I’ve been following with interest New Zealand’s expensive process of choosing a new national flag via the means of a referendum which also provides the country with an opportunity to keep the flag that they already have. From what I’ve read, Kiwi’s aren’t particularly enthralled by the final selection of flags and there is a strong chance that the old flag will remain in place at a cost of about $27m. It appears that Kiwi’s aren’t particularly enthralled by the costs involved either.
Despite the costs and the dull choices on offer, I applaud the move by New Zealand and wish that my home country of Australia would move in a similar direction. One main reason why people have been campaigning in NZ for many years to change their flag is its similarities to the Australian flag; both have the Union Jack in the top left corner and feature the Southern Cross star formation on a blue background.
For both NZ and Australia, the Union Jack’s position on their national flag is an historic oddity, a remnant of a bygone era which has no relevance to the contemporary society of either nation and it’s because of the presence of the Union Jack that many want to move to a new flag.
As I wrote about in Australia Day and why racism is bad for business, I hate the sight of flags, but this wasn’t always the case. As a kid I knew all the flags and could match them to their countries and I loved flying the Aussie flag at the cricket on Australia Day. But this all changed during the three years that I spent living in Northern Ireland.
As I previously wrote:
In Northern Ireland, flags are used to divide, demarcate who owns what bit of turf, show who can safely go where and who can’t and delineate themmuns from ussuns (Northern Ireland lingo for “them and us”). It’s pathetic, horrible and it’s ongoing.
Northern Ireland is a divided community whose bizarre obsession with flags frequently turns violent. Take for example the 1964 Divis Street riots:
During the 1964 UK general election campaign, an Irish republican candidate displayed an Irish tricolour (flag) from the window of his office in a republican area of Belfast. (Reverend Ian) Paisley threatened that if the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) did not remove the tricolour he would lead a march to the office and take it down himself. The Flags and Emblems Act banned the public display of any symbol, with the exception of the Union Flag, that could cause a breach of the peace. In response, armed officers arrived at the building, smashed their way inside and seized the flag. This led to severe rioting between republicans and the RUC. Thirty people, including at least 18 officers, had to be hospitalized. The Divis Street riots were the worst in Belfast since the 1930s
But as the BBC reports fights over flags, or flegs as they are often self-mockingly referred to in Northern Ireland, didn’t end at the conclusion of the provinces “Troubles”;
At the end of 2012 and throughout 2013, loyalist protests took place across Northern Ireland over the decision to fly the union flag at Belfast City Hall only on designated days.
Unionists said they considered the changes to be an attack on their cultural identity.
A loyalist protest outside the building erupted into violence minutes after the motion was passed. Disorder also broke out in east Belfast.
Fifteen police officers were injured, as well as a press photographer and two security guards.
More humorously, a recent misunderstanding about flags brought out reports of a hilarious occurrence that could only ever happen in Northern Ireland and shows that whilst there is an obsession with flags, some people don’t know much about them, as reported by The Independent:
Police were called to investigate an EU flag flying in a Northern Irish town, after a resident reportedly mistook the well-known emblem for an “Arabic flag”.
The flag was flying in celebration of the Ryder Cup outside a house in Holywood – the hometown of golfer Rory McIlrory who went on to help Europe win the trophy.
The owner of the house was stunned when two police officers knocked on his door on Sunday morning.
He posted on Facebook: “Right in shock here. Had a Ryder Cup party yesterday and just had the police round… Apparently person who complained thought it was an Arabic flag.”
In a statement, the Police Service of Northern Ireland confirmed the incident
I also experienced a similar lack of knowledge about the world outside of Ireland on two occasions, once in the North and once in the Republic of Ireland, when I was threatened for flying the Australian flag. One year we organised an Australia Day party at the Botanic Hotel in Belfast. ‘The Bot’, as it’s known, got right into the spirit of things and hung Aussie flags around the place, but being a hang-out for mostly Catholic uni students with republican leanings from the country-side, upon recognising the Union Jack on the Aussie flag a handful of them took offence to us flying what they thought was the British flag in “their” bar and turned hostile. To avoid getting our heads punched in we had to quickly explain that we were Australians, that the flag was an Australian one and provide a hasty history lesson to explain why the Union Jack was on our flag – “we hate it as much as you do!” was our argument that seemed to win them over.
