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Northern Ireland (United Kingdom)

Tuaisceart Éireann

Last modified: 2003-03-01 by rob raeside
Keywords: northern ireland | ulster | united kingdom | ireland | red hand | cross: st george | crown | star: 6 points (white) |
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[Official Flag in Northern Ireland] by Graham Bartram

The Union Jack is the only official flag of Northern Ireland. The well known red hand flag has not been used officially since 1973.
Dean McGee, 27 January 2002

See also:

The Red Hand Flag

[Flag of Northern Ireland] by Vincent Morley

This was a civil flag for Northern Ireland, but the status of this was abolished when the Belfast Stormont assembly was closed down in 1973. Thereafter, the Union Flag was made official for all purposes in Northern Ireland.

Stuart Notholt, 11 February 1996

History of the flag

The red hand of Ulster comes from a legend from one of Ireland's many legendary invasions. The leader of a war party promised a prize to the first man to touch land with his right hand; so the winner, a left-handed man, cut off his right hand and threw it onto the shore.

James Dignan, 27 November 1995

I have read most of the pseudo-historical works that describe the mythological invasions of Ireland - 'Leabhar Gabhála Éireann', 'Foras Feasa ar Éirinn', 'Annála Ríochta Éireann', and I have not come across such a story.

The most recent and best study of Irish heraldry, Nicholas Williams, 'Armas: Sracfhéachaint ar Araltas na hÉireann' (Dublin, 2001), contains no mention such a legend either - although the author's 'day job' is as a university lecturer in Irish literature. This is what he has to say about the origin of the red hand (the translation is mine):

"It is not really known what the origin of the 'red hand' is but it is associated with various Ulster lineagaes. A poetic dispute from the 16th century is extant which indicates that Síol Rúraí (McGuinnesses) and the northern descendents of Niall Naoighiallach (O'Neills) claimed the exclusive right to use the red hand as a symbol. It is significant that the red right hand is widely found in Irish heraldry, especially in Ulster, e.g. in the arms of the O'Neills, McCartans, O'Donnellys, O'Dunlevys, and McGuinnesses. It is clear that the human hand was a basic element in pagan Irish imagery."

I might add that the ancestors of the McGuinnesses were displaced as rulers of Ulster by the ancestors of the O'Neills in the 5th century. The fact that they were disputing ownership of the red hand a thousand years later suggests that by the 16th century it was associated with the province. 

Vincent Morley, 2 June 2002

[Banner of Ulster] by Mario Fabretto

A yellow flag with a red cross, bearing a white shield charged with the red hand of Ulster, is a banner of the arms of the traditional province of Ulster. Sometime after Northern Ireland was formed as a separate self-governing entity in 1922 it adopted arms based on, but not the same as, Ulster, with which it is not coterminous (three of Ulster's nine counties being in the Republic). Presumably the Northern Irish arms were deliberately made more "British" with the addition of the crown and the changing of field to make it look like the St. George's cross. Interestingly, when these arms were displayed on a flag badge in the Governor of Northern Ireland's flag, the disc was yellow, not the customary white.

Roy Stilling, 6 March 1996

The six-pointed star represents the six counties of Ulster that make up Northern Ireland. Other Ulster counties are in the Republic. The traditional flag of the province of Ulster is similar to the flag of Northern Ireland, but the field is yellow rather than white, and the red hand is on a white shield rather than a star, no crown.

Devereaux Cannon, 22 January 1998

The Ulster arms, of which the flag is a banner, has an upright red cross on a gold field - a design derived from the arms of the de Burgos who were earls of Ulster until the line became extinct. The flag is commonly seen in the Ulster counties of the Republic. It also has a certain currency among nationalists in Northern Ireland but has always been overshadowed there by the Irish Tricolour and is more likely to be seen as part of a display of all four provincial flags than on its own. It doesn't begin to approach the popularity which the Northern Ireland flag has among unionists and so is a relatively uncontentious and unpoliticised emblem and is used in sports in which Ulster teams compete.

