Why Northern Ireland Has No Flag

I love flags. The power of a piece of cloth to motivate people to fight, revere, or weep is inherently interesting. Flag design is also a constrained optimisation problem: how do you trade off symbolism and simplicity in a rectangle (or weird double triangle thing) that needs to be viewed at a distance?  

Northern Ireland has a unique flag situation: it doesn’t have one. Whether Northern Ireland is a country is of course a complicated question. In any case, Wales, England, and Scotland all have official flags – so why doesn’t Northern Ireland?

I know what you’re going to say. Northern Ireland does have a flag: the Ulster Banner! While the Ulster Banner is the de facto Northern Irish flag in some contexts, it is not an official flag.

The Ulster Banner

This is not an obscure legal curiosity, like finding out that maybe Condoleezza Rice was technically President of the United States for one minute. The failure of Northern Ireland to have an official flag is a deliberate choice that relates in a complex way to the region’s history. Even in unstable states, having an official flag is a priority (e.g., no one disputes the official flag of Yemen). NI might be the most state-like entity in modern history to not have a flag.

In a way, the Ulster Banner is officially the unofficial flag – a circumstance that may be unique in flag history! The Ulster Banner is not to be confused with the flag of Ulster. Northern Ireland is a subset of Ulster, a province of Ireland, which has a similar flag. 

The Ulster flag: separate though obviously intimately related to the Ulster Banner 

The Ulster Banner was designed around 1923. It first flew above the Parliament of Northern Ireland in an official capacity in 1953, though it had a lesser status than the Union Jack. The Ulster Banner continued to enjoy its status as the semi-official lesser flag of Northern Ireland until 1973, when Parliament was abolished because of the Troubles. Hence, the government which was represented by the Ulster Banner doesn’t actually exist anymore. The Northern Irish Parliament has since been replaced with the Northern Irish Assembly.

(Before the pedants object, the UK’s Flag Institute, an authority on vexillology, clarifies on their website that ‘Union Jack’ and ‘Union Flag’ can be used interchangeably. The idea that the term Union Jack should only be used at sea is a relatively recent one.)

No one knows the origin of Ulster’s ‘Red Hand’. One theory is that the mythical hero Conall Cernach put his bloodied hand on a banner as he avenged the death of Cú Chulainn, and it has belonged to the descendants of Conall since then (there’s some disagreement over which clan the Red Hand “belongs” to). Another folk story is that the first to touch the land of Ulster would own it, and so one chap cut off his own hand and threw it at Ulster to get there ahead of the competition. Who these people were and whether they arrived by boat or land differs based on which grandmother is telling the story. 

The ratio between the sides of the Ulster Banner appears to be 3:2, but it’s hard to get confirmation of this (it does not appear in the Flag Institute registry). The aspect ratio of the Ulster flag is 5:3, which is the same ratio as in the flags of Scotland, Wales, and England. This is interesting, because the aspect ratio of the Union Jack is 2:1, which is the same as for most of its former colonies, including Ireland. The most common aspect ratio for a flag is 3:2, and the United States has an unusual 19:10 ratio. Nepal and Togo have irrational aspect ratios; the aspect ratio of the flag of Togo is the golden ratio! Someone involved in Togolese independence definitely wanted to insert this maths reference for posterity. And I’m glad they did. 

If you’ve ever looked at flags in an atlas, it almost certainly distorted the true side lengths. Even the United Nations headquarters mandates that all flags flown outside it must be in the 3:2 ratio. The flag of NATO is in a 4:3 ratio. I’m not sure whether anyone has noticed this before, but this means that Northern Ireland is a country within a province (mostly) within a union of countries, within a military alliance, all of which have differently shaped flags. Might this be the only example of four tiers of nested political entities which all have different flag shapes?  

Flags are a contentious issue in Northern Ireland. I said that the Ulster Banner was the de facto flag in “some” contexts: it has a crown on it, and is much less likely to be used by the Republican population. In his book about flags, Tim Marshall describes how in 2015, the Irish Tricolour was flown above the Northern Irish Assembly’s building at Stormont for ten minutes. Unionist politicians described themselves as “deeply offended” and there was a four-month police investigation involving seven detectives about how this could have happened.

Many countries have flag laws on the books, stating under which circumstances the flag can be flown. Desecrating the national flag in Germany has a maximum sentence of three years. In the UK, these are guidelines, not laws, though I can’t find such guidelines for the Ulster Banner specifically.

The question of whether people identify with a flag is of course a different one. And the lack of identification with the Ulster Banner is related to the ethnic conflict: If there are two sides to a conflict, each represented by their own flag, then under what circumstance would you need a separate national flag? Still, many countries lack a strong sense of national identity above and beyond the constituent ethnic identities. And yet all of these countries have undisputed national flags. 

Northern Ireland’s flagless status is not trivial. The region’s relationship with flags probably would have been unremarkable were it not for the Troubles. One of that conflict’s more unusual consequences was to make Northern Ireland a no flag country. 

What I’m trying to say is, formal flaglessness following fighting fascinates flag fans. 

Inspired by: CGP Grey

One thought on “Why Northern Ireland Has No Flag”

  1. I live in the north of Ulster, and the Tricolour is my flag. Ulster has 9 counties, and we do not all say no! I live in Co Donegal, but am a proud northern Irish and Ulster woman.

    Like

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