Union Hijack – An Irishman’s Diary about upside-down flags, the DUP, and the mutiny on the ‘Bounty’

When the British flag is flown upside down deliberately, I’m told, it serves as a coded distress signal, and is sometimes used as such by the navy and other armed forces.

So that’s one possible interpretation of those pictures of the DUP posing outside Westminster earlier this week in front of an inverted Union Jack (pedant advisory: I’m using the J-word deliberately there, because this is a marine metaphor).

Maybe it was some kind of SOS call on behalf of the ship of state. If so, the message must have been “Teresa May-day!” or something similar.

But barring that, we must assume it was just a mistake: the latest in a long series involving the flag, which is notoriously prone to such mishandling. And there is a rich irony in this, because the thing that makes it possible for the Union Jack to be (1) flown upside down and (2) seen to be upside down is the part that represents Ireland.

Before 1801, such a mix-up couldn’t have happened. Until then, the Anglo-Scottish standard was a perfectly symmetrical combination of the crosses of St George and St Andrew. You couldn’t fly that upside down, or if you did nobody would know.

But when the Cross of St Patrick – a spurious invention anyway, because saints were supposed to be martyrs to qualify for crosses and, so far as we’re aware, St Patrick died peacefully – was added, things got complicated.

They couldn’t just superimpose the Irish cross, or it would have eclipsed the Scots one.

So first they had to make it thinner, leaving the white St Andrew’s saltire visible behind the red. But this was still a problem, because now the white now resembled a mere border: like the one that still divides the English cross from the blue Scots background.

Hence the second irony (almost as rich as the first). It was to solve a border problem, as it were, that the Cross of St Patrick had to be offset slightly.

The result is “rotationally symmetrical”, with a thick white section to the right of each red diagonal, moving clockwise, and a thin one on the left.

British boy scouts were traditionally taught to remember this with the slogan: “White to the right”. Unfortunately, these days, that lesson is not as widely known as it should be.

In fact “white to the right” might now be mistaken for the political biography of some hard Brexiteers.

It may be worth noting, meanwhile, that the EU flag (also visible behind the DUP delegation) was correctly flown, as always. But then again, you can’t go wrong with a simple arrangement of 12 wagons – I mean stars – in a circle.

Anyway, speaking of distressed ships, by a pithy coincidence, this week has also featured the bicentenary of the death of William Bligh.

Although it’s not the thing he’s most remembered for, Blight left a major mark on Dublin. In fact, his work here happened in the same year as the Act of Union, compared with which it has proven a lot more successful.

Charged with surveying Dublin Bay, then notoriously prone to silting, Bligh identified the potential of a sandbar, already forming on the harbour’s northern side, to solve the problem.

That led some years later to the building of the North Bull Wall, which gradually created Bull Island, now home to a fine beach, a salt marsh, two golf courses, and a Unesco biosphere.

But yes, Bligh had also been involved, some years beforehand, with a ship called the Bounty. And like Theresa May this week, he suffered a famous mutiny while on the high seas in search of new trading opportunities with emerging markets.

There was also a militant Christian element involved in both mutinies, although only group burned their boats and never saw London again. So (at time of writing, anyway) comparisons between Fletcher Christian and the DUP end there.

But the 1789 mutiny provided an early example of something that dominated this week's events too: the importance of spin. During and after the Bounty courts-martial, in accounts by his lawyer-brother among others, a picture emerged of Christian as a man who had been pushed to breaking point by Bligh's unrelenting harshness.

This coincided with the onset of English literature’s Romantic era, for which the impetuous rebel was a better fit than the grim disciplinarian.

Historians now tend to think that Bligh was no worse that most ship commanders of his era. Thus his reputation may be slightly unfair. But 200 years after his death, he has yet to live it down.