Legislation Surrounding Flags

Flags and Emblems (Display) Act (Northern Ireland) of 1954

12 years prior to the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising, the Northern Irish Parliament signed into law the Flags and Emblems (Display) Act of 1954. This law was particularly contentious as it sought out to regulate and restrict flags or emblems from being displayed if they were to “breach the peace” or were deemed “provocative.” While it may not be the most friendly to the idea of freedom of expression, preventing a riot is reasonable enough cause to confiscate a flag. However, in still a politically charged time period right before the start of the Troubles, the Northern Irish law seemed to be only targeting republican flags such as the Tricolour or other flags of 1916.

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The front cover of the Flags and Emblems (Display) Act complete with the British Royal Coat of Arms

Section 1 of the Act reads: “Any person who prevents or threatens to interfere by force with the display of a Union flag (usually known as the Union Jack) by another person on or in any lands or premises lawfully occupied by that other person shall be guilty of an offence against this Act.” Put in much blunter terms, the Union Jack was exempt from inciting riots. To elaborate, the reasoning for restricting the display of republican flags was to prevent violence and general peace from being lost. However, by removing the Union Jack from falling into the same category, the act essentially limits political expression.

The act made “interfering” with a Union Jack from anywhere besides one’s own property illegal and the very subjective wording of the act gave the then police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, a disproportionate amount of power when enforcing this law. Essentially, if an individual officer saw fit any emblem besides the Union Jack could be removed from public or private land. To reiterate, under section 2 article c of the Flags and Emblems (Display) Act, a police officer “may without warrant enter any such lands or premises, using such force as may be necessary, and may remove and seize and detain such emblem.” The act not only limited public display, but also limited private display of flags and emblems and granted very high amounts of leeway to potentially politically biased police officers to decide what emblems were capable of breaching the peace.

In 1987, the Flags and Emblems (Display) Act was repealed and no other precedent existed for special protection of the Union Jack or unwarranted seizure of privately-owned flags or emblems. For as undemocratic as the act may be, there was a practical to use of the act by allowing officers to confiscate flags of terrorist organizations during the Troubles as well as their public displays. However, the ambiguity of the language and special protection of one flag in particular undermined the entire concept of any type of political dialogue.

Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order of 1987

Other legislation is still in place in Northern Ireland to limit any behavior involving flags and emblems that could incite violence or be interpreted as intimidation. Specifically,  Article 19 of the Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order of 1987, the same year the Flags and Emblems (Display) Act was repealed, states “A person who in any public place or at or in relation to any public meeting or public procession— causes threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour; or displays anything or does any act; or being the owner or occupier of any land or premises, causes or permits anything to be displayed or any act to be done thereon, with intent to provoke a breach of the peace or by which a breach of the peace or public disorder is likely to be occasioned (whether immediately or at any time afterwards) shall be guilty of an offence.” [2] While this public order does somewhat restrict display on private property along with public property, it mainly regulates the use of emblems for intimidation and supports counter-terrorist legislation [3].

However, the use of flags and emblems to mark out territory, for intimidation purposes, and for the promotion of sectarianism in Northern Ireland have been pushed by other Northern Irish political entities to be regulated more stringently. Currently, there are no laws restricting the use of flags to mark out territorial boundaries along religious or political lines.

Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) of 2000 and the Good Friday Agreement

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The cover of a pamphlet outlining the Good Friday Agreement when it was put up for referendum in Northern Ireland and signed on April 10th, 1998 on Good Friday.

Another piece of legislation that can be interpreted to be in dialogue with the Flags and Emblems (Display) Act is The Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) of 2000 in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement (Fitting when considered as a resolution to the unrest that began in the Easter Rising). Summarily, this law limits display of the Union Jack by government buildings to a specified 17 days out of the year [4]. This presents a very stark contrast to the Flags and Emblems (Display) Act that exempted the Union Jack from being taken down by police forces about five decades earlier. The shift in the legislative tenor of Northern Ireland captures attempts by at least the political sphere to take up a neutral stance on unionist/nationalist sentiments and promote a policy of mutual respect.

Rightfully so, mutual respect is where both the Irish Republic and Northern Irish governments are looking towards. Rather than feed into the endless loop of disenfranchising different citizens by political orientation, legitimizing both sides through compromise is necessary to keep any semblance of peace. In order to move past the horrible political strife and resulting acts of conflict and violence, respect must be upheld for both sides of the dispute and recognize both sides’ concerns. Even if compromise may not immediately satisfy the people on either side, a neutral stance from the government is necessary on the regulation of such emotionally charged objects as flags and emblems. Simply legislating an entire ideological group away as illegitimate as the Flag and Emblems (Display) Act tried to do will only result in more problems.

The direction the political sphere is undergoing and must go in order to prevent future events of violence on the topic of flags and emblems can be summarized by Strand Three Article 5 of the Good Friday Agreement: “All participants acknowledge the sensitivity of the use of symbols and emblems for public purposes, and the need in particular in creating the new institutions to ensure that such symbols and emblems are used in a manner which promotes mutual respect rather than division.” [5]

[1] “CAIN: HMSO: Flags and Emblems (Display) Act (Northern Ireland), 1954.” CAIN: HMSO: Flags and Emblems (Display) Act (Northern Ireland), 1954. Accessed December 15, 2016. http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/hmso/fea1954.htm.

[2] “The Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987.” Legislation.gov.uk. Accessed December 15, 2016. http://www.legislation.gov.uk/nisi/1987/463/part/IV.

 [3] “FLAG FLYING Briefing Paper on Human Rights Compliance and Commission Policy .” Www.nihrc.org. February 2011. Accessed December 15, 2016. http://www.nihrc.org/documents/research-and-investigations/parades-and-flags/flag-flying-and-human-rights-briefing-paper-february-2011.pdf.

[4] Statutory Rules of Northern Ireland, § Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 (Irish Government 2000).

[5] “Peace Accords Matrix.” Official Language and Symbol: Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement | Peace Accords Matrix. Accessed December 15, 2016. https://peaceaccords.nd.edu/provision/official-language-and-symbol-northern-ireland-good-friday-agreement.