[Banner of Ulster] by Nitesh Dave, 2 July 2000

The Northern Ireland flag was introduced in 1953 but it is a banner of arms which had been used by the government of Northern Ireland since 1925. Interestingly, the supporters of the shield in those arms each carry a banner: one is a crowned harp, gold on a blue field, the other is the red-on-gold cross of the de Burgos.

Vincent Morley, 24 January 1998

Northern Ireland has its own soccer team and the red-handed flag is used in all European and world football events. A few days ago the draw was held for the qualifying groups for the European championship in 2000 and there it was, used by UEFA (Union of European Football Associations).

Jorge Candeias, 23 January 1998

Use of the Union Jack versus the Red Hand flag

The official flag of Northern Ireland is the Union Flag. In 1924 the Government of Northern Ireland was granted arms by Royal Warrant and had the right to display these arms on a flag or banner. This right was exercised for the Coronation in 1953 and assent was given for the use of such a flag, known as the "Ulster Banner", on festive occasions. The Banner was
designed by Sir Gerald Wollaston, then Norray and Ulster King of Arms; a white flag carrying the cross of St George, with a white six pointed star carrying the red hand of Ulster in the centre of the cross, the star being ensigned by the imperial crown.

In November 1973 the College of Arms advised that it would be improper to use the Northern Ireland Coat of Arms after the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973 had been passed. The effect of this has now been overtaken by The Flags Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2000 which prohibits the flying of any flag on Government buildings, other than the Union Flag, and in certain circumstances, the Europe Flag, the Flag of a visiting Head of State, or the Royal Standard.

David Prothero, 28 January 2002

Political flags

[UDA] by Santiago Tazon

FLAG: cyan background, with the UDA's emblem of the crown and the red hand at the left side of the flag and the big wordsof the name of the association filling the rest of the flag.

MOTTO: "Quis separabit?" (Who will set us apart?)

The UDA born in 1971 as an umbrella body of the vigilante groups which had sprung up in loyalist areas across Belfast against IRA attacks (the largest was the Woodwale Defence Association -WDA-). In 1991 Ulster Volunteers Force (UVF) and UDA formed the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC).

Source: "Loyalists" by Peter Taylor (1999)

Santiago Tazon, 10 December 2001

There is a book on the subject of flags in Northern Ireland: Lucy Bryson and Clem McCartney, Clashing Symbols? A report on the use of flags, anthems and other national symbols in Northern Ireland. Bryson and McCartney say that:

The Ulster Defence Association has pale blue flags with the UDA shield: The red hand of Ulster on a white background, surmounted by a crown and underneath the words 'Quis Separabit' or 'who will make us separate'. It sometimes includes a Cross of St George in the top corner.
Because there is no illustration, it is difficult to determine exactly what this flag looks like. Bryson and McCartney also refer to the use of regimental flags in the UDA. They also mention another flag for the UVF which is 'crimson or maroon in colour and bears the cap badge of the UVF, with the motto 'For God and Ulster'.

[Flag of the UVF] by Jan Oskar Engene

On the nationalist and republican side, the tricolour of the Republic of Ireland is probably the most used flag. However, two other flags are worth mentioning. The first is the Starry Plough, a blue field with seven white stars in the pattern of the Starry Plough (Big Dipper, Ursa Major) constellation. This flag originated with the Irish Citizen Army in the Easter rebellion of 1916, originally with a green field and a representation of a plough in addition to the stars. The field was changed to blue and the plough drawing dropped when the flag was adopted by the Irish Transport and General Workers Union in 1934. The other flag is the Sunburst flag, a golden sun bursting from the lower hoist corner. The flag is used by Fianna Éireann, the youth wing of the IRA.

Jan Oskar Engene, 3 March 1996

[Flag of the Orange Order] by Vincent Morley

The above flag of the Orange Order is depicted in its typical proportions of 2:3 but I don't know if these are official. It is often seen with a gold fringe on three sides.

