Cat Flag Answers YOUR Flag Questions!

I love flags. You probably knew that, given that I named my blog Cat FLAG, and that I have written numerous blog posts about flags over the years. Today, however, I’m sharing my love of flags with you by answering YOUR questions about these magnificent sheets of colored cloth.

What’s the story behind Australia and NZ’s flags – why are they so similar?

The Flag of New Zealand…
…and the Flag of Australia!

Because the original plan was for New Zealand to be a part of Australia!

Back in the days when the sun never set on the mighty British Empire, the Royal Navy was in need of more ships to defend and support the Empire’s far-flung colonies across the globe, so Parliament passed a law allowing the Royal Navy to use local ships funded, built, and crewed by the colonies themselves as a reserve force. The Royal Navy then advised the colonies that any ships they maintained for this purpose should fly a variation of the Blue Ensign – a plain blue banner with the Union Jack in the upper-hoist quadrant – that included some identifying local symbol. New Zealand decided their local symbol would be the Southern Cross constellation, owing to its location in the Southern Hemisphere.

Later, a plan was put in place to unite all the British colonies in the region known at the time as “Australasia” into one colonial federation. Negotiations were held between the colonies of Fiji, New South Wales, New Zealand, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, and Western Australia to hammer out the details of this federation. Ultimately, Fiji and New Zealand both backed out of these negotiations. Even so, when the new “Commonwealth of Australia” was formed from the remaining six colonies, their constitution listed New Zealand as one of the “States of Australia.”

Shortly after the Commonwealth’s creation, a competition was held to design a flag for Australia. Five entrants were declared “co-winners” for all designing something very similar to the flag Australia adopted. The new flag featured the Southern Cross, just like New Zealand, but had an additional star called the “Commonwealth Star” on the lower-hoist side representing the union.

The similarity to the New Zealand flag bothered nobody for two reasons. First, the flag had two variants – one with a blue background, and one with a red background. The Australian Red Ensign was actually the more widely-used design until the 1950’s, when the Australian Blue Ensign became more popular. The second reason was that everyone expected New Zealand to eventually relent and join Australia, but New Zealand never did. They wanted guarantees that the rights of the Maori people, enshrined in the Treaty of Waitangi, would be honored by this new Australian government. Given how Australia ended up treating its aboriginal population in the 20th century, it seems New Zealand made the right choice.

Why does Greenland have it’s own flag? Aren’t they someone’s protectorate?

Yes, Greenland is part of the Kingdom of Denmark. For now.

However, it is actually quite common these days for colonies, protectorates, and autonomous regions to have their own distinct flags asserting their local identity. Around the world, most “dependent territories”, as these political entities are called in diplomacy-speak, have a flag of their own. Here are just a few:

The flag of Aruba, a Dutch protectorate
The flag of Easter Island/Rapa Nui, a colony of Chile
The flag of French Polynesia
The flag of Gibraltar. Note that it gets its own flag even though it insists on remaining under British rule.
The flag of Hong Kong, a “Special Administrative Region” under Chinese rule, whether they want to be or not.

Why was Libya’s old flag just straight up green?

Yes, this was once the flag of Libya.

For that, Libyans had their former dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi to thank. When he seized power in 1969, he was one of many political leaders in the Middle East inspired by the then-popular idea of Arab nationalism – unifying all Arab countries into a single super-nation that would be strong enough to resist the West. When this idea fell apart, Qaddafi decided to invent his own ideology, publishing a manifesto called The Green Book to promote it and indoctrinate the Libyan people. Perhaps you can see where this is going.

Green is a color commonly associated with Islam, since it was the Prophet Muhammad’s favorite color. In the early history of Islam, the Fatmid caliphs who ruled in North Africa (including Libya) used a plan green banner. By adopting this flag, an increasingly eccentric Qaddafi was trying to symbolically link himself with his nation’s Islamic past. Of course, as soon as he was overthrown and killed, the Libyan people promptly ditched the flag of his brutal regime.

Why aren’t more flags nonrectangular, like Nepal?

Once upon a time, flags could be all kinds of shapes. Ancient Roman legions used a square banner called a “vexillum” that hung horizontally from a special pole affixed to a lance. In feudal Japan, a samurai would affix a tall, thin, rectangular flag called a “Sashimono” to his back while on the battlefield. The Venetian Republic used a flag with streamers trailing from it:

St. Joan of Arc’s armies fought under this banner:

During the 18th and 19th centuries, however, the idea of nationalism started rising to prominence in Europe and the Americas, and horizontally-oriented rectangular flags became one of the standard symbols of these new nation-states. Everyone had to have one! As the idea of nationalism spread, every new country that was created or gained its independence adopted a rectangular flag, since that was just the expectation of every nationalist movement.

