Tourist Guide: Flags in Northern Ireland

As much as I’d love to say it’s still a local “quirk” in Northern, and that it is something of the past. It would probably be irresponsible as well. Where it’s probably not a great idea to wave Irish tricolour flags around the Shankill Road or to do the same with British Union flags down the Falls. At the same time, the likelihood of being in these areas of Belfast is relatively slim, outside of bus tours or taxi tours.

Belfast is kind of half-and-half when it comes to flags in Northern Ireland, with British flags (e.g. Union Flag and Northern Ireland flag) in many parts, and Irish Flags (e.g. the Irish Tricolour Flag) in other parts. Seeing the Belast City Centre as a kind of neutral zone. But it’s really just best to be wary when sporting any distinctly flags or sports tops (e.g. Glasgow Rangers vs Celtic) in the city centre, although tourist memorabilia, like “Kiss Me I’m Irish” and whatnot, should be fine.


Flags in Northern Ireland

The Flags in Northern Ireland are obviously a local issue, not one of tourists, and Northern Ireland is kind of split between different areas flying their own flags. Where it will mostly be British flags (e.g. Union Flag and Northern Ireland flag) in the coastal areas of Antrim and County Down. Due to their closeness to the rest of Britan and the United Kingdom. Then it is more Irish Flags (e.g. the Irish Tricolour Flag) in the more inland counties of Derry, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Armagh. Due to proximity with the Republic of Ireland (aka Ireland). At the same time, every county, and large city, and town, will be somewhat segregated to some degree. With both British and Irish Flags being staunchly flown as a claim to their own territory. Otherwise, the video below shows how most locals feel about the issue with flags in Northern Ireland (2:30 on), at least for the new generations.


The Northern Ireland flag?

I will completely ignore history and religion in this post, simply because the local history is what created this whole divisive thing with Flags in Northern Ireland, to begin with. But, to be uncomfortably blunt, there is no official Northern Ireland flag. Firstly, because Northern Ireland is not an independent country. It is a region/constituency/state of the United Kingdom (the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland). But the same also goes for England, Scotland and Wales, as none are in fact nations with their own government. Where they are all instead governed by the United Kingdom (is the U.K. a country?) However, Northern Ireland has its own unofficial flag, and the whole unofficial kerfuffle around it is summed up well below.


The “Northern Ireland Flag”

So there is no official Northern Ireland flag, at least not as a country, unfortunately. But most Northern Irish people adopt the unofficial “Northern Ireland Flag” aka the Ulster Banner as being the flag of the “nation” because it can otherwise be hard to identify as an independent country/region/people. A lot of this has to do with identity. So the “Northern Ireland flag” is not so different to the England flag, a red cross on white, only it has a white star in the middle, a crown above for the British monarchy, and a red hand in the middle to represent Ulster. Because Northern Ireland, and British governance, is only part of the wider county of Ulster within the island of Ireland. Again, history and stuff. However, the Northern Ireland government did once use the Northern Ireland flag (Ulster Banner) as its state flag (1953-1973) only it since lost its official status.


The Union Flag

The official flag of Northern Ireland is the Union Flag, known by many as the Union Jack, although is the name used more specifically when “flown in the bows of a warship”. And while many people associate the Union Flag as being “English”, it is very much a flag of the United Kingdom, where it brings together; the red on white cross of England, the white on blue cross of Scotland, and the diagonal red on white cross of Saint Patrick and Ireland (sorry Wales). It is also a flag established long before Northern Ireland was even thought of, and when Ireland as a whole was part of the United Kingdom/British Isles. Which is partly why Northern Ireland doesn’t have an official flag, unlike England, Scotland and Wales. Along with local political issues.


The Flag of Ireland

The Irish Flag is the national flag of next door in the Republic of Ireland, meaning it’s not really a flag of Northern Ireland. However, many people in Northern Ireland identify as being Irish, refusing British rule, and so the next best thing is the flag of the Republic of Ireland. Aka the Irish tricolour. A flag that actually represents both Irish and British on the island, where the green represents the Irish Catholics, while the orange represents Irish Protestants (who are predominantly British). Then the white in the centre represents peace between the two sides. And while it is obviously a flag of hope and peace, it is used as well to create division, which is no different to the British flags in Northern Ireland. Anyway, the Irish flag is probably best known from Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations, more so with American Saint Patrick’s Days, as the festival in Ireland or Northern Ireland is focused more on culture than Irish flags and tricolours. E.g. Saint Patrick’s Day in Downpatrick, the resting place of Ireland’s patron saint).


The 12th of July Festival

There really are too many flags in Northern Ireland to count, where some are relatively normal like regional and County flags. Then there are sports flags which are predominantly football in British areas, and GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) in the Irish parts. But then there are some more menacing flags, which are often flown more on the run-up to the 12th of July in Northern Ireland. A festival which celebrates the victory of a Protestant Prince over a deposed Catholic King at the Battle of the Boyne back in 1690. The protestants led by William of Orange, a Dutchman, and the relevance of “Orange” is reflected widely in the British communities of Northern Ireland, as well as in the Irish tricolour flag. Anyway, the more sinister paramilitary flags will be flown in the stauncher British areas at this time, and it’s kind of “we’re still here”, given these paramilitaries are supported by only a teenie minority of local communities. And they really have no relevance to the 12th July Festival festival.


The Northern Irish Identity Crisis

I was personally brought up in a British town in Northern Ireland, with a British curriculum, watching British TV, and I never really thought of myself as anything but British. At the same time, my identity is a personal thing, and I do generally keep it to myself given, unfortunately, people in Northern Ireland are often offended by other people’s upbringing. But this is partly because of the Flags of Northern Ireland being used more for division, and to mark territory, like cats peeing on stuff. Which just leads to unfortunate negative connotations locally. And it is just hard to feel pride for emblems that are otherwise disrespected, mistreated, and degraded for little more than petty hate.

Anyway, the official Nationality of Northern Ireland is that of the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”. Meaning Northern Ireland is not actually part of Great Britain. But it is part of the British Isles, along with the entire island of Ireland, so technically people from Northern Ireland can claim to be both Irish and British. And the same goes for those of the Republic of Ireland. If they really want.

Written By

Asia based food and travel bloggers at 'Live Less Ordinary'. Living between the rice fields of rural Thailand and Bangor Northern Ireland. With lots of travels in between. Living the best of both worlds, I guess. Fanfan takes nice photos. Allan reluctantly writes stuff.

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