Vincent Morley, 24 September 1996

The Orange Order is a Protestant fraternal association dedicated to maintaining Protestantism. It was founded in Northern Ireland in 1795 and is an important organisation there. It spread throughout the British Empire and was very important in Canada, remains influential in Scotland and Liverpool (in England) and has branches in Togo, Ghana, Australia, NZ, USA, Republic of Ireland, NI, England, Scotland and Canada. The Orangemen parade on 12th July. They are called Orangemen because they commemorate the time in 1690 when King William of Orange (a Dutchman and Protestant) defeated King James II (a Catholic) at the battle of the Boyne thereby ensuring that the British crown was once again Protestant (which it remains today).

Ian Christopher Taylor, 26 September 1996

[The 'Crimson Flag'] by Jan Oskar Engene

The Crimson Flag was first used by the Protestant supporters of William of Orange who were besieged in Derry by an Irish Jacobite army in 1688-9. It is currently used by the 'Apprentice Boys of Derry', a loyalist organisation similar to the Orange Order, which holds an annual commemoration every August to mark the lifting of the siege. While Derry is the main focal point of this commemoration, smaller marches are held throughout Northern Ireland on the same day.

Vincent Morley, 5 November 1997

[Ulster Independence Movement] by Vincent Morley

I believe there is a group of Ulster separatists (i.e. supporters of an independent Ulster, neither British nor Irish) who use a flag with the red hand of Ulster on a St Patrick's cross.

Stuart Notholt, 3 March 1996

I was interested in your articles on flags. In the correspondence there is a mention of a flag used by advocates of Ulster independence. This Ulster national flag is the St Patrick's saltire overlaid on the blue field of the St Andrew's saltire. The device in the centre of the saltire is a golden six-pointed star bearing a red hand of Ulster. The flag's colours, blue, gold and red, feature in ancient Irish and Scottish flags and represent the merging of the Irish and Scottish elements to form the Ulster nation.

David Kerr, (Chairman, Ulster Independence Movement), 25 October 1998

A short news clip from the current peace talks showed a rather large and well-made Northern Ireland flag with a Union Jack in the canton. Is this at all a widespread design?

Kjell Roll Elgsaas, 21 January 1998

No, and it's not official either. It was designed by the Unionists to fly at rallies and marches. I've seen it hanging from houses occasionally, and I asked the shopkeeper at a flag shop in Belfast about it. He said that it was created as a political statement by Ulster Defence Association types. It's been around for about fifteen years.

Ryan Fennell, 21 January 1998

[A variant of the Northern Ireland flag] by Vincent Morley

Here is a drawing of the flag in question. It can be seen both with a crown (as on the former official flag of Northern Ireland) and without.

Vincent Morley, 22 January 1998

See also:

  • BBC News Online article Jane Bardon examines the reasons behind the proliferation of loyalist paramilitary flags around Northern Ireland.

Colours of the Ulster Defence Regiment

In 1970 the Ulster Defence Regiment was formed within the British Army to replace the B-Specials, Royal Ulster Constabulary auxiliaries, who were tainted with Protestant bias and a reputation for brutality (somewhat like the Black and Tans fifty years earlier). The UDR were a regiment of part-time soldiers much like the Territorial Army (reserves) in the rest of Britain. Like the rest of the Army each infantry battalion was entitled to carry a stand of two colours - Queen's (Union Jack) and Regimental.

The UDR also became slightly tainted since it was very hard to recruit Catholics. In 1992 the UDR was merged with a regular army regiment, once again to help boost its image and reputation. A year previously, as the unit faced extinction in the form it has known for 21 years, the Queen went to Northern Ireland to present the first ever colours to four of the nine UDR battalions.

