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Northern Ireland (United Kingdom)

Tuaisceart Éireann

Last modified: 2010-01-02 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] image 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:

Other sites:

The Red Hand Flag

Tudor crown version

[Flag of Northern Ireland] image by Martin Grieve

Edwardian Crown version

[Flag of Northern Ireland] image by Martin Grieve

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

What law was being changed when this flag was abolished?
Nathan Lamm 8 July 2004

No law as such was involved. The closing of the Stormont Parliament (and the consequent removal of official status from the flag of Northern Ireland) predates the 1995 amendment to the 1993 Regulations (which specifically refers to "National Flags") by over 20 years, and so the amendment simply did not (and does not) apply.
Christopher Southworth, 8 July 2004

My understanding is that the defaced St George's cross [bearing the red hand, white star and crown] was the arms of the Government of Northern Ireland and not Northern Ireland itself, nor the Royal Arms for use in Northern Ireland. This is why the Northern Ireland flag used by the Unionists [the red hand flag] is no longer official as that government was abolished and its arms went with it. I suspect this [issue of royal arms of Northern Ireland] is one of those issues that has just been fudged because no one wants to face the almost inevitable furore that would follow an official pronouncement of the arms of Northern Ireland, or rather of the Royal Arms for use in Northern Ireland. As far as I can see they should be quartered Ireland, England, Scotland, Ireland with the hart crest. As for supporters they could either both be the red lion and elk (as in the old Government of Northern Ireland arms) bearing the two banners, or they could be a combination of an elk and a English lion, although perhaps it should be a hart and a Scottish unicorn as the majority of Northern Irish are of Scots descent rather than English.
    The Royal motto of Northern Ireland is "Quis separabit" (Who will separate us) - a motto that can be taken a number of ways.
Graham Bartram, 20 October 2004

Searching for information on the Governor of Northern Ireland's flag I noticed that on the Government flag (white field, red St George cross, red hand and crown above) that a few illustrations show a "Tudor" style crown as opposed to the Edwardian version. Is this a mistake I wonder? This flag was officially adopted in 1953, and this would seem to indicate that it should be an Edwardian crown. The flag is a "Banner of Arms" and although the Arms most certainly would have the Tudor-style crown, surely when the flag was officially adopted this would have been changed. The Tudor crown I noticed is of the same style in silhouette as the crown on the Governor's flag depicted in Flaggenbuch (1992), but with more pearls and a more intricate base.
Martin Grieve, 25 February 2005

Although authorized under the Warrant of 1924, I understand that the Government flag only received widespread use following the receipt of Royal Assent on 29 May 1953, it follows therefore, that the St Edward's Crown is the one to show, since any earlier flags (whilst perfectly legal under the Laws of Arms) were apparently not officially used?
Christopher Southworth, 25 February 2005

Although some versions of the flag of the Government of Northern Ireland have no doubt been made with St Edward's crown, I suggest that any 'correct' version should have the Tudor crown. As a general 'rule' flags that are banners of arms, or have seals as badges should not be modified unless the arms or seals are altered. When the Tudor crown was introduced with the accession of Edward VII, those flag badges based on seals that included a crown, were deliberately not modified until after the seal had been amended. The arms of Northern Ireland were not altered when the St Edward's crown replaced the Tudor crown. Therefore the crown on the flag should not have been changed.
David Prothero, 25 February 2005

A photograph of a flag bearing the Tudor crown, as used in the late 1940's for the Royal Victory Tour of South Africa, can be seen here.
David Prothero, 1 March 2005

We contacted the College of Arms to see what information they could provide. William Hunt (Windsor Herald) very kindly took the trouble to check through the ("somewhat dusty") records and to contact the Office of Garter King of Arms, so was able to report as follows:
"There is no illustration of either the original grant of arms of 1924, nor of the flag of 1953 on record, there is however, one of the arms as augmented by the addition of a compartment (ref. 183.321) on 6 January 1971, and this (as you would expect) shows the St Edward's Crown (which may be seen in Burroughs, 1971 Edition, p. 246."
Christopher Southworth, 28 February 2005

In books of the 1950s and 60s the flag is consistently shown with a squared-off Tudor crown. Subsequently, in 1971: The crown in the arms of which the flag is a banner was re-drawn with a St Edward's crown. In 1973, the government of Northern Ireland was abolished. It is therefore I suggest a reasonable generalisation to say that the official government flag had the modified Tudor crown, while the flag used unofficially since 1973 has had the St Edward's crown.
David Prothero, 1 March 2005

I have produced 2 versions of the Government flag. Both differ only in the style of crowns which ensign the red hand on a 6-pointed star. Christopher Southworth sent me his construction sheet to work from and the details are as follows:
    The overall dimensions of the flag are 60 x 120 units.
    The thickness of the cross is 12 units.
    The 6-pointed star is contained within an imaginary circle of 30 units in diameter, whilst the red hand's height is 15 units.

