On 3rd December 2012 the decision was taken by Belfast City Council that the Union Flag would no longer fly from City Hall 365 days a year, but only on a small number of designated days. This decision has understandably been met with anger by many in the Loyalist and Unionist community who have seen it as a further erosion of their British culture and identity. For the last month street protests and rallies have been held across the province in opposition to the Council's decision. Sadly on some occasions legitimate protest has also been accompanied by violence and intimidation.
Many people have claimed that it is 'only a flag', yet the flying of a flag is an important issue because of what a flag represents. It is not simply a piece of cloth but is an important symbol to people of who they are. For any countries flag to be removed will naturally be met with a hostile reception by those loyal to it, as it will be viewed as an act of surrender and retreat. There are 5 things symbolised by the flying of a flag which show why it is so important:
When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969 he planted the Star Spangled Banner on the surface of the moon. Such a move was feared to be controversial, possibly being viewed by the USSR as a territorial claim to the moon. Such was the symbolism of planting a flag on the moon that US President Richard Nixon made it clear that it was purely a 'symbolic gesture of national pride in achievement, and is not to be construed as a declaration of national appropriation by claim of sovereignty'. The flying of the flag immediately brought with it that view of a claim of sovereignty by the nation who flew it. To remove a flag indicates that sovereignty has been removed.
The flying of a flag also implies residency. When Her Majesty the Queen is at home in Buckingham Palace the Royal Standard is flown from the roof. It is the visible sign to the public that the Queen is at home, and when she is not there it will be absent. Likewise, when the Queen is at one of the other royal palaces, the Royal Standard will be flown from that building showing that she is resident in that place. The presence of An Phoblacht cameras when the Union Flag was removed showed that republicanism felt this to be a further victory in their policy of 'Brits out'.
As a football supporter will wear their team's colours to the match to show their allegiance, so to does a flag show where our allegiance lies. No-one can confuse the different allegiances of Liverpool and Everton supporters on match day, for their colours make it clear. Where the Union Flag is flown it says this is who we are, we are British. Sadly many in City Hall have no allegiance to Britain and are proud too declare such. (Their allegiance to the British pound is a different matter!)
When the Royal Navy retook South Georgia during the Falklands War the message was sent to London; 'Be pleased to inform Her Majesty that the White Ensign flies alongside the Union Jack in South Georgia'. The raising of the flag on that island made it clear that the Argentine forces no longer had any authority or power in the islands, but they were under British rule once again. Around the world, British embassies fly, not the flag of the country where they are based, but the Union Flag, for they are under British authority. Removing the Union Flag symbolicaly from a building removes any semblance of British authority.
Twenty nine times during the London Olympics the Union Flag was raised to the top of the pole. Though millions of spectators in stadium and at home had not won the gold, they could identify with the flag, for it represented each one of them. The crosses of St George, St Andrew and St Patrick as an identification of that United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. How understandable it is that many feel their identity is being slowly stripped away from them in our province.
It is my firm view that the Union Flag should be flown freely from all government buildings in Northern Ireland, and that the decision to restrict it's flying from City Hall is wrong. Yet the issue also brings to my mind the words of a children's chorus sung in many Sunday Schools: 'There's a flag flying high from the castle of my heart'. That chorus used the symbolism of a flag to speak of the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ in the heart of a believer. It spoke of him being sovereign in their life and his authority in ruling over them. It spoke of His being in residence within their heart and of their allegiance to the name of Christ. It identified them as Christians, not ashamed of 'the gospel of Christ for it is the power of God unto salvation'. As the issue of flags is currently to the fore and we have considered all that a flag speaks of, can you say that the flag of the gospel of Jesus Christ flies over your heart, have you trusted him as Saviour.