The colours of the battalions are identical except for the battalion number in Roman numerals in the upper canton. In the center is a circlet inscribed with the regiment's name in gold. In the circle is the regimental badge, a rather plain harp (variations of which are common to most Irish regiments) surmounted by a crown. Around the circlet is a "union wreath" of roses, thistles and shamrocks (a uniform design for the whole army), the whole surmounted by another larger crown. The flags look very bare compared to the rest of the army's which are cluttered with battle honours on gold scrolls around the union wreath.

T. F. Mills, 3 March 1996

Former government ensign

[Former government ensign] by António Martins

According to Carr (1961), p. 67, Northern Ireland had a Blue Ensign for government vessels, that was defaced with a white disc bearing the letters "GNI" (for "Government of Northern Ireland") in large black capitals.

Roy Stilling, 27 September 1999

Flaggenbuch shows this flag with red letters and describes it as the ensign and jack for vessels used by the Government of Northern Ireland.

Ivan Sache, 10 October 1999

I've just rechecked Carr (1961), p.67 and I note he doesn't explicitly say the colour of the letters. However, the accompanying black-and-white illustration shows the letters in heavy black type, and the convention used in that book is that where a black-and-white illustration contains black, it represents black in the original flag. If the letters were another colour they'd be shown in outline. I have found inaccuracies in Carr before, so I'm not saying he's right, just that I think that's what he's implying.

Roy Stilling, 12 October 1999

The flag was introduced in 1929 and withdrawn, I guess, in 1973 when the Northern Ireland Parliament was abolished. The letters G N I were in red.

In 1935 the Admiralty contacted the Home Office to ask if the drawing, in the German Flag Book, of a Government of Northern Ireland Blue Ensign was correct. The Home Office denied all knowledge of the flag and suggested that it might be the flag of the Great North of Ireland Railway. Later it was found that the flag had been agreed in 1929.

Officials of the new government in Belfast were not familiar with the procedures that had been followed by the previous Anglo-Irish government in Dublin and had sent the request for a Blue Ensign to the wrong department. The request finally reached the correct office, but because it had not gone through the proper channels, was not recorded by the Home Office nor by the department in the Admiralty responsible for producing the Flag Book.

The German Embassy in London had enquired about the flag of Northern Ireland vessels in 1932, pointing out that it was not shown in the British Flag Book, and asking if it was a Blue Ensign with the badge of the Governor in the fly. The enquiry had gone to the Foreign Office, who passed it to the Home Office, who sent it to Northern Ireland. Belfast sent a drawing of the flag to the Home Office, who seem not to have looked at it before passing it on to the Foreign Office who sent it to the German Charge d'Affaire.

Thus the drawing of an official British flag reached the editor of the German Flag Book four years before it reached the editor of the British Flag Book.
[Public Record Office HO 45/19278]

David Prothero, 19 April 2000

Legal aspects of flag display in Northern Ireland

There was the Flags and Emblems Act of 1954. According to Chris Ryder in The RUC: A Force Under Fire (London: Mandarin, 1992) this act:

'outlawed the display of a flag likely to cause a breach of the peace - clearly the Irish tricolour - and made it an offence to interfere with the display of the Union flag.' (p. 82).

Jan Oskar Engene, 8 March 1996

The act of the Northern Ireland Parliament (1922-1973) was repealed by the UK Parliament sometime in the 1980s.

Roy Stilling, 8 March 1996

In the last year there has been some argument over whether the Irish tricolour could be flown with the Union Jack over the Assembly building in Belfast. It turns out an act prohibits flying of flags where they are not wanted, with similar wording to that of the 1954 Act. It makes it an offence to fly the tricolour in a unionist area or to fly the Union jack in a nationalist one.

Adam McKenna, 24 June 2001

Think tank opens discussion over Northern Ireland flags

The Northern Ireland think tank Democratic Dialogue published a discussion paper concerning the controversy over flags and emblems in the province. One central idea in the paper is to hold a design competition to find a new flag for the province. For more details, see the Democratic Dialogue web page. Other reports can be found in the Belfast Telegraph, Irish News, and
Jan Oskar Engene , 21 July 2000