Michael Clifford: Our tricolour under siege once again

These protesters see themselves as in some way representing the spirit of the nation through the symbol of the national flag, writes Michael Clifford
Michael Clifford: Our tricolour under siege once again
Picture Dan Linehan

Last Saturday, I happened upon a commotion outside the GPO on Dublin’s O’Connell Street. It turned out to be a protest. A friendly garda deployed to police the event filled me in on the details.

“They’re anti the measures against the virus,” he said. 

“And anti-vaccinations and anti a few other things as well.” 

There were at least 30 people present, one of whom was speaking into a microphone. The sound wasn’t great but it was obvious that she was angry.

The most arresting feature of the protest was the proliferation of tricolours on display. A few flags were waved from long poles. One or two of the protesters had wrapped the flag around themselves.

More had tricolours imprinted on green t-shirts. One or two of the flags had slogans superimposed on the white, between green and orange, the bit that was originally designed to represent peace between Catholics and Protestants.

The slogans were anti-this and anti-that. Quite obviously, these people see themselves as in some way representing the spirit of the nation through the symbol of the national flag.

Across the Liffey, around the same time, kindred spirits of the GPO protestors were doing their own thing outside Leinster House. 

The focus of their protest was the Minister for Children, Roderic O'Gorman. They want him to resign because he had been photographed in the company of British activist Peter Tatchell, who once made disputed claims about sex with minors.

The premise for the protest was just short of ludicrous. 

Mr O'Gorman is a gay man. To outside observers, the protest smacked of being rooted in little more than homophobia. The tricolour was waved with some gusto here and there in the body of this protest. 

Quite obviously, these people also see themselves as representing the spirit of the nation through the symbol of the national flag.

Earlier that day, the death of Jack Charlton was announced, kicking off a soft rain of tributes and nostalgia for the gruff, likeable Englishman. 

Among the reflections was one from golfer Pádraig Harrington. He noted that a major effect of the odyssey that occurred under Charlton’s stewardship of the Republic’s soccer team was the retaking of the national flag. Others have echoed this sentiment throughout the week.

It is difficult for anybody under the age of 40 to imagine but, in 1986, when Charlton was appointed to the job, the national flag was tainted in the public consciousness. 

To the greatest extent, it had been hijacked by the so-called Republican movement, which had the primary aim of achieving a united Ireland through killing and maiming. There were precious few casual or proud displays of the national flag in those days for fear of association with the violence.

Then along came Jack. 

The success of the team in winning entry to European and World Cup tournaments in 1988, 1990 and 1994 saw the reclamation of the flag. It was no longer tainted, but worn with pride; a symbol of a team and supporters that represented the best of us.

The spirit of the nation was on display across the cities of Europe and, eventually, the USA. 

It was primarily about inclusion: everybody on the one road in support of the team, but also fully cognisant of the responsibility of representing the country.

The noise that accompanied what became known as Jack’s Army could be threatening from a distance. 

These were the days when our nearest neighbours were ashamed of their travelling fans. Other countries in the European mainland had similar problems. 

But, once the tricolour was spotted, fear turned to relief and even affection. These fans, it soon became known across the globe, liked to drink and sing and made lots of noise but were never a threat.

Anytime it looked as if somebody might be getting messy at the height of drink, interventions were made, reminders issued. Take it easy, lads. We are all in this together, marching under the one flag.

Even the slogan most associated with those times reflected the spirit on display. 

'You’ll never beat the Irish' might have betrayed limited ambition in terms of endeavours on the pitch, but it spoke of an attitude off it that was all about pride in 'meitheal', community, inclusion. 

We might get beaten in a game now and then, the slogan inferred, but nobody will best us for conduct, attitude or the capacity to spread a bit of cheer.

Back home, the country was on the march in other ways during the decade of Charlton’s tenure. 

Economically, it was being promoted to the first division of developed countries. Socially, the shackles of strictures and mores that had been a cruel feature of governance since the foundation of the state, were being loosened. 

A slow realisation was dawning that the institutional and societal crimes of the past had to be addressed. And in the north, peace came dropping slowly.

Through all the change and upheaval, the most popular man in Ireland was a tricolour waving Englishman.

That was then. Today, the flag is under siege once again, hijacked by a new form of 'nationalism'. 

Its display at the kind of gatherings mentioned at the top of this column is unsettling, as it associates the flag not with inclusion, but exclusion and even hatred.

Online, the sight of a tricolour on a twitter account more often than not signifies a voice that revels in hatred or abuse or is just plain racist.

These people don’t own the flag, no more than the Provos did. But they are tainting it to an extent that would prompt some to hesitate before being associated with a display of the tricolour today.

The misuse of the national flag by this new breed of 'nationalists' is also laced with irony, as the tricolour may be living on borrowed time. Brexit has ensured that we are now tip-toeing towards a single jurisdiction on the island, albeit without an arrival date yet in sight. 

When the time does come for North and South to join as one, can anybody expect the tricolour to survive?

There are those who see unification in terms of just attaching the six counties to the 26, but in the real world, a united Ireland will have to differ in many respects from the Republic. 

How could Unionists be expected to live under a flag that, in their eyes, is stained with the blood of their tradition?

But enough of dirty reality. 

For the week that was in it, with the big man passing on, we could luxuriate in the nostalgia of the warm, fuzzy feeling that he cast across a country, and onto the national flag. 

Play it again, Jack.

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