Christopher's notes also inform us that the flag was designed by Sir Gerald Wollaston (then Norray and Ulster King of Arms) and was established as a Banner of Arms by a Warrant of King George V dated 02 August 1924. The flag became widely used after Royal Assent was given on 29 May 1953, and was effectively abolished following the Northern Ireland Constitution Act of 1973. There may have been many variants of both strains here if we consult various Flag books. Sometimes the Tudor crown appears more elaborate than the version shown above - this version is reasonably similar to a flag that Bruce Berry has in his collection from the 1940's. I have used the same crown as Flaggenbuch shows on Governor-General's flag. In Christian Fogd Pedersons book of 1970, an Edwardian crown is used, although the star is much smaller.
Martin Grieve, 7 March 2005

The reason that the College of Arms could not find the 1924 grant of arms is that it was designed and made in Dublin by Ulster King of Arms. Neville-Rodwell Wilkinson, Ulster King of Arms, drafted designs for the flag in February 1923, and the great seal in April 1923, and held discussions with Northern Ireland officials in London from January 1924 regarding the coat of arms. The final design was completed by Wilkinson's deputy Thomas Ulick Sadleir for approval by the Northern Ireland cabinet in April 1924. The artwork was approved and the Royal warrant signed by George V and issued through the Home Office on 2nd August 1924 and registered in the Register of Arms in Dublin.

Source: "Royal Roots, Republican Inheritance - The Survival of the Office of Arms" by Susan Hood, published in Dublin in 2002, page 120.

The following entry can be seen in the register of Arms in Dublin (GO Ms 111C "Grants M", Fol. 49):

"Royal Warrant Government of Northern Ireland
Argent a cross gules, overall on a six pointed star of the field ensigned by an Imperial crown proper a dexter hand couped at the wrist of the second. Given at our Court of St. James in the 15th year of our reign 2nd August 1924 by His Majesty's command."

The supporters were granted in the following year, and can be seen on folio 66 of the same volume of the Register. The office of Ulster King of Arms continued in Dublin until 1943, dealing with armorial matters north and south of the border until that date. The College of Arms only had jurisdiction in Northern Ireland from that date.
Laurence Jones
, 21 August 2005

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] image 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

It seems to my mind this perpetuates an error. I was under the impression that the Banner of Arms of The Province of Ulster would have had a red left hand on the shield, as this is what is used in the Coats of Arms of Baronets (and is often described as the badge of Ulster). I understood that when Ulster King of Arms was creating the Coat of Arms for the Government of Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland (six counties) was differentiated from the Province of Ulster (nine counties) by changing the hand from a left hand to a right hand. It is now rare to see a representation of the Ulster Coat of Arms, or Banner of Arms with the left hand.

Michael Carchrie Campbell, 28 February 2006

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

The Northern Ireland flag (the one that ceased to be official in 1973) is still used by the Northern Ireland team at the Commonwealth Games.
Dean Thomas, 7 February 2006

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

Governor's Flag

[Governor's flag] image by Martin Grieve

Redrawn from Flaggenbuch (1939).

According to the Flaggenbuch (1939), the badge on the defaced Union Flag of the Governor of Northern Ireland was a gold disk with a shield. Three publications in my possession clearly state that it is an *orange* disc and not gold as suggested - this of course could be an error, although the version in Flaggenbuch looks orange to my eyes. Do we have any concrete evidence to nail this one down?

Pederson 1970 makes reference to this flag and leads the reader to compare the description given with an illustration of the Lt Gov of Jersey. The implication here is that it was a standard garland, although both Flaggenbuch and a scan sent to me by David suggest that it is most certainly different. A peculiar situation not too unlike
the Garland on British Palestine proposed Governor flag.
Martin Grieve, 25 February 2005

The disk looked and looks "orange" to me as well, and orange is the logical colour for a Northern Irish flag.
Christopher Southworth, 25 February 2005

The circle behind the shield on the Governor’s flag is gold instead of white for purely aesthetic reasons. Presumably some illustrators were unsure of the colour of the circle and wrongly assumed that it was orange because of the association of that colour with Ulster.
David Prothero
, 25 February 2005

Detail of badge

[Governor's flag] image by Martin Grieve

Former government ensign

[Former government ensign] image by António Martins-Tuválkin

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

Timeline for the changes to the flag

Some more details about the flag of the Governor of Northern Ireland.

