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Flags in Northern Ireland

The flag is the most crucial symbol of any country. Since the Middle Ages no battle was ended before the flags were captured, and soldiers would sacrifice their lives for their flags. It is one of the most important symbols of statehood and is associated with strong patriotic feelings.

Republic of Ireland flag. Photo.

The BBC's phone-in discussion programme "Talking Point" once raised the question: "Should the flying of flags be controlled?" The backdrop was the numerous rows caused by the flying of the Union Jack in Northern Ireland. Study these responses:

  • "Our flag is NOT the tricolour - the tricolour belongs to a different country called EIRE! The flag of the UK to which we belong is the Union Jack and long may it fly in pride over our land." Stephen Brimstone, Northern Ireland
  • "Simple, Northern Ireland is in Great Britain, therefore the Union Jack should be flying. If the nationalists don't like it, move to the South." Graham, England
  • "The only flag that should be flown in Ireland is the Irish flag. For Unionists/loyalists this is one of their last stands. This is a manifestation of the dying gasps of the British empire." Ciaran Crowley, USA

As you can read from these responses, flags are still a hot issue. The national flag of the Republic of Ireland, Eire, is a tricolour consisting of green, white and orange. In 1919 it was adopted as the Irish Republic's national flag. However, when Ireland was divided into the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in 1922, the northern part chose to remain in the union with the UK. It is a great disappointment to nationalists in N. Ireland that it is the Union Jack and not the tricolour which is the official flag there.

What Does the Irish Tricolour Symbolise?

Man standing proudly with the irish flag. Photo.

The Irish Flag

Green is the colour which is associated with the green landscape of Ireland and the original inhabitants’ Celtic heritage and Catholic religion. However, the symbolic meaning of the colour green would not have developed, if it hadn't been for the orange.

To explain the orange colour we have to go back to the 1600s when the English actually planted their people on the island to secure their interests. The Protestant king, William of Orange, defeated the Catholic James I at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 and this gave rise to the popularity of the colour orange as a symbol among the Protestants in Ireland. The Orange Order or Orange Lodge was founded in 1795 and to this day its members march through or close to Catholic areas in Northern Ireland, with Orangemen in dark suits and with orange banners which are seen as offensive among the Catholics.

According to cultural traditions, white is commonly perceived as the colour of innocence, peace and neutrality. The white in the middle of the flag carries connotations of a truce between the opposing 'Green' and 'Orange'.

The Union Flag

The Union Jack. Photo.

The Union Jack

The Union Flag is commonly known as the Union Jack. This flag is comprised of the flags of England, Scotland and Ireland. Whereas, the red on white represents England's patron saint, St. George, the white diagonal on blue represents Scotland's St. Andrew and the red diagonal on white, symbolises the Irish patron saint, St. Patrick. Apart from being the national flag signifying The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Union Jack is historically associated with the vast British Empire and it has retained an official status in some parts of the Commonwealth.

Northern Ireland Today

Today, Roman Catholics constitute about 43% of the population of Northern Ireland. They are "Green", i.e. mainly Irish by culture and ancestry, and many are nationalists, favouring a union with the Irish Republic and they demonstrate this by flying the tricolour. The majority of the population regard themselves as "Orange", i.e. they are of British descent with Protestant beliefs and want to remain in the UK and hail the Union flag.

When in Northern Ireland, you should not be confused by the tricolour and the Union Jack flying side by side, and you should be aware of the symbolic meanings associated with the colours.

Tasks and Activities


These are the answers. Make the questions.

  1. No, it is the Union Jack that is Northern Ireland's national flag.
  2. It is the flag representing the Republic of Ireland.
  3. The colour is associated with its Celtic heritage.
  4. It is associated with the Battle of Boyne and William of Orange.
  5. Because colours do matter.
  6. Because Northern Ireland is a divided community.
  7. It is comprised of flags from three countries.
  8. It is in the middle because it symbolises peace between the opponents, I think.


  1. Why do flags stir emotions?
  2. Discuss the quotations provided on the BBC site above. What is implied in the various statements?
  3. Study the picture at the top on the right-hand side. What do you think the flag signifies? Which side does the woman represent in the flag issue in Northern Ireland?
Sist oppdatert 08.10.2018
Skrevet av Knut Inge Skifjeld, Anne Scott Hagen og Eli M. Huseby


UK & Ireland