Twin Flags: Royal Danish, Presidential Icelandic

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The flag of the President of Iceland is similar in design to the Danish Royal Standard. Both flags figure prominently during a two-day state visit underlining the close historical and cultural ties between Iceland and Denmark. 

The President of Iceland Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, who was installed as his country’s head of state on 1 August 2016, is on an official state visit to Denmark together with his wife, Canadian-born Eliza Reid. The visit is hosted by Queen Margrethe II and Prince Henrik.

The first official visit of a newly elected President of Iceland traditionally goes to Denmark. Ties between the two countries are strong. Danish is taught in Icelandic schools and Denmark is where the largest group of Icelandic expatriates live and work.

Iceland was part of the Kingdom of Denmark until 1918 when Iceland became an independant kingdom in personal union with Denmark meaning that King Christian X of Denmark was also the King of Iceland. However, in 1944 the Republic of Iceland was proclaimed.

At that time the present Queen of Denmark was four years old. As her grandfather was the King of Iceland, the third of her four given names is Icelandic: Margrethe Alexandrine Þórhildur Ingrid. As a sign of respect and friendliness, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the former President of Iceland, once called her “Margrethe Þórhildur, Iceland’s Honourary Queen”.

The flag of the President of Iceland copies the flag of the Queen of Denmark in the sense that it is also a modified version of the national flag with swallow-tails and a white square with the coat of arms in the centre. The presidential arms of Iceland has a shield with a cross in the colours of the Icelandic flag. Its supporters are the so-called landvættir, the four mythological protectors of Iceland: a bull, a griffin, a dragon and a giant.

In four of the five Nordic countries the head of state’s flag is a modified version of the national flag. Only in Norway the king’s standard is a heraldic banner with a different design.

Interestingly, when Iceland was a kingdom, the Icelandic Royal Standard was not at all similar to the Danish Royal Standard; it was a heraldic banner with a white falcon on a blue field. The falcon adorned the arms of Iceland from 1903 till 1919.

The Order of the Falcon is the Icelandic national order. Queen Margrethe II is a Grand Cross of the order since 1958. In 1973, after her succession as Queen of Denmark, she was given the Collar, the order’s highest class. During the state visit, President Jóhannesson will receive the Order of the Elephant, the highest Danish order.

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FLAG FAIL: New Flag Days Reveal Lack of Knowledge

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Two new official flag days in the Kingdom of Denmark led to embarrassing flag fails. The purpose of flying the Greenlandic and Faroese flags was to strengthen the bond between the three countries within the Danish Realm. The level of knowledge of Greenland and the Faroe Islands in Denmark certainly needs to be raised.

In 2016 Denmark introduced new official flag days. On June 21, the national day of Greenland, the Greenlandic flag is to be hoisted on all government buildings in the Kingdom and on Danish embassies abroad. On July 29, the Faroese feast day of Saint Olav, Ólavsøka, the flag of the Faroe Islands is to be hoisted in a similar fashion.

Albeit celebrated as an opportunity to strengthen the Faroese and Greenlandic identity vis-à-vis the Danish majority population of the Kingdom of Denmark, the new flag days, however, revealed an embarrassing lack of knowledge of the flags of the two North Atlantic nations.

On June 21 Danish government officials proudly tweeted out images of the Greenlandic flag, Erfalasorput, hoisted for the first time in front of Danish embassies around the world. But in several instances the flag had been raised upside down!

The picture on the left shows the flag of Greenland at the Danish embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The same happened at the Danish embassy in Paris, France and at the Danish representations in Geneva, Switzerland (UN) and in Ramallah on the West Bank. Later that day, when the flag fails had been pointed out, many of the tweets were deleted.

It isn’t possible to hoist a Nordic cross flag upside down. So, on July 29, that mistake would be out the question in regards to Merkið, the flag of the Faroe Islands. But somehow a much graver mistake occurred: Many of the Faroese flags, newly ordered by Danish authorities, had been produced with a mix-up of the colours of the Faroese cross.

The picture on the right shows wrong Faroese flags on the old stock exchange in Copenhagen. Flags from the flag company who had produced these wrong flags also reached the University of Copenhagen and the Bornholm Airport, for example, and erroneous flags were hoisted without anyone noticing the mistake.

Most embarrassing was perhaps the Faroese flags with mixed-up colours in the garden of Sorenskrivarin, the court house in the Faroese capital of Tórshavn. The court system in Greenland and the Faroe Islands is still part of the common Kingdom of Denmark authorities and thus would normally fly the Danish state flag which is a swallow-tailed version of the Dannebrog.

“The mistake shows an enormous lack of knowledge of the Faroe Islands in Denmark. Some Faroe Islanders will see this as a sign of lack of respect,” Sjúrður Skaale told the press. He is a Faroese member of the Danish parliament, Folketinget, representing the Faroese Social Democratic Party, Javnaðarflokkurin. When he was first presented with images of the wrong flags Mr. Skaale couldn’t believe his own eyes: “It has to be Photoshop, I said to myself. This can’t be true. It must be a joke.”

Faroe Islands: Processions, Flags and Viking Games

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Today on July 28th, the eve of Saint Olav’s day, the national feast of the Faroe Islands is celebrated with the traditional boat race in the harbour of Tórshavn. For a couple of days at the hight of summer the beautiful Faroese flag is flown everywhere and by everyone on the 18 isles in the North Atlantic.

