Illustration by Caty Bartholomew

Dear Doctor Richard Haass:

I HEARD you on the radio an hour ago below here in the calm depths of the Irish Republic and was quite shaken by the wave of pure pity I felt for a distinguished and clearly decent gentleman who has saddled himself with what I feel is a Mission Impossible.

Sir, as an escaped Ulsterman, I fully understand almost all the parameters of the problem facing even the most adroit diplomat trying to heal the Northern divisions created by “flags, parades and The Past.”

As you already know, it is that bloody Past (in every sense of the word) which is the real stumbling block.

I hope I am wrong but, for what it is worth I fear that the sledgehammers of a tormented and terrible history have so deeply beaten The Past into the psychic templates of most on both sides of the divide that the problem is insoluble. Add in the Celtic capacity to remember all the pain of centuries as if it happened yesterday, and that compounds things even further.

I would not be in your diplomatic brogues for all the tea in China or all the poitin being distilled even as I write in the depths of Connemara. You are a very brave man indeed.

Again for what it is worth, it occurs to me that any search to try and establish new flags for all Ulstermen and women to honor might benefit from some study of  the continuing power and prestige of the old clan system. I note, Dr. Haass, that you have some Irish blood in you, so you are somewhere aware of that clan bond at a level beyond the academic.

I am a MacConnell from Fermanagh for example, born Catholic and Nationalist and with a birth certificate which spells the surname as McConnell. It is always a joy for me to meet other clansmen from anywhere in Ireland, and it is a fact that the surname straddles the divide.

There are as many Unionists with the surname as there are Nationalists, as many Loyalists as there are Republicans and, fundamentally, we are all blood-bonded quite deeply.

There are many other clans in the same situation, and perhaps there might be a glimmer of daylight there. Again, an errant thought for what it is worth.

Given the speed and incredible reach of the modern media I somehow know that this piece will come to the attention of yourself or a member of your team.

On that basis, sir, I am concluding with a kind of Christmas present for you. The MacConnells are a bit cracked and musical and zany, and some of us write ballads, myself included.

To show that I truly understand the width and depth of the problems facing you, here are the lyrics of a ballad called “The Riddle Song,” which I wrote at the height of The Troubles more than 20 years ago:


The lad was 13 when his daddy came home, eyes blackened, his face cut and bleeding.
“When you follow the Flag son,” his daddy said then, “it’s no small loss of blood you’ll be heeding.“
There were guns in the night soon and bombs in the dawn his whole terraced world was aflame.
Wide awake in his bed, blankets over his head, he learned Follow The Flag is the game.

But which Flag did he follow, was it green, white and gold, or was it the red, white and blue? The Harp or the Lily, King James or King Billy? That’s the riddle I’m leaving with you.

At the age of 16 came the knock on the door and the lads there they asked him to join.
To follow his da and his granda before, all his folk since the time of the Boyne.
And his knuckles were white, his eyes glittering and bright as he tied the old oath to new name.
For he knew what to do and what must be gone through when Follow the Flag is the game.


At age 21 he slept with a gun and he’d sent many men to their doom.
There was blood on his hands and ice in his eyes his bare whisper could silence a room.
He led men much older because he was bolder, his comrades gave him much acclaim.
And the price on his head whether living or dead showed that Follow the Flag was his game.


At age 23 on a dark Belfast street, his wrong time and wrong place intersected.
As a black cab sped by he knew he would die for a moment of caution neglected.
As the guns took his life with the edge of a knife he wondered just who was to blame.
Then he sighed and he died that night, hardened men cried and Follow the Flag was no game.


They buried him proudly the Flag oer his grave, from his leaders a soaring oration.
“He died for his country” that’s what they said, re-arranging six feet of the nation.
And the Flag neatly folded to his mother it went, in an ending that’s always the same.
Old mothers a-weeping young warriors sleeping, when Follow the Flag is the game.

But which flag did she weep on?
Was it green, white and gold, or was it the red, white and blue?
The harp or the lily? King James or King Billy?
That’s the riddle I’m leaving with you . . .

And wrap the green flag round me boys to die is far more sweet . . . where we fought for the glorious King William on the green grassy slopes of the Boyne.

No more need be said.

Merry Christmas Dr. Haass, and Merry Christmas to all.