange and Green and I trust that beneath its folds the hands of Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics may be clasped in generous and heroic brotherhood.”


Between the time that Meagher raised the flag in 1848 and today there have been many occasions when the cause of Irish republicanism and the Tricolour have been misrepresented and indeed debased as a narrow, sectarian, exclusively Catholic enterprise. Regrettably, that is the assessment that many in Northern Ireland have of the flag, in part because of the violence perpetrated in its name in the latter part of the 20th century. Nonetheless, that assessment is wrong, just as the assessment of the flag by those who misused it in violence between green and orange was wrong. Those distorted assessments of the Tricolour should not obscure its true meaning. Nor should they obscure its ability to convey again a symbolic message of unity as it did in 1848.

Invariably, discussions on a United Ireland resort immediately to questions about flag and anthem. Although these are symbolically important they are not consequential in people’s lives and should not be obstacles to reunification. The benefit of Irish reunification will not be seen in a flag but in the capacity of a new political entity to enable people on this island to prosper economically, culturally and socially and to recognise and cherish the difference and cultural wealth of all its people.

Although Irish independence has been a remarkable success, the partition of Irish people has had very negative consequences for us all. Partition was the darkest hour for those inspired by the Tricolour’s symbolism. But that symbolism can still inspire the people in both jurisdictions on this island, divided by imperial design, to reunify in order to enhance and promote their diversity and opportunity.

Partition in Ireland arose, in part, as a result of an imperial belief that natives of different religions could not govern themselves if Britain departed. This legacy of empire no longer has validity. Although there should be no preconditions in planning Ireland’s future, the Tricolour can continue to inspire people, divided because of their religious and cultural differences, to reunify because of the opportunities afforded by those differences that are represented so well by the Tricolour.

Jim O’Callaghan is a Fianna Fáil TD for Dublin Bay South

Peter Feeney: Yes, it should be replaced. It’s not worth losing the possibility of a unified Ireland for the sake of a flag

Changes in the demographic figures in Northern Ireland between those of a Protestant and a Catholic background, and the loosening of the ties between the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, have put the possibility of some form of Irish unity on the agenda. What is clear is that whatever form that Irish unity takes cannot simply be the absorption of Northern Ireland into the Republic. Any new Ireland would have to incorporate structures that cater for unionists’ shared history with the rest of the United Kingdom. This is not going to be easy to achieve. People in the Republic need to begin to ask themselves what changes they are willing to accept in order to have a new Ireland that accommodates unionist-minded people.

The recently published results of opinion polling on the Irish flag are not encouraging, showing that a large majority of people in the Republic wish to retain the Tricolour in any future unified Ireland. This is understandable; people of many countries are passionate in their loyalty to their national flag. It is a symbol that unifies people of a nation. The dilemma in the case of a united Ireland is that the Tricolour for unionists represents nationalists – if it were to become the flag of a unified Ireland it would represent a victory for nationalists. Whatever accommodation is reached must not be interpreted as a victory of one side over another. This means that the people of the Republic have to begin a debate about whether or not they would consider, among other issues, changes to the national anthem, the national flag, the compulsory requirement to learn Irish in schools. Other issues that would need to be resolved include Northern Ireland’s relationship with the British Commonwealth.

Many obstacles to Irish unity raised by unionists in the past are largely resolved: the economy of the Republic is now a strong, open economy with a global workforce; social welfare payments are higher in the Republic; both health systems have problems, but generally the health provision in the Republic is better than that in Northern Ireland. The role of the Catholic Church is unlikely to be an issue as the Republic has become a more secularised society than Northern Ireland.

But would the majority of people in the Republic be prepared to make the changes necessary to bring about a new Ireland that recognises the distinctiveness of unionists? Flashpoints in Northern Ireland in recent decades have often revolved around symbolic issues such as parades, the flying of flags and the place of the Irish language in society.

People advocating that the Tricolour be retained in a unified Ireland will point out that the colours of the flag are already symbolic of a united Ireland: green for nationalists and orange for unionists. But this ignores the history of the flag in the period since Irish independence. For unionists, the Tricolour’s retention in a unified Ireland would symbolise defeat and rejection. The recent experience of all-Ireland sporting bodies in regard to flags and anthems suggests that opposition to compromise is more often expressed by nationalist-minded people than unionist-minded people.

But is it worth losing the possibility of a unified Ireland for the sake of a flag? Would it not be possible to come up with a design that addresses a new Ireland with a significant unionist minority? Or could a two-flag solution be devised? If accommodation cannot be reached on symbolic issues such as the flag, how can much more challenging political issues be addressed? It is highly likely that some kind of structure that recognises the uniqueness of Northern Ireland within a federal Ireland will be devised. Does this provide a possible solution to the flag issue? Could there be a place for an Ulster flag flying over a newly formulated Northern Irish state government within a new federal structure?

There are many difficult decisions ahead, many of which might appear intractable. Unity on the island will only be possible if a significant proportion of the current unionist-leaning people of Northern Ireland buy into whatever new structures and arrangements are proposed. We must not let the flag issue be a breaking point. People in the Republic need to take a deep breath and begin to think outside their comfort zone.

Peter Feeney is former press ombudsman and former head of broadcast compliance at RTÉ