As an Irish Independent poll showed support for a new flag in the event of unification, Review asked art students to come up with potential designs. Here Kim Bielenberg looks at attempts by other countries to rethink their national emblem
It is one of the thorny issues that would have to be sorted out if Ireland is ever united. Do we stick with the tricolour for old times’ sake, use two flags out of respect for both traditions on the island or create an entirely new emblem?
You only have to travel through Northern Ireland in the summer to see how flags are important symbols in contested territory.
The fluttering of union flags or Irish tricolours are the most visible signs that you are in a loyalist or nationalist area.
Asked if they what kind of flag they would prefer in the event of a united Ireland, respondents to last week’s Irish Independent/Kantar poll favoured an entirely new design rather than retaining the tricolour or flying it alongside the union flag. The choice of a new design was favoured by 37pc of people in the Republic and 46pc in Northern Ireland.
There were, however, still 36pc of people in the Republic who wanted to keep the tricolour. That flag received less support as the sole flag in Northern Ireland, with only 15pc of people backing it.
In an initiative with Review, students at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin were asked to come up with designs for a new flag and some of the results are shown here.
If we had no previous flags to go on, perhaps the tricolour might be deemed appropriate for a hypothetical united Ireland.
Tommy Graham, editor of History Ireland, says it was an old republican flag modelled on the French tricolour of blue, white and red.
“I would not be in favour of changing the flag,” he says. “It is already sufficiently broad to encompass a diverse Irish nation.”
Our present flag started to appear in the middle of the 19th century, and is associated with the leader of the Young Irelander movement, Thomas Francis Meagher. He flew it in Waterford in 1848, the year of a revolution in France.
In the foreword to the guide, Flagging Ireland, the historian Dominic Bryan of Queen’s University Belfast writes: “In the case of the Irish tricolour, it might be argued, it was designed imagining a future that has yet to be achieved.” The aim of the original design was to symbolise the unity between orange and green traditions.
Meagher described its meaning: “The white in the centre signifies a lasting truce between the ‘Orange’ and the ‘Green’, and I trust that beneath its folds the hands of the Irish Protestant and the Irish Catholic may be clasped in generous and heroic brotherhood.”
Kevin Meagher, who was special adviser to former Northern Ireland secretary Shaun Woodward in Gordon Brown’s Labour government, says the tricolour was ahead of its time in trying to bring the two traditions together.
“Clearly, for unionists through the Troubles, it was seen as a symbol of Irish republicanism and inimical to their interests, and that needs to be borne in mind,” he says.
Meagher, the author of A United Ireland: Why Unification is Inevitable, says building a rapport between the communities is the most important issue, and he believes we should not let symbols get in the way.
It would not be easy to marry the different traditions on the island in the design for a new flag, and many unionists might see the idea as presumptuous.
If the idea of a united Ireland does win support on both sides of the Border some time in the future, South Africa might offer a path to an agreed flag.
The multicoloured flag of the modern South Africa, designed by Fred Brownell, is a symbol of the country’s post-apartheid rebirth under Nelson Mandela.
Brownell said he hit upon the design when he was listening to an “interminable speech” at a conference in 1993. “My mind started wandering,” he recalled in a BBC interview. “And then it struck me — aren’t we looking for convergence and unification?”
His flag incorporated colours from South Africa’s colonial past, as well as Mandela’s African National Congress and the Zulu Inkatha party.
Any move to change the present design of the Irish flag would require a referendum. Article 7 of the Constitution states: “The National Flag is a tricolour of green, white and orange.”
The experience of trying to change the national flag of New Zealand will serve as a warning to any government trying to drop the tricolour.
The design of the current New Zealand flag incorporates a union flag, and in 2014 the then prime minister John Key wanted it replaced.
His government went through a long and torturous process to try to change it, involving 10,000 proposed designs, two referendums and a cost of NZ$26m (€15m).
The final proposal was a silver fern on a blue background with black infill in the corner. The fern is a recognised symbol of the Pacific nation and is used on the All Blacks rugby jersey.
After all the hoopla, New Zealanders rejected the new design and voted to retain the colonial-style flag.
Any change is likely to be particularly difficult in Northern Ireland, where there has been no official flag since 1972. No agreed emblem has emerged since the Good Friday Agreement.
If the architects of a future united Ireland want to create a united Irish flag, they already have a few examples to follow. There are a number of organisations including sporting bodies that are organised across 32 counties.
The Irish rugby authorities often avoid the use of the tricolour at away matches, preferring a four provinces flag. At the last World Cup, the team was led out on to the pitch with two flags — a tricolour and the Ulster provincial flag.
The all-Ireland Irish hockey team also tends to use a four provinces emblem.
Another flag with all-Ireland connotations is the St Patrick’s saltire, the X-shaped red cross on a white background that was incorporated into the union flag.
It is approved by the Church of Ireland and is also used by the Commissioners of Irish Lights.
Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin might baulk at adopting the St Patrick’s Saltire as an all-Ireland flag, however, as it was once used against a blue background by the Blueshirts.
Aedán Hamrock: The stripes represent the four provinces; the white chevron an arrow pointing towards a peaceful future. The striped chevron also evokes a harp, a symbol used both in the royal standard of the UK and as the Republic’s national emblem.
James Kennedy: The white represents our peaceful, neutral but compassionate nature. The circles could represent our diaspora, our commitment to the world, or our belief in the EU. The green circle signifies the unity of the Irish people, their strength as a whole.
Aisling Madden: I placed the tree of life within a ‘caim ring’, a circle of protection. The ancient Celts believed trees were the source of strength, wisdom and long life. There is a leaf for each county and the traditional green, white and orange are woven together.
Isabella Utria: This is a simple design that references the current flags of the Republic and Northern Ireland in a clear manner. There are no pictorial elements, which makes it easily reproducible. The centre is a symbolic knot tying both sides of Ireland together.
Lauryn Flynn: This design keeps the original colours of the flag for the Republic of Ireland but adapts them to incorporate the easily recognisable shape of the St Patrick’s saltire, which represents Northern Ireland in the union flag.
Thomas Morelli: The main image is the island with no border. The gold side, the colour often used for the harp symbol, represents the Catholic tradition; the orange the Protestant one. As they are similar tones, they appear to blend when placed together.
Alannah Quayle: I wanted to honour the tricolour that represents the hard-won peace in this country. The trinity, seen in symbols such as the shamrock, Celtic knot and Celtic spiral, is also part of the design. The three rings are intertwined to represent solidarity.
Dara Young: I based my design on the ‘tree of life’ motif found in the Hiberno-Saxon art style that flourished in Britain and Ireland between the 7th and 12th centuries. I wanted to steer clear of any contemporary political or religious imagery.
Beth Snelling: I abandoned the tricolour and cross designs to ensure a fresh start. The flag incorporates the symbols of both parliaments; the harp for the Dáil and the flax for Stormont. It also uses their respective colours: green and blue.