The power of symbolism: Progress outweighs old symbols

ANY society as familiar with the choreography around the grand sacraments of Catholicism as this one is will easily understand the power of symbolism. 

The power of symbolism: Progress outweighs old symbols

Those old enough to remember the old, bravura and operatic Tridentine church will be even more familiar with how very loudly a silent symbol can speak.

The power of symbolism has also been used, or hijacked, by the tradition of violent republicanism, happy to pursue its objectives even if it has not been given a democratic mandate.

That tradition argues that Pearse’s idea of a blood sacrifice was one of the symbolic acts that set the agenda that led to the foundation of this Republic.

In a matter of weeks, the dominant culture in the part of this island that clung to old certainties — and the privileges of power — rather than be part of the new, independent Republic will celebrate its culture, sometimes with unnerving triumphalism and hostility.

Their nationalist neighbours have shown that, where the ballot box allows, they enjoy a little triumphalism too, even though they would use a different word to describe measures they introduced to curtail displays of the Union flag across Northern Ireland.

That new sensitivity around symbolism has led to some exceptional behaviour.

Earlier this year, a new driving licence was introduced for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. It carries the Union flag in three countries, but the flag of the European Union in Northern Ireland.

That behaviour hardly expresses a level of tolerance that might make a united Ireland seem a warm, welcoming place for anyone other than nationalist zealots.

Of course, it is a complex issue, one that will play out on the international stage in a few months time, when the Irish rugby team plays at the World Cup in England.

As has been the practice for a number of years now, the anthem of this Republic will not feature in pre-game ceremonies.

This will probably provoke the usual response from the usual quarters but, like it or not, recognising that that anthem does not represent all of those in a green jersey strenghtens our Republic rather than weakening it.

It also suggests that the abilty to concede shows real confidence and strength, as well as the imagination to see a better future.

That optimistic imagining is stirring in other places too.

Following the racist murder of nine African Americans as they prayed in their Charleston, South Carolina church, governor Nikki Haley, in an unexpected U-turn, has called for a Confederate battle flag that has flown on the statehouse grounds for more than 50 years to be removed.

She is not alone. Lawmakers in, of all places, Mississippi will propose legislation to remove the Confederate emblem from the state flag. These developments are part of a sea change gathering momentum across America’s southern states, a momentum that demands that symbols that evoke slavery and racism to be removed from public view.

Next year’s 1916 centenary celebrations will say a lot about us, so let us hope they mark optimism and possibility rather than the hatreds of old, hatreds our American friends are struggling with too.

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