I am currently in Northern Ireland visiting my family and as we drove through the city where I went to school, I saw a series of skull and cross-bone flags alongside the Union Jack and the Northern Irish Flags on a row of street lamps, just like what you see in the photo above.
I lived in Northern Ireland when I was aged 10 – 18 and have come back regularly to visit friends and family since then over the past ten years, but in all that time I have never seen the skull flag flying before. Seeing this flag made me feel deeply uncomfortable and unsettled, I felt unwelcome and unsafe in this area for the first time in my life. It is normal for the other flags to be flying, which tend to put me on edge, but the black flag alongside them made me feel like leaving that area as soon as possible and not even driving through it!
In Northern Ireland, if you see the Union Jack (flag of the United Kingdom which includes England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) flying in a particular area, that indicates that you are entering a Protestant area. If you see an Irish flag flying, you are entering a Catholic area of Northern Ireland. Curb stones on the side of pavements may be painted in the colours of a flag, so look out for this too.
This may mean no sense to a lot of people, as surely a country flag can’t represent just one religious belief because normally a country is made up of multiple religions? Then you would be right because you are reasonable and you are living in the world where you see and accept the diversity around you. However, more than often countries will have a majority population with one particular religion, therefore to associate a country with a religion is not a unusual concept but when I think about it carefully it feels wrong to me.
The association of these flags with particular religions in Northern Ireland goes back into the history of my small country, when Ireland was made up of Catholics and England was made up of Protestants. Northern Ireland was created in 1921, back then the majority of the population were Protestants, mostly those who would have descended from English Protestants who came and occupied Ireland, like my family. However, despite the majority being Protestant there was still a significant minority population of Catholics. The Catholic minority population of Northern Ireland wanted the country to be part of Southern Ireland, which was Catholic. This explains in very rudimentary terms the association with the flags, please do look into the history further if you are interested.
As you would anticipate, creating a new country with two populations wanting different things is going to cause issues, there is evidence of this across the world, and it did. Northern Ireland saw close 40 years of conflict between 1960 – 1998, this time was known as The Troubles. During this time, people learnt to be careful about disclosing if they were Protestant or Catholic and suspicion was rife. My mum told me about how she became accustomed to checking under her car for car bombs and wouldn’t go to certain parts of Belfast due to the risk of bombs. Nearly 20 years on since the conflict was announced as “over”, the suspicion, unrest, violence and rioting in the summer months still happens.
Black Saturday is always on the last Saturday of August and it consists of parades in Protestant majority towns across Northern Ireland run by the Royal Black Institution to celebrate the end of the Siege of Derry when the Protestants won.
To many of you reading this, the parade may sound fairly benign as it is a celebration of a famous battle in Northern Irish history, however, parades like this provoke conflict as they are a reminder to the Catholic population of the Protestant victory and of the difficult history of this country. The parades on 12 July every year in Northern Ireland are the parades that are particularly well known for causing conflict. The Twelfth (as it is known) parade celebrates the Battle of the Boyne and those who parade are from The Orange Order. This parade causes the most conflict because The Orange Order are Protestants and they insist on parading near largely Catholic areas, which the Catholics do not want. This parade results in riots, often with the use of a water cannon required to break up the rioting. As recently as 2015 there was rioting in Belfast, thankfully as far as I am aware since then, The Twelfth has gone without significant unrest over the past two years.
I hadn’t registered that it would be Black Saturday when I was visiting, it was simply not something that I remembered from living here, even though a nearby city, Lisburn has a big parading culture.
I came back to Northern Ireland when I was ten, I knew roughly when the parades were happening but my family would avoid talking about it. My parents treated them like they would a shameful family secret, making vague references to them but not going into any detail. Based on my parents actions, I thought that the parades were not worth thinking or talking about, best avoided. When I think about it, the troubles and divisions in Northern Ireland are not too different to a shameful family secret, some Northern Irish people who have never paraded or taken part in any violence, or disagree with the Protestant and Catholic divide, still somehow feel responsible in some way for the issues, like they would if a family member did something terrible.
I have always lived in my own dream world to some extent, with thoughts flying about in my head and creating stories in my mind, so I didn’t pay much attention to things around me that didn’t seem to be important, like the parades. But now I see that the parades are important, they are important to know about, why they happen and the divisions that they cause, the feelings that they invoke in people and the unwelcome culture that it creates.
I felt unwelcome when I saw the flags, because I associate them with parades, discrimination, violence and bigotry. Although I come from a Protestant background, I am now an atheist and in the eyes of some traditional Protestant Northern Irish people this is far worse than being a Catholic, I would be hated more than them. The skull and cross-bones flag suggests that harm could come to anyone who isn’t a Protestant and that I am not welcome there, whether there is a parade or not. The flags make me feel uncomfortable because I don’t want to be in a place that encourages discrimination, exclusion and sectarianism. I am no longer that person who is willing to pretend that this is not happening around me, but now I am prepared to think about it, I feel rather powerless to do anything about it. What I can do is shed light on what happens in this country and hope it will continue to change.