A Guide to Shared and Contested Political Symbols in Northern Ireland
Symbols in Northern Ireland are more than just pictures. The Troubles in Northern Ireland have ensured that many symbols here represent division as often as they represent unity, and the history and meaning of the symbols can mean that certain groups find them alienating or even threatening.
This guide explains the meaning behind common symbols in Northern Ireland, some of which are shared equally between the Protestant and Catholic traditions and others which divide the two communities to this day. Read on for information about:
- Contested or Divisive Symbols
- Shared Symbols in Northern Ireland
- The Meanings of Different Symbols During the Troubles
- A Guide to Common Terms in Northern Irish Politics
- An Overview of Symbols in the Workplace in Northern Ireland
Contested Symbols in Northern Ireland
The Red Poppy
The poppy is a symbol across Europe for the loss of life in the World Wars. Poppies grew in the fields of Flanders after WW1. The Red symbolises the blood spilt. The poppy has a strong meaning of commemoration for many people in the UK. Many lost ancestors in the world wars.
In Ireland, Catholics have tended to stay away from wearing poppies out of a fear that it is glorifying English colonialism, and out of a desire to forget the history of Irish soldiers fighting for the British Army. This is changing now as Ireland re-engages with its British heritage. Pacifists prefer to wear a white poppy to make it clear they are not celebrating war in any way.
The Red Hand
The Red Hand has represented the province of Ulster since the time of the Gaelic aristocracy. It is used by both Nationalists and Unionists—the difference being that Nationalists count 9 counties in Ulster, while Unionists tend to use the word 'Ulster' to describe the 6 counties of Northern Ireland.
The red hand comes from a legend that two chieftains had a race to decide who was lord of Ulster. O'Neill seeing that he was falling behind, cut off his hand and threw it to the shore, claiming lordship of Ulster. In more recent times the red hand has become identified with loyalist paramilitaries during the Troubles—it still tends to be seen more as a Protestant symbol.
The Easter Lily
The Easter Lily commemorates the Easter Rising of 1916. Easter 1916 is a controversial event in the history of Ireland, but there is no doubt it altered the course of history on the island.
Irish Republicans celebrate Easter 1916 as a struggle for independence from imperial England. Northern Irish Protestants are overwhelmingly Unionist in their politics—so in their eyes, Easter 1916 was a violent attempt to force them into an independent Ireland against their wishes.
1690 is one of the most controversial dates in the island's history. In 1690, two English kings fought for the throne on Irish soil. William of Orange beat James II and established England as a Protestant country, and Ireland as being ruled by a Protestant minority. Irish Protestants celebrate their survival on 12th July, but some Catholic neighbours feel this is a triumphalist celebration of their ancestor's defeat.
Shared Symbols in Northern Ireland
The harp has been associated with Ireland for hundreds of years. Gaelic chieftains employed harpists to entertain themselves and their guests. In the 1600s, it was the symbol of Irishness adopted by Owen Roe O'Neill in his war against English conquest. In the 1790s, it was adopted by the United Irishmen (radical Protestants who wanted an independent Ireland).
However, the harp has also symbolised Ireland within the British empire—for example, the harp was part of RIC and RUC police badges. The harp is also a symbol used by some Irish regiments within the British Army.
Legend has it that St. Patrick used the shamrock to explain the trinity to the Irish and convert them to Christianity. It is recognised around the world as a symbol of Ireland. People wear shamrocks on St Patrick's Day to commemorate the saint. It is also used within Unionist tradition—for example, the Royal Irish Rangers wear shamrocks on St Patrick's day. The shamrock is the national flower of Northern Ireland, like the rose in England or thistle in Scotland.
The Blue Flax Flower
The symbol for the Northern Ireland assembly is a good example of an attempt to choose a shared and inclusive symbol. Flax was the plant at the basis of the successful linen industry in the north of Ireland. People from all backgrounds worked in the linen industry, making the flax flower a neutral symbol.
Symbols in Northern Ireland During the Troubles
'The Troubles' was a period of sustained paramilitary (and sometimes military) violence between 1969 and approximately 1998—although Northern Ireland has still seen four sectarian-related deaths in recent years. Well over 3,000 people lost their lives during this conflict, and normal life was disrupted by bomb scares and security operations.
To simplify the conflict greatly, some Protestants were killing Catholics and some Catholics were killing Protestants. Many people no longer felt safe mixing with people from a different religious background. In this context, the use of symbols came to have very strong meanings. Using symbols—for example, flags on painted wall murals or worn on clothing—showed allegiance and let people know whose territory they were entering. This could be, quite literally, a matter of life and death.
