The similarities between the extreme fringe of the British unionist minority in the north-eastern part of Ireland and the extreme fringe of the neo-confederate minority in the southern part of the United States are occasionally quite eerie. I suppose one can attribute such things to the cultural legacy bequeathed by displaced “Scots-Irish” colonists from Ulster settling in the “Old South” of the North American continent during the 18th and 19th centuries, though that seems a somewhat inadequate explanation to cover the commonalities in religion, society and separateness that persist to the present day. No doubt other more recent socio-economic factors play their part too, factors dating back to the Civil War of 1861 to 1865, which create some resemblances that are more superficial than real. However, allowing for those latter points, there is no surprise in learning that the controversies over the public display of the “Confederate Flag” (strictly speaking, the banner of the Army of Tennessee) and its removal in recent days from various venues, has reinvigorated a movement of “flag protesters” in rural states like Virginia and Tennessee.
Back in late 2012 a majority of the members on Belfast city council voted to restrict the number of days the UK flag would fly over the building housing their offices. This move reflected the changed demographics in Ireland’s second city where a new Irish nationalist majority wished to see the allegiances of their community reflected in the public life and emblems of Belfast. While for pro-Britain loyalists the banner was the familiar and reassuring “Union Flag” or “Union Jack”, for others it was – in these circumstances at least – the supremacist and offensive “Butcher’s Apron”. Predictably some in the unionist community, encouraged by the vocal rabble-rousing of their senior politicians, reacted with outrage at the decision, no matter its democratic credentials. This quickly turned to violence resulting in nearly two years of intermittent street-protests, rioting, road-blockades, gun and bomb attacks, property-burnings, mass arrests, expulsions and all the other events that became indelibly associated with the “flag protests” of 2012-2014. The “fleggers” as they were dubbed by their opponents – ridiculing the heavy Ulster accents of some – were known for their fanatical devotion to their “British heritage and rights” in opposition to equality, civil rights, progressivism, liberalism, and above all, Irishness.
Now, in several regions of the United States, we have a similar movement on behalf of the “heritage and rights” of the South, and in defence of the memory of the Confederate States of America in particular. In fact the various groupings under the label of “flaggers” have been going since 2011, pushing for a greater presence of Confederate symbols across the southern US. However in the wake of the Charleston church massacre by Dylann Roof, and the horrified reaction focusing on his affiliation with the Confederate flag (rather than with his guns, of course), these organisations have seen an upsurge in support and membership.