This occurred at the same time as the Industrial Revolution, as mass production became the norm for the manufacturing of most goods, including flags. Then and today, the vast majority of flags are sewn in factories that pump out thousands of flags to meet public demand. The equipment used to manufacture these flags is pretty standardized as well, making manufacturing easier and cheaper. This means that a standardized shape for all flags is just easier on flag-makers. Oddly-shaped flags like that of Nepal or Ohio are a real pain for the companies that make flags, as they would have to adjust their equipment to be able to print a non-rectangular shape. That is, unless the manufacturer just prints the design on a plain white flag, expecting you, the customer, to cut off the excess cloth yourself. Yes, this is a real practice among flag-makers.

Which are your top 5 favorite flags and why? I’m guessing you have several favorites.

Yes, I do! I’m not entirely sure I could narrow it down to five favorite flags of all time, but what I can do is list my favorite flags from five categories.

My favorite U.S. state flag would have to be Arizona:

Not only does it look cool, it is packed with symbolism of Arizona’s history. The copper star represents the mining industry, the red and gold represent Spain, the 13 sunrays represent the original Thirteen Colonies, and the blue represents the Colorado River.

My favorite tribal flag is that of the Oglala Sioux:

It’s a circle of tipis in the shape of a sun! I love that.

My favorite flag of a foreign country would have to be the Union Jack:

So iconic! It is also very neat because it fuses three flags, representing England, Scotland, and Ireland, without looking like a broken mish-mash.

My favorite historical flag would have to be the Cross of Burgundy:

This was the flag used by Spanish explorers and conquistadores in the 16th century. I like how it is a creative variant of an otherwise simple saltire (X-shaped flag)

My favorite proposed flag is this suggestion for a future Flag of Mars, currently used by the Mars Society:

This flag was designed by Pascal Lee, a NASA engineer. It represents the possible stages of terraforming Mars from a red, hostile, alien planet to a hospitable blue planet like Earth.


Do you have a “spirit” flag? Like a spirit animal, but with flags?

Thank you to all you Cat Flaggers who sent me questions!

How will we tell time on Mars?

I have had Mars on my mind quite a bit lately. Right now, NASA has two robotic rovers driving across the red planet’s surface simultaneously, as well as the first human-made helicopter drone that has ever flown on another world:

I have been enthusiastically following the latest developments and discoveries from these robotic explorers. I have also been watching The Expanse, a science fiction series that is set in a hypothetical near-future where humanity has been colonizing the solar system. On the show, Mars is the most populous and powerful of the space colonies and a major player in the show’s events. Back in the real world, Elon Musk has big plans to help push for the exploration and colonization of Mars by human beings, and his SpaceX company is developing technology to help achieve just that.

However, any would-be Martian would have to face quite a few challenges. The red planet’s atmosphere is only 1% of the density of our own, and what little air Mars has is 95% carbon dioxide. This, combined with being much further from the sun, means Mars regularly experiences temperatures as cold as Antarctica. On top of that, unlike Earth, our neighbor has no magnetosphere to protect against harmful solar radiation. The Martian soil is full of toxic perchlorates that would have to be removed to grow any crops, and while we have now definitively proven there is water on Mars, finding a way to extract enough of it to support a space colony is still a major engineering hurdle. I’m also pretty sure that NASA won’t be willing to spend the money and resources to ship thousands of rolls of toilet paper to another planet.

Now, I’m no scientist or engineer. I don’t pretend to know how to address these issues. However, there is one far simpler challenge I feel confident enough to weigh in on: how will we tell time on Mars?

If a Martian space colony is ever actually created, its residents will need to adopt a timekeeping system that is adapted to the actual conditions in their new home. It makes no sense to keep using Earth’s clocks and calendars, as things like days and years are completely different lengths on Mars than on Earth. Could you imagine looking at the sky, seeing the sun at high noon, and then looking down at your watch telling you it’s 9:43 pm? Or celebrating your birthday from sometime in the mid-afternoon one day until about a half-hour earlier the next day? Or having Christmas twice a year?

No, Mars will need its own timekeeping system. Luckily, some people have already thought of this, and there are some proposals for a Martian clock and calendar.

To figure out how our possible Martian descendants will tell time, we first need to examine how we came to measure the passage of time on Earth. Our ancient ancestors obviously could tell the passage of time in a few ways. The sun rises every morning and sets every evening, neatly dividing time into day and night. In addition, depending on one’s latitude and climate, there are up to four seasons that rotate in a regular, repeating cycle – spring, summer, fall, and winter. Lastly, the moon appears in the sky at night and it appears to change shape in another regular, repeating cycle.