Similarly, when I took an Aussie flag onto the turf following an International Rules Football match between Australia and Ireland, some people told me to get that “British shit” off the pitch. By the time someone yelled “feck off ye British coont ye” to my face I’d had enough, and that fella’s ears are probably still ringing from the history lesson I gave him on the spot.
These days I wouldn’t have the same problems because I don’t fly the Aussie flag anymore. Just as in Northern Ireland, in Australia, the Australian flag is increasingly used as a symbol to divide “them” from “us”. “Them” might refer to anyone from migrants through to terrorists, or generally anyone seen as proposing any sort of risk to Australia’s national security or what is commonly referred to as “our way of life”, whatever that may mean.
Take for example the 2005 Cronulla race riots where white Australian youths wrapped themselves in Australian flags and sought out foreigners to beat up; more recently we’ve seen reactionary and ill-named “Patriot” groups do the same. The current Australian Government also uses flags as a symbol of us and them, so much so that the excessive use of flags by the recently dumped Prime Minister Tony Abbott when he made security announcements whilst standing in front of a stack of them become something of a national joke and a source of much satire, as one such website mockingly misreported Tony Abbott as saying:
“While it might be hard to imagine now, by 2020 it is predicted that the average media briefing will use two hundred flags. By 2030, a thousand. Even by this time next year, you can expect to see 80-90 flags behind me for a run-of-the-mill security announcement. So continued investment in the flag industry is vital. What this new funding does is secure our future for the next 30-40 years”.
So my question is “what are flags good for?”
I don’t think they are much good for anything other than to be used as a symbol to divide people into groups of us and them.
Let’s get rid of them.
And while we are at it, let’s ditch our national anthems as well; most of them are god awful anyway!
Australia’s national anthem, Advance Australia Fair, is full of nice sentiments, some of which are false while others proclaim a moral standard that we fail to live up to. Courageously, the Australian opera singer Deborah Cheetham, an Indigenous woman, recently refused to sing the anthem in it’s current form at the Australian Football League Grand Final as she objected to the lyrics “we are young and free”, stating:
“We are the oldest continuing culture in the world and we should be valuing that and that is what I would like to see us moving towards… Let’s be grown up enough to take that on board. As a country we are not free from the ignorance from which racism is born… And as a lesbian in a committed ten-year relationship, I am not free to marry”.
She offered to change the offending five words, but her suggestion was rejected.
Another two lines from Advance Australia Fair “For those who’ve come across the seas / We’ve boundless plains to share” don’t comply with reality, as many an asylum seeker languishing in one of Australia’s so-called “detention centres” knows all too well, much to the nation’s shame.
People might argue that we are destroying our heritage if we get rid of our flags and anthems. But the truth is that national flags and anthems are a fairly recent phenomenon:
With the emergence of nationalist sentiment from the late 18th century the desire was felt to display national flags also in civilian contexts.
Most countries of Europe adopted a national flag in the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, often based on older (medieval) war flags.
Flags and anthems are simply trends that emerged with the rise of nationalism, and as traditional concepts of nationalism decline in popularity and usefulness, so too does the need to have flags and anthems. The trend of flags and anthems is over; it’s just a bunch of old-fashioned baloney now.
As more and more people become increasingly mobile, spending time in different countries, they learn to see through many of the outdated concepts of nationalism that governments have promoted as a way to achieve their aims. When Tony Abbott used to talk about “Team Australia”, people’s bullshit detectors started ringing. These old techniques that lean on old fashioned and paranoid nationalistic and reactionary sensibilities only fool the uneducated these days. People all over the world are becoming increasingly aware that for us all to survive on this little planet of ours, we are going to have to leave behind ‘us and them’ thinking and find ways to unite humanity rather than divide it, and one way we can do this is to ditch our flags and anthems.
To read more posts about Australia click here.
To read more posts about Ireland click here.
Endnotes, sources and image credits are on the next page.