Northern Ireland is a country without a flag. Almost two decades after the Good Friday Agreement the Northern Ireland Assembly still hasn’t agreed on a flag for this part of the United Kingdom. So, when Northern Ireland’s national football team plays in the UEFA European Championship later today an old and officially defunct flag will represent them.
The flag used by international sporting organisations such as FIFA and UEFA to represent Northern Ireland is the so-called Ulster Banner. It is a white flag with a red cross and has the Red Hand of Ulster on a white six-pointed star together with the British Imperial Crown in the middle. Officially, however, this is not longer the flag of Northern Ireland.
The Ulster Banner was designed for the Government of Northern Ireland which came into being after the partition of Ireland in 1921. The island’s six northern counties remained a part of the United Kingdom. The southern part of the island were to be the independant Republic of Ireland. It adopted the green-white-orange tricolour as its flag in 1922.
The Government of Northern Ireland didn’t last through the Troubles i.e. the violent conflict between Catholic Republicans and Protestant Unionists in the second half of the 20th Century. In 1972 Northern Ireland’s parliament and government were suspended and with it its flag. The Ulster Banner has been out-of-use ever since.
Direct rule of Northern Ireland from London ended after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, but the new Northern Irish legislature hasn’t yet adopted a flag for Northern Ireland. Catholics and Republicans never accepted the Ulster Banner with its British crown and “English” colours – the flag is similar to England’s Saint George’s Cross – and they likely never will.
Therefore, until Northern Ireland decides on a commonly accepted, inclusive new flag design, the international community and Northern Ireland’s national sports teams are faced with a problem.
Flags are an integral and inescapable part of football culture. National teams, their fans, championship organizers and the media use flags all the time, everywhere and in all possible shapes and sizes. A sporting nation needs to have a flag! This is why, during this evening’s match between Northern Ireland and Wales, millions of fans and viewers from all over the world will see the Ulster Banner waving in Paris.
Officially, and maybe also out of respect for Northern Ireland’s Catholics and Republicans, it shouldn’t. But it does. Hopefully the Ulster Banner together with the green jerseys of the Northern Irish team will be seen as a unifying compromise. Green is the colour of Ireland, of Irish nationalism and of Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations.