Loyalists must be free to fly the Union Jack

If Irish republicans call on the state to censor political expression, it will soon come back to bite them.

In case you are unfamiliar with the politics of Northern Ireland, we have now entered what is known as the ‘Marching Season’. Throughout the summer months, Ulster Orangemen march in celebration of King Billy, otherwise known as Prince William of Orange, who was the Protestant leader who defeated the Catholic King James at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Ever since then, Protestant loyalists miss no opportunity to remind us Catholics of who the winners and losers were on that fateful day over 300 years ago. Part of their annual ritual is to mark out their territory with Union Jacks, Ulster Vanguard flags and bunting. This is their way of reminding the world that the Six Counties is still very much British. At this time of year, literally thousands upon thousands of Union flags are erected from lamp posts by working-class loyalists as an expression of their political allegiance.

However, responding to demands from Sinn Féin, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has this week revealed that they are to treat the erection of loyalist flags in the Ballynafeigh area of the Ormeau Road in Belfast as a breach of the peace. In other words, this basic form of political expression will now be criminalised. The demographic of south Belfast, where many flags fly, is changing. Areas that were once majority Protestant are becoming mixed, or, in the case of places like Ballynafeigh, now have a majority Catholic population. The argument, then, is that Catholics oppose the erection of such flags as sectarian coat-trailing and naked loyalist triumphalism. Sinn Féin alleges that such flags amount to intimidation.

As an Irish republican, I have always hated the sight of the Union Jack flying in Northern Ireland. I would like to see the end of British rule and a united Ireland. The reality is that the Union Jacks flying in their thousands at this time of year are a clear reminder that the Six Counties are a part of Britain, whether I like it or not. However, as much as I detest the sight of the flags, I would never invite the British state to ban them as Sinn Féin has done. In doing so, Sinn Féin has effectively criminalised loyalist youth for displaying their political allegiance. It is ironic that Sinn Féin has bolstered the legitimacy of the British state to enforce such illiberal actions when the original intention of the republican struggle was to smash the British state in Ireland.

Paradoxically, Sinn Féin appears to have no problem with sitting in the Stormont Assembly from which the British flag flutters above. The problem, it seems, is with working-class loyalists erecting such flags.

Anyone who believes in freedom of expression must defend the right of loyalists to display their political symbols and emblems no matter how obnoxious one might find them. It is time Irish republicans rediscovered the politics of their founding father, Theobald Wolfe Tone, who was inspired by the ideas of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Irish republicans today should take heed of an old Enlightenment idea famously summed up later as ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I defend to the death your right to say it’.

If the PSNI is allowed to jail young loyalists for erecting the Union Jack, as sure as night follows day young nationalists will soon be targeted for erecting Irish tricolours. Sinn Féin needs to be careful what it is wishing for. Already, the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council is calling for the removal of memorial plaques and monuments to dead IRA volunteers dotted along the border counties because they could be considered offensive to unionists. If we invite the state to control political expression, then everyone’s the loser.

Kevin Rooney is a writer based in London.

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