The day-night cycle itself came to be called a “day”, and we eventually figured out this was caused by the Earth’s rotation. Our ancestors named the cycle of seasons a “year”, and eventually discovered that it was the result of Earth orbiting the sun, each orbit taking about 365.256 days. The lunar cycle was dubbed a “month”, and it is the result of Earth’s moon orbiting our planet every 27.32 days, passing into and out of our shadow.

From here, our ancestors developed a number of artificial, arbitrary time measurements that were tailored to meet our needs. A day was divided into 24 hours, each hour was divided into 60 minutes, and each minute was further subdivided into 60 seconds. Later, when scientific research reached the point that more precise definitions were required, an agreement was reached to define one second as “9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the cesium 133 atom”.

As for months and years, there were a number of solutions devised for how to measure these, but for a variety of historical reasons, the global community eventually settled on the Gregorian calendar as the standard measurement system for the passage of months and years. We count Gregorian years from the year 1, the year that a Christian monk named Dionysius Exiguus calculated to be the year of Jesus’ birth. Though this calculation was later proven to be incorrect, the numbering system stuck and is still used today.

The Gregorian year is incredibly accurate, with most years lasting 365 days but a system of adding a 366th day on designated “leap years” keeping the calendar synchronized, but at the cost of a month that is now completely divorced from the lunar cycle. Gregorian months are now essentially an arbitrary unit of time. Lastly, for convenience, it was decided to measure a set of seven days as a “week”, with each day of the week given a name associated with an astrological body in the sky.

Now, let’s apply these basic timekeeping principles to Mars.

Jezero Crater on Mars as seen from the cameras of NASA’s Perseverance rover

When we use Earth-based time measurements, we find that a day on Mars lasts 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35 seconds. This makes a Martian day and an Earth day very similar, but not identical. NASA’s scientists have taken to calling a day on Mars a “sol” to keep these two time measurements straight.

The good news, though, is that a sol is so close to a day that humans can actually make the adjustment to the new length of time fairly easily. We know this because that’s what the NASA teams who operate Mars missions do. In order to operate the two solar-powered Mars rovers most effectively, they have to adjust their working days to match when the sun is up on Mars. As such, they have taken to adjusting their entire daily routines and lifestyles to Mars time, and have specialized watches that allow them to tell Martian time.

Unsurprisingly, they have decided for simplicity and convenience to divide sols into 24 Martian hours made up of 60 Martian minutes made up of 60 Martian seconds. Each of these Martian time units is just proportionally longer than their Earth counterpart. Simple!

Unfortunately, devising a Martian calendar is not as simple as devising a Martian clock.

One year on Mars lasts about 668.5907 sols (roughly 687 Earth days). This makes a Martian year not-quite-twice as long as an Earth year, so a person born on Mars would probably be acknowledged as a mature adult and no longer a minor on his or her 10th birthday. It also means that any calendar trying to keep the year synchronized with the Martian orbit will need more leap years than non-leap years. Perhaps a Martian calendar would normally be 669 sols, but periodically remove a sol to create a “neap year”.

It’s probably safe to assume years on Mars would be numbered from the date of the first landing of humans on the planet. Already, NASA’s Mars rover teams measure dates relative to the date their rover landed – as I write this, the Perseverance rover is on Sol 71. It’s not too much of a stretch to assume that whatever Martian year humans first set foot on the red soil will be designated “Year 1” of the Martian calendar.

An even more giant leap

It’s when we get to months, however, that the real problems set in. Mars has two moons – Phobos and Deimos. However, Phobos completes one orbit in less than eight Martian hours, and Deimos completes one in about a sol and a quarter. Now, I could potentially see Martians colloquially using “a Phobos” to mean several hours or “a Deimos” to mean a little bit longer than a sol; a Martian might say a sentence like “I’ll have your car fixed in a Phobos.” But, just like with our modern calendar, Martian months are going to have to be some arbitrary time period.

This is the biggest difference between proposed Martian calendars that I have found. How do we divide up the year?

One proposal, the Davidian calendar, takes the same approach as the Martian clock. It divides the year up into 12 months, just like on Earth, but makes each month 55 or 56 sols long. While this seems simple enough at first, it doesn’t take into account Martian seasons.

Remember, on Earth, we devised the year to keep track of the seasons. Seasons on Earth are all about the same length because our planet’s elliptical orbit is centered around the Sun. In contrast, Mars’s orbit swings out further away from the sun for part of the year, resulting in seasons of very different lengths. Given that Martian winters are associated with massive dust storms that can sometimes cover the entire planet, it would be useful to keep track of seasons on Mars. This proposed calendar bases month-lengths on the position of Mars’s orbit around the sun, resulting in months ranging in length from 46 to 67 sols. While our Gregorian months vary in length a bit, this would be a bit of a wild swing in month-lengths.

