‘Vexillology’, The Dublin Review, 50 (Spring 2013), 81-88.

A memoir essay on the flags controversy in Belfast. Visit The Dublin Review site here.


The political life of Michael Brooks has left little trace. In the 1980s and early 1990s, under a variety of homespun party names, Mr Brooks stood as an independent unionist candidate in elections in Dundonald, Castlereagh and East Belfast. He was the ‘Free Para Lee Clegg’ candidate, the ‘Anti-White Paper’ candidate, the ‘UBNF’ candidate. I think this last acronym signified ‘Ulster British National Front’. In the 1980s the actual National Front had some kudos in the locale, and Mr Brooks may have been attracted to the euphorically committed  patriotism of their name.  His approach to political language was certainly direct. At one election, having decided to run on a law-and-order platform, he put up posters with the striking slogan ‘Vote for Brooks and Beat the Crooks’.

Every time I saw Mr Brooks, he was wearing a kilt; and it was presumably during the ‘Free Para Lee Clegg’ period that he took to wearing a Glengarry hat, British army style, with red and white gingham trimming. He carried a swagger stick, like Alec Guinness in The Bridge on the River Kwai, and he waved it in an alarming way when he saw teenagers, such as myself. He’d point it at me, ask some incomprehensible question, and laugh to himself. Above his salt-and-pepper beard his blue eyes were forever focused on a point at a distance which, in my pre-adult years, I could not triangulate.

My last recollection of Mr Brooks is seeing him at the then newly realigned junction on the Upper Newtownards Road in Dundonald, where it meets Robbs Road, which is the entrance to Ballybeen estate, on one side and, on the other side, Dunlady Road, which leads up to where my family’s own house was. Mr Brooks stood on the Ballybeen side, waving his swagger stick at the now freely-flowing traffic. But the cars were not really in his purview. He was choreographing some imaginary manouevres of immense significance. Armies were shifting to his command. For all that he was kilted and Glengarry-ed, for all that the short, leather-clad stick suggested a parody of officialdom, the most striking thing about Mr Brooks was that, reaching up to the hem of his skirt, he was wearing Union Jack socks.

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