Tricolour and Partition - some examples 1946 | Adoption of the Tricolour

Tricolour and Partition

Image from Irish Independent
Image from Irish Independent

The Union Jack, the “official” flag of Northern Ireland, is the symbol often displayed by unionists, whereas the Irish tricolour is the symbol often displayed by nationalists. Although the Irish tricolour was designed to symbolize peace between Catholics and Protestants and unity in allegiance to Ireland, it is clear that its presence amidst support for the Union Jack flag has contributed to intergroup tension rather than peace.

Many nationalists, for example, associate the Union flag with British domination and oppression. The Irish tricolour has been labeled by some unionists as a “rebel” flag, and there have been repeated attempts to ban its display. Each group has perceived the display of the opposing group's symbol as a provocation, and these symbols are immediate and explicit indicators of perceived loyalty or disloyalty, and thus, symbols of ingroup/outgroup membership. 

David A. Butz, National Symbols as Agents of Psychological and Social Change, Political Psychology, Vol. 30, No. 5 (October 2009), pp. 779-804

The tricolour was involved in political controversy, principally around the issue of the partition of Ireland. Speaking in Glasgow in 1946, Tomás O Maolain, from Fianna fail, reminded his speakers that the national flag, “unfurled over the G.P.O. in Dublin on Easter Monday, 1916, now floats over three-quarters of the national territory, symbol of the most democratic state in Europe.”

(The Irish Press, 22 April 1946, p5)

 In Northern Ireland, the tricolour was adopted by the nationalist community as its flag of political identity. When a group of republicans carried it in public in 1946, they complained that the flag was taken from them, and the only excuse offered was that the flying of the National flag might be construed as an act of provocation”. After a baton charge by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, a reporter how Harry Diamond, an M.P., had his left arm in a sling, while six other members of the platform party had sticking plaster and bandages over cuts. They decided after that not to carry the tricolour in any election parade, but only to display it at indoor meetings.

(The Irish Press, 14 August 1946, p9)

When Oliver Flanagan, a Fine Gael T.D. asked de Valera to complain to the Northern Ireland authorities that a tricolour had been forcibly removed from a coffin during a funeral, De Valera simply replied that he did not think that any good purpose could be served by “engaging in futilities”

(The Irish Press, 23 May 1946, p2).

In 1950, an exchange in the Stormont parliament underlined the symbolism of the tricolour as the flag of the minority community. The visiting mayor of New York had flown two tricolour pennants on his car. Police in Belfast told him that it was “illegal to fly the tricolour”, and he removed them. A nationalist M.P. at Stormont complained that “it was disgraceful that the flag of the Irish nation should be insulted”. When he described it as the “flag of our nation”, he was interrupted by cries of, “What nation?”

(The Irish Times, 5 July 1950, p3)

Legislation on Display of Union Jack in Northern Ireland
Legislation in Display of Union Jack in Northern Ireland

Legislation was passed by the Stormont Parliament in 1954 gave the police powers to protect the display of the Union flag, allowing them to remove the Irish tricolour if they considered that it might lead to a breach of the peace.

(Henry Patterson, Ireland since 1939 (Oxford, 2002) pp. 121-5) 

A rise in the number of incidents involving disputes on the streets over the display of the tricolour between 1966 and 1971 highlighted the tensions between the two communities in the North. In 1966, two teenage girls wore tricolour emblems during a parade organised by the Rev. Ian Paisley. They were charged in court with provocative conduct. A police inspector said that it was crass stupidity to display the Tricolour in such a place.

(The Irish Press, 3 June 1966, p)

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