A compromise proposal would be to divide the Martian year into more months. The proposed Darian calendar would divide the year into 24 months that are 27 or 28 sols long. This allows Martians to have months of relatively consistent length that are not too different from the ones we use on Earth, while still being able to track the seasons easily.

Plus, this creates an opportunity to come up with new names for these Martian months. While the Davidian calendar keeps the same month names as the Gregorian calendar, the creator of the Davidian calendar decided to use the names of the 12 Zodiac constellations in both Latin and Sanskrit to name the 24 Martian months. Not only is this less boring, but it also makes it unlikely to confuse Martian and Earth dates – if you say “March 7th”, nobody will ask, “Earth or Mars?”

Given the various options, I personally prefer the Darian calendar. It is a great compromise between the familiar and the innovative.

This just leaves the week, and both the Darian and Davidian calendars propose a week that is seven sols long, again preserving what we are used to on Earth. However, both have decided to invent new names for the days of the week.

The Davidian calendar leaves six of the seven days alone, but changes Tuesday to “Gaiaday”. This is because Tuesday is named after the Norse god Tiw, who was associated with the ancient Roman god Mars. If all the other days of the week are named for astrological objects in our solar system, the assumption goes, it makes no sense to have a day named after the planet you are on. From a Martian’s point of view, Earth is an astrological object in the sky, so why not name a day after the Greek goddess of the Earth?

NASA took this super-zoomed-in picture of Earth as it looks from Mars

The Darian calendar’s proposal is both more and less radical. It keeps the etymologies of the days of the week the same, but uses Latin names – Monday is Sol Lunae, Tuesday is Sol Martis, etc. This results in the awkward situation that Sunday would become Sol Solis, and that’s just silly.

Personally, if I were to name the days of the Martian week, I would probably call them Phobosol (Sunday), Deimosol (Monday), Gaiasol (Tuesday), Wednesol (Wednesday), Thursol (Thursday), Frisol (Friday), and Satursol (Saturday). I like the idea of replacing “day” with “sol” to be consistent with Martian usage, and I think it makes more sense to name the sols of the Martian week after Mars’s moons than Earth’s moon.

Last, but not least, there’s the question of holidays. I’m sure Martians will invent their own holidays to celebrate, with the anniversary of the first landing on Mars almost certainly being one of them. What about holidays brought from Earth, though? When will Martians celebrate Christmas? One proposal I read would have Mars celebrate Earth holidays at the same time it is celebrated on Earth, leading to Christmas falling twice a year in most Martian years. But I don’t accept this proposal. As I said earlier, if Mars celebrated Christmas when Earth does, they will end up with Christmas falling from 10:24 am on Sagittarius 9 to 9:43 am on Sagittarius 10, and that’s impractical. I also doubt they would be willing to hold a holiday twice a year. No, I think Martians will end up picking an arbitrary sol to serve as “Martian Christmas”, and do the same for other Martian equivalents to Earth holidays.

That’s my opinion, at least. Obviously, at this point, this is all just hypothetical, since any human settlement on Mars is many years off in the future, even by the most optimistic predictions. Still, it’s fun to theorize and predict. Ultimately, what clock or calendar future Martians end up using will be up to them.

Do you have a question about flags? My next Cat Flag blog post will be a Q&A about the various flags of the world, so if you have a question you want answered, feel free to ask in the comments below!

Why isn’t Easter the same day every year?

I am writing this on the day before Easter, the most important holiday for Christians around the world as we celebrate the glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. Easter came really early this year, falling right at the beginning of April. This begs the question: why, exactly, does Easter move around the calendar? Why don’t we just hold Easter on the same day every year, the way we do with Christmas?

This is a question I have answered on my blog back in 2014, but I only gave a brief overview back then, and I know that some of you Cat Flaggers have only started following me since then. Also, given how the global coronavirus pandemic robbed many of us of our traditional holiday celebrations through much of 2020, I have personally been feeling much more passionate about celebrating these holidays this year. So, I’m revisiting this topic with a deeper dive and taking a closer look at why Easter doesn’t have a fixed date and can fall almost anytime in spring.

But to understand the reason behind Easter’s moveable date, we first have to talk about Passover.

Yes, these two holidays are very much linked.

Passover is the annual Jewish celebration of the events described in Exodus 11:4-32, where God punished the ancient Egyptians for continuing to hold the people of Israel in bondage by killing the firstborn son of every Egyptian family, except the Israelites who followed Moses’s instructions to put the blood of a sacrificed animal over their door. To this day, Jews celebrate the seven-day holiday by holding a Seder, or dinner ceremony, that includes serving matzah, or unleavened bread. Like other Jewish holidays such as Hanukkah and Yom Kippur, its start date varies from year to year.

