God help us – we have a flag, Tuesday 3 August

Written by Matthew

We have come to Northern Ireland in the centenary year of the partition of Ireland and creation of Northern Ireland in 1921. This wasn’t intentional. As we drove south from Belfast through little towns and villages and at road junctions, we noticed lots of flags flying: the ulster flag, the union jack, orange order flags, pre-partition Ireland flags, the Saltire, ‘no surrender’ flags, Ulster defence flags, even Confederate flags and lots of red, white and blue bunting and we realised what was being commemorated.

Some towns have also erected big arches across their high streets; they usually featured king William III and more Union Jack flags and contemporary references to the Troubles. In Clough, a town nearby, the commemorative arch has a very large banner with ‘RIP Duke of Edinburgh’ along with his picture.

We’ve seen Republic of Ireland flags and green/white/orange painted stripes on walls. And in some places there are no flags at all – and it occurred to us that this in itself is probably significant. In a poll for the Belfast Evening Telegraph 63% of respondents said that flags on lampposts are annoying/very annoying while a significant minority of almost 19% were supportive/very supportive.

There’s an Eddie Izzard routine when he ridicules how the British occupied most of the globe with a flag – and a gun. No matter that the indigenous population had occupied the land for millennium “We have a flag, so it’s British now”.

Flags and arches – and the lack of flags are not the only sign of divisions. There are lots of different (and very well kept) churches – Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Baptist, Church of Ireland, Catholic … and more. Plus we’ve spotted the occasional ‘Orange Hall’. It’s not just church buildings either, we’ve even seen two ‘drive-in gospel meetings’ advertise. Many traffic lights have hand-made signs attached to them urging us to ‘pray for Jesus’, ‘repent’ or ‘prepare to meet our maker’.

It reminds us that behind the nearly 25 years of peace since the Good Friday agreement, the different identities in Northern Ireland are still very important to lots of people here.

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