Flags are the bane of the Ulster fans’ forums – of course everyone these days professes to be ‘totally relaxed’ about what flags are flown where, yet somehow, absurdly, debates about the colour or type of ‘territorial-pissing-in-fabric-form’ can fly out to 20-30 pages faster than any actual rugby-related topic (I would say even more than the Humph vs. ROG debates in the old days!!).
The crux of the matter is that: (i) like most things in NI or Ulster, the province straddles the various fault-lines around the national border; (ii) in a society which has long been polarised along tribal lines, with each side to an extent defining itself by opposition to ‘the other’, symbols and totems have become disproportionately important, and disputed, over time.
Before going further, let’s consider the main contenders, with the aide of a simple matrix:
• With respect to the Ulster flag, well it is what it says – the flag of Ulster! While some people appear to view this as having some Nationalist/republican associations (thus the cross in the box above), I personally don’t agree. I would argue that unless you are an obsessive devotee of whichever supposed republican events this flag is apparently associated, you will be likely to have seen it more often in the context of Ulster Rugby matches over the last few years.
Even if one accepts, for the sake of argument, that such an association exists, then surely it is more positive to reclaim this particular symbol, rather than to cede it to the idiots? It seems to me to be reflective of a depressing, zero-sum outlook to disavow a particular flag on the basis that ‘the other side’ uses it. Associations are (a) often subjective, and (b) dynamic, not static – if this flag were embraced widely by Ulster Rugby fans (as to an extent it already is), within a couple of years it would be associated with Ulster Rugby. (In fact I personally think that Ulster Rugby should also explore having a yellow away kit).
• Regarding the NI flag – I personally don’t have a huge problem with the flag, as a historical document as much as anything; the fact remains that it hasn’t actually been the flag of anywhere since 1973. Whatever else it is, it is self-evidently, and by definition, not a flag of Ulster – and this without even touching on the symbols it carries on its face, and any tribal associations it may have.
• On to the obvious answer – the Ulster Rugby flag. The one in the image above is the flag that was handed out at the semi-final in Dublin – by all accounts a bit of a rush-job by Ulster, ordered in from China, arriving in the nick of time. I got one, and was impressed by the quality – ok maybe after a season of Belfast rain and wind it may look a little past its best, but it certainly does the job.
I believe that 6,000 of these were handed out at the semi-final and a further 4,000 will be laid on seats at Twickenham. So there will be something like 10,000 of these flags floating around, at least some (and hopefully most) of which will be recycled at Ravenhill next year. And I hope that Ulster Rugby will continue to order them before big games, or even have them (or slightly better quality versions) on sale at Ravenhill.
Of course, this would merely bring Ulster Rugby back in line with every other rugby club in Europe! The second semi-final a couple of weeks ago was a colourful affair, with thousands of flags being flown – substantially all of which were either blue Leinster Rugby flags or yellow ASM flags; and this is the norm. With very few exceptions (Biarritz being the only other one I can think of), club flags rather than regional or national flags predominate at club rugby matches. And in Belfast of all places, surely this would be a good thing?
In summary, if only one flag were to be flown in support of Ulster, my vote would firmly be in the camp of a distinct Ulster Rugby flag, like the one handed out at the semi-final.
However I believe that the provincial Ulster flag has a place, and I believe that any supposed tribal associations are not marked or overt enough to be problematic. I believe that in a noisy stadium, surrounded by Ulster Rugby flags, seasoned with Ulster provincial flags, only the most churlish seeker after victimhood would have grounds for complaint…
NB: all of these views are mine, and not necessarily the position of the FRU – I have not discussed this topic with the FRU, so I don’t know where they stand on any of the issues I have raised!
ED: We don’t mind though I must admit I have a preference for the Norn Iron Fleg. If it’s good enough for the changing room at Ravers it’s good enough for me!