Well, actually, no. Passover always falls on the same day every year: the 15th of Nissan. See, when determining the dates of important Jewish holidays, the ancient Hebrew calendar is used. This calendar is based on the lunar cycle, and contains 12 months in most years, though a 13th is sometimes added to keep holidays in synchronization with the seasons. Hanukkah is held on the 25th of Kislev, and Yom Kippur on the 10th of Tishri.

It’s when you try to convert dates from one calendar to another that you end up with the date of a holiday appearing to move dates from year to year. This is also why Chinese New Year appears to move every year – it always falls on the first day of the year according to the traditional Chinese lunar calendar, hence the name.

Passover and Easter are very much intertwined in the Christian scriptures. According to the Gospels, Jesus was staying in Jerusalem during Passover when He held His famous Last Supper, a Passover Seder. Yes, the Holy Communion that Christians perform during their church services in reenactment of this moment is, indirectly, a reference to a Jewish holiday.

It was that Passover night that Jesus was betrayed and arrested, brought before the authorities, and sentenced to death. He was crucified like a common criminal, between two criminals who were executed along with Him on either side. The Gospels go on to describe how, on the morning of the third day after His crucifixion, a group of women who had gone to visit His tomb found it empty, and were told by two angels to spread the word to the apostles that He is Risen.

Since Easter, as the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection, is connected to Passover, is that why its celebration moves every year? Well… yes and no.

It’s time to talk about the Council of Nicaea.

On July 4, 325 AD, Roman Emperor Constantine the Great summoned Christian bishops from across his realm to settle some key questions about Christianity. After the early Christian church suffered centuries of religious persecution under Roman authorities, Constantine did a sudden about-face and was giving the young religion the sanction of the Roman state. That meant the state needed to know what Christianity, well, was.

Most of the Council’s debates were centered around the nature of Jesus, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the structure of the clergy, but for our purposes, the most important question they discussed was the date of Easter. See, up to this point, Christians had always been celebrating Easter on the Sunday closest to Passover, in recognition of the holidays’ connection. However, Constantine was an anti-Semite who demanded that Christians should have as little to do with Jews as possible. At his insistence, the date of Easter would no longer be based on a Jewish holiday. Officially. Of course, these bishops weren’t about to throw away the connection to Passover entirely, so instead of just picking a date to hold Easter every year, they devised a formula to keep the two holidays somewhat in sync.

After the Council of Nicaea, Easter was set to be held on the Sunday after the first full moon of spring. This full moon was dubbed the “Paschal Full Moon” due to its connection to the holiday. Thus, Easter can fall anywhere between March 22 and April 25.

Except that’s not the whole story, either.

It turns out that the vernal equinox, or first day of spring, varies a bit from year to year, and even between the western and eastern hemispheres. This is because the definition of the equinox is that it is the day when the sun is directly above the equator and day and night are of equal length, two phenomena that are based around the orbit and spin of our planet. The equinox can fall anytime between March 19 and 22. However, in the centuries after the Council was held, the Christian church ultimately decided to fix the “first day of spring” for the purposes of calculating Easter as March 21, the one of the feast days of St. Benedict.

Furthermore, churches in the Western tradition, such as the Catholic and Protestant churches, don’t use the actual first full moon of spring as the Paschal Full Moon either, instead using a table of “full moon dates” calculated in 1583 that predicted when the Paschal Full Moons for all future years would fall. As one might expect, these calculations were not always precise, and in many years the date used as the so-called “Paschal Full Moon” in order to calculate the date of Easter falls 1-2 days before or after the actual first full moon of spring.

A recent example of this occurred in 2019, when Western Easter would have fallen on March 24 if Western churches used the actual, scientific, astronomical vernal equinox and full moon to calculate the date of Easter, but since these churches use this Renaissance-era formula instead, Western Easter of 2019 was held on April 21.

And, yes, I specified Western Easter, since as you may have noticed on many calendars, there is also an Orthodox Easter.

Okay, seriously?

Today, the calendar that the world has adopted as its global standard for everyday use is the Gregorian calendar, devised in 1582 and first adopted by the Catholic Church by decree of Pope Gregory XIII. However, the eastern Orthodox Church has steadfastly refused to adopt this Catholic calendar, and continues to use the old Julian calendar that was used in ancient Roman times, devised by Julius Caesar.

Not only that, but the Orthodox Church also uses the actual, scientific, astronomical dates of the vernal equinox and full moon to calculate the date of Orthodox Easter each year. Together, these differences mean that Orthodox Easter usually falls on a different Sunday than Western Easter. For example, this year’s Orthodox Easter will be held nearly a month after Western Easter, on May 2 of the Gregorian calendar (April 19 of the Julian calendar). There are, however, some years where Western and Orthodox Easters fall on the same day; the next year this will happen is in 2025.

