Flags, and the flag of the United Kingdom in particular, have received a lot of attention recently. So have events in Northern Ireland. So it is perhaps surprising that a sitting MP would issue a rallying cry for the Conservative and Unionist Party by sharing an image of a flag that, as well as being not the flag of the United Kingdom, managed to delete Northern Ireland’s place as part of the country entirely.
But that is exactly what Andrea Jenkyns, MP for Morley and Outwood in West Yorkshire since 2015 and deputy chairwoman of the hyper-Brexiteer European Research Group since 2019, did as the UK heads to the polls on Thursday morning.
“#VoteConservative #ElectionDay,” she tweeted, along with a gif of an animated flag, fluttering in the digital wind. The only problem? The flag in the image was the 1707 flag of Great Britain. It was replaced in 1801 with the flag for The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, when the two countries unified.
History would reshape the flags and countries again in 1921, with the partition of Ireland which saw six counties in the north remain part of the United Kingdom, while the other 26 counties became an independent Irish state. The division was enacted on May 3, almost 100 years to the day before Jenkyns’ error. But she is not alone in her rather public display of insensitivity.
Editors of the Metro accidentally mocked unrest in Northern Ireland with a front page which accidentally trumpeted the “Glorious Twelfth”, a day of sectarian marches through troubled neighbourhoods in the region, alongside a picture of rioters silhouetted against the fires of petrol bombs.
The headline referred to the lifting of some coronavirus restrictions in the UK, but was widely criticised for its ignorance before being hastily replaced.
Neither is Jenkyns alone in her mistake within the Conservative Party. A little further back, the 2018 Northern Ireland Secretary, Karen Bradley said she was “unaware that nationalists did not vote for unionists and that unionists did not vote for nationalists” – according to the Guardian, “the most elementary fact about Northern Ireland politics.”
Flags have been on the rise in ministerial media appearances in recent months, reaching a peak in March when BBC presenters were criticised for making a joke about their omnipresence in the background of video calls. They were also a prominent feature in Boris Johnson’s “White House-style” media briefing room which the PM scrapped after barely a month of use, despite the £2.6m price tag.
In that light, Jenkyns’ attempt to call on the flag comes as little surprise at a time when British nationalism is central to the Johnson government and the status of the devolved countries seems more precarious than ever. An SNP victory would all but assure a second Scottish Independence referendum and many unionists in Northern Ireland feel betrayed by the post-Brexit border-that-is-not-a-border in the Irish Sea.
She could have been broadcasting her allegiance to the Conservative cause and suitability for a role in the next cabinet reshuffle. It’s a just a shame she chose the wrong flag.
Like the Metro, Jenkyns realised her error after an hour or so and replaced the image. Whether or not it will do anything to save the union — or her job prospects — is another matter.