July 29th is the feast day of Saint Olav, king of Norway. He was killed in the battle of Stiklestad on that date in the year 1030 and was canonized shortly after. Saint Olav’s shrine in the cathedral of Nidaros in Trondheim, Norway attracted large numbers of pilgrims in the middle ages. His feast day is still celebrated by catholics and protestants in Norway and elsewhere.

The Faroe Islands were part of the Norwegian Realm. Following the 1814 Treaty of Kiel Norway entered into union with Sweden. Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands remained with Denmark. The two latter countries are still part of the Danish Realm. Many Faroe Islanders want their home rule replaced with full independence.

The flag of the Faroe Islands was designed and hoisted for the first time in 1919. Since April 25th, 1940 the use of it is official. The flag’s name in Faroese is Merkið, meaning ‘the flag’ or ‘the mark’. It was other Nordic cross flags like the flag of Norway and the flag of Denmark, Dannebrog, which inspired the designer Jens Oliver Lisberg.

On the Faroe Islands the feast of Saint Olav, Ólavsøka, lasts for several days with lots of music, flags and festivities, a service in the cathedral of Tórshavn and the official opening of parliament. It is common for Faroese children to sing or play an instrument and faith plays an important role in society as do sporting traditions which go back as far as Viking times and spark strong local pride and competitiveness.

On July 28th, the evening before Saint Olav’s day, one of the annual national boat races takes place in Tórshavn. Boys and girls, men and women from all over the islands compete in traditional wooden boats in classes of 5, 6, 8 and 10 rowers. Winning an Ólavsøka first price is of course very prestigious as a sign of excellence in strength and team work.

Both on the 28th and the 29th there is a procession in Tórshavn. Children, sports associations, choirs, marching bands, people riding horses, elected officials and clergy, all take part in these processions. On the second day it is the members of the Faroese parliament, Løgtingið, who walk in procession between the cathedral and the parliament house, Tinghúsið.

Except maybe for the abundance of people wearing traditional costumes the one common feature in all these events are the hundreds of white-blue-red Faroese flags in the streets and on the harbour quays.

Happy Saint Olav’s feast! Góða Ólavsøku!

Don’t let the flag confuse you: The Kingdom of Denmark is alive and well

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Today, in the vast and fascinating world of flags, something very unusual happened. For the first time in history the flag of Denmark was replaced by the flag of Greenland on all Danish government buildings and on Danish embassies all over the world. Don’t worry, though, it doesn’t mean anything.

According to new flag rules issued by the Danish government in March 2016, all Danish state flags on government buildings are to be replaced by the Greenlandic flag, Erfalasorput, on June 21, the National Day of Greenland, and by the Faroese flag, Merkið, on July 29, the Feast of Saint Olav.

Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen has explained the new flag rules with the wish to strengthen the bond between Denmark, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, the three countries which make up the Kingdom of Denmark, also known as the Realm or rigsfællesskabet. His announcement put an end to press speculations, wittily dubbed Flagstaffgate, caused by a decree from the Minister of Finance to count all flagstaffs belonging to Danish state authorities.

What makes this new Danish practice so remarkable is the fact that from now on the Greenlandic and Faroese flags will be hoisted not alongside, but rather instead of the Danish state flag two days a year.

The Danish state flag is the swallow-tailed version of the Danish national flag and is not to be confused with the latter. Whereas the rectangular national flag is being used by civilians – lovingly and enthusiastically and in all sorts of circumstances – the state flag is to be used by state authorities only. And as such it represents the Kingdom of Denmark and is a symbol of its sovereignty over all parts of it: Denmark, Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

Imagine if once a year the Bavarian flag was hoisted instead of the German above the embassies of the Federal Republic of Germany. Or imagine if the UK embassies celebrated Saint George’s, Saint Andrew’s and Saint David’s Day by replacing the Union Flag with the flags of England, Scotland and Wales. Or imagine if Spanish embassies flew the Catalan flag on September 11, the National Day of Catalonia.

These examples are as unlikely as can be! Flagstaffs on embassies, government buildings and military installations are not platforms for symbolic gestures, it would be argued. However, this is exactly what the new Danish flag rules compares to.

But Danes are well-meaning and sometimes shockingly informal people, and there isn’t a very deep understanding of the quasi-federal nature of the Kingdom of Denmark with its ‘mainland’ of Denmark and the two self-governing countries of the Faroe Islands and Greenland. Also very few Danes, perhaps including the Prime Minister, would be able to tell the difference between Dannebrog in its national flag version and its state flag version and the appropriate use of either.

And thus it works: In Copenhagen today the Greenlandic flags on ministerial buildings have, at most, raised eyebrows among those who had forgotten that Midsummer Day is Greenland’s national day. Morning television programmes used the opportunity to invite Greenlanders to talk about Greenland and Greenlandic-Danish relations. On July 29, in an equally positive atmosphere, there will be an opportunity to focus on the Faroe Islands and familiarise Danes a little more with the Faroese flag.

The hole thing doesn’t mean anything, really. As a Greenlandic member of Folketinget, the Danish parliament, said about the new flag rules: “It’s mostly symbolic. I would like the Prime Minister to pay more attention to other, more pressing needs for Greenland.” She and many other Greenlanders want full independence from Denmark someday. The flag of Greenland may replace the flag of the Kingdom of Denmark once a year, but the Realm is still very much political reality in the North Atlantic.