There have been some proposals to reform the date of Easter over the years, hoping to “unify” the Western and Orthodox celebrations of the holiday. One proposal would be to choose a fixed Sunday in April as the day Easter is set to be celebrated. So far, however, these are just proposals.

Whenever and however you choose to celebrate Easter, what matters in the end is the glorious gift we celebrate on that day. I wish you all a very happy Easter this year Cat Flaggers! Let us all rejoice!

The Strange Politics of Northern Ireland

The Giant’s Causeway, County Antrim, Northern Ireland. Image by H. Hach.

When I was a boy, Northern Ireland was listed alongside the Holy Land, Afghanistan, and Kashmir as one of those places doomed to always be a war zone, fought over for so long that multiple generations grew up only knowing conflict, religious tensions between the combatants ensuring there was no hope of peace. Then, on Good Friday, 1998, a miracle happened: a peace agreement was reached that paved the way for the end of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Of course, one doesn’t simply stop fighting after decades of war, and the peace agreement had to be amended and supplemented by another one in 2006. Yet, today, peace has been brought to the northern part of the Emerald Isle, a testament to hope and to the inherent goodness of humanity overcoming the darkest aspects of our nature.

That makes me wonder, though: what was in those peace agreements? What, exactly, did they agree to that convinced them to lay down their arms?

Growing up, I always heard that the conflict in Northern Ireland was a religious one between Catholics and Protestants. This was always how the conflict was portrayed by the news media and described to me in school. However, that is a misrepresentation of the Troubles, as the conflict is euphemistically known today. Sure, religion may have played a role in escalating the conflict and making peace more difficult, the fact is that this was a conflict over sovereignty, identity, and, in essence, whose land this was.

To be fair, war over ownership of the land was far from new to the region.

In 1801, centuries of de facto British rule in Ireland were formalized with an Act of Union that officially merged the island with England, Scotland, and Wales to form the United Kingdom. After World War I, Irish resistance and rebellion against British rule led to the adoption of the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, in which Ireland won its independence. However, six northern counties within the Irish province of Ulster – Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh, and Tyrone – voted to remain part of the United Kingdom, which officially changed its name to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. For its part, the newly independent nation of Ireland rejected the continued British rule of Northern Ireland and laid claim to the entire island. As for the people who lived in Northern Ireland, most Catholics saw themselves as Irish and wanted the British to leave their island, while most Protestants saw themselves as British and supported maintaining the union with Great Britain.

The Good Friday Agreement got around this dispute in a clever way – the UK and Ireland both agreed to accept the status quo for now, until such time as a majority of Northern Irish voters ever approves a future referendum to unite with the rest of Ireland, at which time both the UK and Ireland would accept such a hypothetical vote. This way, the UK and loyalist Protestants could claim they “won” and maintained the union with Britain, while Ireland and the Northern Irish Catholics could claim they “won” a chance to achieve their goal of reunifying the island peacefully.

Of course, there is far more to it than that, or else this wouldn’t be a Strange Politics post, would it?

If you live in Northern Ireland today, you can choose to be a British citizen, an Irish citizen, or both. You can also vote in elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, a legislature that has power to pass laws on most day-to-day political matters affecting the people in Northern Ireland, much like the legislature of a U.S. state. Elections in Northern Ireland are nothing like American elections, however. When Northern Irish voters go to the polls, the ballots they are handed show a list of candidates that they are asked to rank from their most preferred choice to least preferred choice, marking a rank by each name (1, 2, 3, etc.). Each candidate is not only assigned a political party affiliation, but also a “designation” as a Unionist (meaning pro-UK), Nationalist (pro-Ireland), or Other. When these ballots are counted, the five candidates from each of Northern Ireland’s 18 “electoral constituencies” who get the most higher-ranked votes are given Assembly seats. This system is intended to ensure that the proportion of Unionists and Nationalists in the Assembly match, as closely as possible, the proportion of Northern Irish people who support each position.

The strangeness doesn’t stop with the Assembly’s election, either. When voting on the budget and a handful of other matters, a simple majority vote of the Assembly’s members is insufficient; the vote must have “cross-community support”, defined as either:

  1. 50% of all members, including 50% of Unionists, and 50% of Nationalists, or
  2. 60% of all members, with at least 40% of Unionists and at least 40% of Nationalists.

Both the United Kingdom and Ireland have a parliamentary system of government, where the executive branch is made of ministers chosen from among the members of the legislature. The Northern Ireland Executive is likewise made of Assembly members, but unlike its British or Irish counterparts, its membership is determined by a mathematical formula that forces all the major political parties into a power-sharing deal. In this way, both factions always have some say in Northern Ireland’s politics.

Are you with me so far? Good, because everything we have talked about so far is just one “strand” of the Good Friday Agreement.

Yes, the text of the peace agreement refers to its provisions as “strands”

Another strand of the Agreement lays the foundation for the creation of so-called “North-South” bodies made of representatives from both the Republic of Ireland and the Northern Irish government that exercise political power and authority over certain areas deemed to be of importance for the entire island of Ireland to cooperate on, such as inland waterways, food safety, preservation of the Irish language, and tourism. So, in that sense, the island has been reunified, at least in that handful of policy areas.

A third strand of the Agreement creates a system for permanent structured cooperation between the UK and Ireland on various topics that are deemed to be of “common concern” to everyone in the British Isles, such as transportation or the environment.

In a way, the Good Friday Agreement is quite remarkable, in that it makes Northern Ireland effectively a bi-national zone. A huge part of why this was possible is the fact that both the UK and Ireland were part of the European Union, a multinational federation that unites most of the European continent into a common political regime with freedom of movement of people and goods between its member countries. At least, the UK and Ireland used to both be part of the EU. Then Brexit happened.

The decision by the British voting public to leave the EU was largely motivated by a desire to regain full independence and sovereignty from European control, including the right to control its own borders once again. However, this created a conundrum in Northern Ireland, as this would mean enforcing a hard border between it and the rest of Ireland, something that both the government of Ireland and the pro-Ireland population within Northern Ireland would absolutely reject. In the interest of not starting a Troubles II, the highly-controversial Northern Ireland protocol was agreed as part of the UK’s Brexit deal with the EU.

If the UK is outside the EU with full control over its own trade and its own laws, but there is also no hard land border between the UK and Ireland, what’s to stop clever companies from shipping goods bound for Europe through the UK first, using Northern Ireland as a way to avoid paying EU tariffs or complying with EU consumer safety laws? The protocol addresses this concern by creating a system of customs and border checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. That’s right, the UK now has created border checks within its own borders, effectively treating Northern Ireland sort-of like foreign soil. Not only has this disrupted the flow of goods to Northern Ireland and created empty supermarket shelves there, it has enraged the pro-UK loyalists there.

While the political drama over the Northern Ireland protocol remains ongoing as of this writing, I think it’s worthy of stepping back and recognizing just how remarkable the Good Friday Agreement is. It’s a testament to the power of compromise and how people who are committed to find a peaceful solution to their disagreement can come to an agreement, even if it means accepting some Strange Politics.

Cat Flag’s Guide to the Daytona 500

It’s Presidents Day weekend once again, which means that it’s time once again for the most famous and prestigious race in NASCAR. The Daytona 500 is the season-opener for the NASCAR Cup Series, the highest tier of racing competitions sanctioned by America’s most popular auto racing organization. It is held at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida, on its 2.5-mile “Tri-Oval” asphalt track. Every February, NASCAR fans across America tune in to watch their favorite race car drivers take the challenge to win their spot in history.

I have been a NASCAR fan for years, but I gained a renewed appreciation for it last year. With many professional sports shut down for several months due to the ongoing pandemic, NASCAR was one of the first sports to find a way to reopen safely. Shortly thereafter, I was able to introduce it to some people in my life who have now become new fans of the sport.

So, this year, I figured I would celebrate the running of the biggest race on NASCAR’s calendar with some fun and interesting facts about the Great American Race.

NASCAR’s shocking criminal roots

You may be surprised to learn that the history of the all-American auto racing competition begins with bootleggers during Prohibition. From 1920 to 1933, alcohol was banned in the United States. The intent of the ban was to improve “public morality” and combat alcoholism. The actual result, though, was the growth of a whole criminal industry of people making and selling illegal liquor. From small-time moonshiners in Appalachia to famed gangsters like Al Capone, these crooks needed a way to get their booze to their customers without it being confiscated by law enforcement.

To do this, “runners” would modify their cars with faster and more powerful engines, more agile and durable suspensions, and other under-the-hood features that would give them an edge when outrunning the police. Thus, while the car would look like an ordinary, nondescript, stock car just like any other on the road on the outside, it would secretly be a powerful racing machine. Before long, runners started racing each other to see whose machine was fastest. The end of Prohibition and legalization of alcohol put an end to the need for the runners’ services, but many car enthusiasts still wanted to see how far they could push the mechanical limits of what their stock cars could become.