14th February 1923. Governor of Northern Ireland requested a flag.

14th May 1924. He repeated his request, but was told by the Home Office that he should use a Union Jack until arms had been granted to Northern Ireland.

27th May 1924. In reply to an enquiry from the Home Office, the Admiralty replied that it was a personal flag for the Governor, and they therefore claimed no jurisdiction, but would like to be informed of the design.

17th June 1924. The Home Office informed the Governor that the King had agreed to a Union Jack with the arms of Northern Ireland. A gold circle had been inserted behind the shield as otherwise the red cross of the arms was indistinguishable from the red cross of the flag.

15th August 1924. Design approved.

9th September 1924. The Admiralty suggested that the governor's flag could be flown over his official residence, over any house in which he was residing, and at any ceremony he attended in his official capacity. It would be hoisted on any HM Ship in which he embarked, within the territorial waters of Northern Ireland.
[National Archives (PRO) HO 267/5]

The Admiralty view that the flag was the personal flag for the governor and they therefore claimed no jurisdiction is unusual. I do not see that it was any more personal to the governor of Northern Ireland than was the flag of any colonial governor; it went with the appointment. The Admiralty did not agree to colonial governor's flags being flown ashore until 1941.

David Prothero, 24 February 2005

Red hand on union flag

An interesting photograph was found at, showing the use of a plain union flag, with a red hand centred, on the offices of the Belfast Telegraph in Fleet Street (London). The original caption stated "Original caption: Ulster flag in London for Empire Day. An Irish newspaper office in fleet street. London, flew the new Ulster flag for the first time recently. The Ulster flag is the Union Jack with red hand in the centre." The date is uncertain, but likely early 20th century, based on the use of the red ensigns as national flags beside this flag.
Originally reported by Laird Keir, 24 March 2009

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

The publication of the report, Transforming Conflict: Flags and Emblems by Dominic Bryan and Gordon Gillespie, Institute of Irish Studies, Queen's University, Belfast, March 2005, puts a different spin on this.

Regarding the contribution above by Jan Oskar Engene, this is the Flags and Emblems (Display) Act (Northern Ireland) 1954, passed by the now non-existent Northern Ireland Parliament. The quoted author is probably partisan in his interpretation of the Act ["clearly the Irish tricolour"], as the above cited report states that under Section 2(1) of the above referenced act, the police were given the power to "order a person who erected an 'emblem' to remove it, or for the officer to remove it, if the officer felt it would lead to a breach of the peace."  However, there was a specific exemption for the Union Flag under Section 2(4), which was excluded from the provisions of the Act. There is no reference to the flag of any other nation.

The above cited Queen's University report states that "The only recent legislation dealing specifically with flags has been the Flags (Northern Ireland) Order 2000 which gives the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland power to make regulations regarding the flying of flags at government buildings (s.3(1))." (Paragraph 3.7 of the report)

The report goes on to provide in detail further examples of legislation which applies to the operation of Government policies in Northern Ireland more generally, not specific to flags and emblems, but including its implementation of policies on these, viz Terrorism Act 2000, Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998, Northern Ireland Act 1998, Human Rights Act 1998, Article 10 European Convention on Human Rights, Lawful limitation of Convention rights, Public Processions (NI) Act 1998) (Secretary of State can "revoke" or "amend" banners to be carried by parade participants), Protection of the Person and Property (Northern Ireland) Act 1969, Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875, Public Order (NI) Order 1987, Protection from Harassment (NI) Order 1997, Fair Employment and Treatment Order (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2003, various council powers and by-laws and torts.

Colin Dobson, 27 February 2006

Some may be interested in reading the report of the Ad Hoc Committee of The Northern Ireland Assembly ( on the Draft Flag Order (as the Flags (Northern Ireland) Order 2000 then was). At the time of the report I was working for a member of the committee.
Michael Carchrie Campbell, 27 February 2006

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 were reported in the Belfast Telegraph, Irish News, and
Jan Oskar Engene, 21 July 2000