Although fortunately, we have made significant steps forward with our peace process in Northern Ireland, quite a few symbols are still seen as representing one group or the other. It is also true that symbols, flags and colours are still used in some areas to make a statement about which group is in control of an area and as a warning to outsiders that they may not be welcome.
Added to this is the debate around symbols in the workplace. Under equality laws, there is now no such thing as a Protestant or Catholic firm, as any business or government agency is obliged to promote rigourous fair employment practices. But as workplaces become mixed, it raises many questions. For example, should symbols be banned from the workplace in case they cause offense to a co-worker? Or does everyone deserve the right to express their religious and political beliefs—even if founded on prejudice?
While there are no easy answers as to how to create an inclusive workplace, there are at least some symbols which are shared by both traditions in Northern Ireland. These symbols are hopefully the beginning of us finding a shared 'Northern Irish' identity where both our Irish and British heritages are included and respected.
A Guide to Common Terms in Northern Irish Politics
- Northern Ireland is made up of six counties in northeast Ireland which continue to be an integral part of the UK.
- Stormont is the seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly, where a group of 106 elected MLAs makes decisions on issues relating to the internal governance of Northern Ireland.
- (Ulster) Unionist is a person who believes Northern Ireland should continue to remain in the UK. Most Unionists and Loyalists are Protestant.
- Loyalist is a person loyal to the British monarchy, often used to describe extreme Unionists and even associated with 'loyalist paramilitaries' who carried out a campaign of killing in pursuit of their goals.
- (Irish) Nationalist is someone who believes Ireland as an island should be completely free of British political influence. They favour Irish over British culture. Most Nationalists and Republicans are Catholic.
- (Irish) Republican is someone implacably opposed to British influence in Ireland. They want to see a united, independent Ireland. During the Troubles, the provisional Irish Republican Army killed more people than any other group, though they have now committed to political means only.
- Dissident Republicans refers to a handful of extreme republicans who refuse to give up violence until the whole of Ireland is separate from the UK. They have continued to kill British soldiers and Catholic police officers even in the 2010s.
- PSNI is the renewed police service which was created as part of the Peace Process. It replaced the 92% Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary which had been accused of discrimination against Catholics. The PSNI now employs around 1/3 Catholic officers.
Symbols in the Workplace: Legislation and Best Practice
In 1989, the Fair Employment Code of Practice first recommended that
employers in Northern Ireland, in order to advance equality of opportunity, should aim to: 'promote a good and harmonious working environment and atmosphere in which no worker feels under threat or intimidated because of his or her religious belief or
This includes making sure that all employees are fairly and equally treated, and that no one feels harassed or intimidated because of their religious or political beliefs. In a society like Northern Ireland which, despite significant progress, still has important cultural divisions, this can be a difficult task.
Symbols and emblems are one of the areas where employers need to respect the rights of employees to express religious or political belief but also remember that some symbols are offensive or even intimidating to others. The Equality Commission of Northern Ireland has produced a useful guide called 'Promoting a Good and Harmonious Working Environment'.
In this guide, the Equality Commission gives advice on symbols and emblems in the workplace. They do not encourage employers to pander to an employee who deliberately seeks out something to be offended by, but they also recommend that to religious or political affiliation should be given a special status within a workplace.
Although each case needs to be decided on its individual context, they do broadly recommend that some symbols should be allowed in the workplace while others are best kept for a person's private life. See the table below for their recommendations.
Recommendations for Displaying Symbols at Work
Acceptable Symbols in the Workplace
Symbols Best Avoided in the Workplace
Religious observance: e.g. Christian crosses, turban, Muslim veil
Sports related to religious affiliation: e.g. Rangers/Celtic tops, GAA flags
Marks of commemoration and celebration: e.g. Poppies, Shamrock
Badges, tatoos etc. for political parties or paramilitary organisations
Emblems supporting awareness-raising campaigns: e.g. AIDS awareness, Breast Cancer awareness
Emblems supporting a political position: e.g. Easter lilies, Orange Order symbols
Useful Organisations for Northern Irish Employers
- The Equality Commission of Northern Ireland
Equality House, 7 - 9 Shaftesbury Square, Belfast BT2 7DP
Tel: 028 90 500 600
Enquiry Line: 028 90 890 890
- The Community Relations Council
6 Murray Street, Belfast BT1 6DN
Tel: 028 9022 7500