There is no doubt flags and other symbols can have a massive effect on our society. Symbolism can unite as well as divide; it can polarise opinion in a negative confrontational way. It can also, in the most positive and energising way, inspire.
For me, a soldier of thirty four years, the Union Flag has had particular meaning.
I once stood beside Colonel Tim Collins OBE in Fort Blair-Mayne in the Kuwaiti desert prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. His now famous speech made its way into living rooms, bars, clubs, the workplace as well as the Oval Office. Yet the start of the speech had a meaning only a few would understand.
‘We go to liberate, not to conquer. We will not fly our flags in their country. We are entering Iraq to free a people and the only flag which will be flown in that ancient land is their own’.
Colonel Tim knew the Union flag was a rallying point for soldiers about to face a war in a country far from home. It was the symbol that united them in a single endeavour, yet true to his word that flag never flew in Iraq. At least not by the soldiers of The Royal Irish Regiment.
He did however implant in the soldiers the true meaning of the flag, its ideals, its unifying factor and the values and standards of the country we were all representing. We did not need to see that flag on a daily basis, it wasn’t wrapped around us or carried to promote our Britishness. Our actions in battle, our behaviour towards the enemy and interactions with other nations showed who we were.
But of course there comes a time when the Union Flag and the symbolism it conjures up really does mean something. It is not when you are in that triumphal state when victorious in battle or having survived a particularly vicious fight. It is at its most meaningful when you are sending your friends and colleagues home for the last time. Men and women who would never again feel that blanket of comfort that so many people take for granted.
Standing on the apron in Helmand province watching a Union Flag draped coffin being carried into the belly of the Hercules aircraft gives you mixed emotions. Your grief is followed by pride and this in turn is followed by sadness.
For the coffin that is covered by the pristine red, white and blue flag contains the broken and tattered body of a friend who once laughed, smiled, felt the sun on his face and talked about life away from the bitter fighting of Helmand.
Any time I see that same flag wrapped around the shoulders of drunken youths, I am transported back to that pristine flag draped coffin in Helmand. When I see a tattered flag hanging limply from a lamppost, I am reminded of the broken bodies of my friends. Neither felt respectful, neither felt appropriate and nether made me feel proud. Certainly not in the way I felt proud of those young men and women who fought so courageously.
Of course I am not the keeper of our national emblem and it is as much the youth of today’s flag as it is mine. Nor am I writing to alienate anyone who views this important national symbol differently from me. I guess the difference is that I have learnt to understand its importance and its absence doesn’t lessen my feelings for it. Those feelings are based on seeing how those who have sacrificed the most, treat the flag when it is handed to them to the strains of the last post.
As the coffin is set for burial the Union Flag which has accompanied it on that last journey is folded with solemn ceremony before it is handed to an officer in charge of the burial party. I have been that officer, holding the flag. I know what I have to do and I know I can’t fail the young man about to be laid to rest. For this is his final act.
Walking toward his loved one I hand over the flag and watch as it is taken up with reverence as if it is the very soul of the of the young soldier being buried. As it is held tight to the chest I salute; the flag, the family, the lost life and the lost future. This moment will remain with them for the rest of their lives reminding them of that terrible day. Later that folded flag will become a comfort, reminding them their loved one belonged to something decent in life and will be remembered in death.
These same feelings are not unique to me and neither are they unique to my service of my country. But for me the Union Flag represents the values and standards I have lived my life by. It represents our country’s history and its future. It promotes a union; the greatest union the world has ever known.
If you ever want to see the importance of the Union flag, don’t look up a flag pole to see it flying in tatters in the breeze. Instead you should, as I have, look into the eyes of a family member who has just lost a loved one in the service of their country.
For it is there you will see true reverence and respect.
Doug Beattie MC is an Ulster Unionist Councillor in Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon District Council and an Assembly candidate in Upper Bann.