This is where Bill France, Sr. comes into the picture. Originally from Washington, D.C., he moved to Daytona Beach and opened an auto repair shop. At the time, Daytona Beach was growing as a destination for auto racing enthusiasts, who would drive their machines up and down the beach. People would sometimes organize races that would be spectator events, with cash prizes for the winners. Unfortunately, some of these races would be run by dishonest con artists, and there was no consistency in the rules or requirements in these events. France decided to fix this by creating an official governing body for the sport. On February 21, 1948, he founded the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.

Of course, France wanted to make his hometown an important part of this new, emerging sport, and after years of planning and work, was able to open Daytona International Speedway in 1959. The first Daytona 500 race was held that year, won by Lee Petty.

The history of the Great American Race

That first race at Daytona had 59 participants and 41,000 attendees. Not bad for a new race in a new venue for a young sport, if you ask me. The race only grew from there, as NASCAR continued to gain in popularity among the gearhead community. In 1967, the famed Italian-born international racecar driver Mario Andretti became the first, and so far only, Daytona 500 winner who wasn’t born in the United States. Meanwhile, racing legend Richard Petty won a record seven Daytona 500 races over the course of his career, starting with his win in 1964, his last win being in 1981. Petty was actually involved in one of the most famous wrecks in Daytona 500 history, smashing into David Pearson’s car in the final lap of the 1976 race; Pearson was able to get his car across the finish line and win the race in spite of the wreck.

In 1979, the Daytona 500 was televised for the first time. This helped boost the sport’s popularity in the American mainstream, especially since the race was held while much of the East Coast was stuck inside during a bad blizzard. In 1988, father and son raced against each other, with Bobby and Davey Allison chasing each other in the final stretch to the finish line, Bobby ultimately coming out on top.

Tragically, not all Daytona 500 stories have happy endings. In 2001, Dale Earnhardt, Sr. died in a wreck in the final lap. This terrible event led NASCAR to redesign the racecars with additional safety features and to implement stricter safety rules for the sport. Three years later, his son, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. would go on to win the Daytona 500.

Janet Guthrie was the first woman to race in the Daytona 500, earning a 12th-place finish in 1977. The best performance by a female driver at the Great American Race was in 2013, when Danica Patrick won 8th place. Wendell Scott was the first black driver at the Daytona 500, racing from 1963 to 1971, peaking with a 7th-place finish in 1964. This year, Bubba Wallace will be following in his footsteps as the driver who had the best practice time in the run-up to the race.

The Daytona challenge

The famed Tri-Oval racetrack at Daytona is quite the beast for a driver to conquer. At two-and-a-half miles long, the road itself is 40 feet wide and banks as steep as 31 degrees off the horizontal in some places. Even the start/finish line is 18 degrees off the horizontal! The longest, straightest part of the track is the Backstretch, at about 3,000 feet long. The track has garage capacity for up to 74 cars, though the final race will only have 43 drivers participating.

Qualifying for the race is a multi-step process. First, you run a series of individual qualifying laps. Nobody else is on the track but you, and all that matters is that you place as fast of a time as you can. You run two laps in this way, and the average of your two times is used to calculate your speed. The two fastest cars are awarded the “pole position”, or the front row in the starting lineup of the big race. Only those two cars are guaranteed their spots in the Daytona 500. The rest of the cars are then arranged a spot in one of the Duels.

The Duels (currently called the Bluegreen Vacations Duels for sponsorship reasons) are a pair of qualifying races that are held a few days before the big race. Each Duel determines the starting position for the two rows of racecars at the start of the big race. So, for example, if you win third place in your Duel, you will be in the fourth row on race day. What drivers at the Duels do NOT want is to finish in the back of the pack; those who don’t qualify for one of the 43 exclusive spots pack their bags.

The race itself is called the “Daytona 500” because it is 500 miles long. Because of the track length, this means there are 200 laps. The race is held in three stages: Stage 1 and Stage 2 are both 65 laps long, and the final stage is 70 laps. At the end of each stage, cars are locked in their track positions, and will start the next stage in the same position. In addition, the top 10 finishers in each stage will earn a number of points toward the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs at the end of the year. For what should be obvious reasons, there are far more points awarded for those who finish at the top of the third stage.

The ultimate winner of the race is awarded the Harley J. Earl Trophy, named for a GM executive and car designer who was friends with Bill France, Sr. The trophy itself stays at Daytona and is put on display, though a replica is given to the driver to take home. In addition, the crew chief of the winning driver’s pit crew is awarded the Cannonball Baker Trophy in recognition of the fact no driver can win without his or her pit crew.

You’re darn right!

I am really looking forward to tomorrow’s race. I hope for an exciting contest of speed and skill, though I also pray for safety for the participating drivers. Hopefully this blog post gives you an appreciation of why I love this race and this sport.