The Irish tricolour with its three equal vertical bands of Green (hoist side), White and Orange is the national flag of the Republic of Ireland. It was first used by Irish nationalists in 1848 during the 'Young Ireland' rebellion. It was designed to represent the nationalist, (green) and unionist (orange) populations on the island of Ireland, living together in peace, peace symbolised by white (the French tricolour has a similar symbolism). Contrary to myth, however, it was not the actual flag of the Easter Rising, which was in fact a green flag with the words 'Irish Republic' written in orange, with white shadowing. (This flag is on display in the Kildare Street branch of the National Museum, Dublin.) The tricolour in the Rising was in fact the flag of E-Company and as such was flown over the General Post Office, Dublin, (the GPO), the headquarters of the Rising's leadership. Unlike the official flag, the E-Company's tricolour caught the public imagination and became the de facto flag of the Irish Republic (1919-22).
The flag was adopted as the national flag of the Irish Free State in 1922. When the Free State was renamed Éire in the 1937 Bunreacht na hÉireann (constitution) it was given constitutional status. It has remained the flag of the Republic of Ireland.
The National Flag is flown over
Ironically, the main symbolism of the flag (unity and respect between nationalists (green) and unionists (orange)) has not become a reality. In the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, Ireland was partitioned, with the unionist-dominated north east becoming Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland through a mechanism provided in Sections 11 to 15 of the Anglo-Irish Treaty opted not to join the Irish Free State but instead to remain part of the United Kingdom. The Northern Ireland state used the British Union Flag and the 'Red Hand of Ulster' flag (with a crown on top of a six pointed star) to symbolise the state.
Its symbolism has allegedly been undermined by its use by some Irish republicans, who used it to honour dead Provisional IRA members who had killed members of the unionist community, it being placed over the IRA member's coffin. Visitors to Northern Ireland are often struck by the symbols used by both sides provocatively to 'mark their turf' and challenge their opponents. Kerb-stones in unionist and loyalist areas are painted red, white and blue, the colours of the Union Flag, while in nationalist and republican areas kerb-stones are painted green, white and orange (but is usually referred to as "green, white and gold" -- to circumvent using the word "orange", which refers to the unionists). Elements of both communities fly their flag from chimneys and tall buildings.
Nationalists from the Republic of Ireland have often complained at such usage of the National Flag. In particular, its usage by Sinn Féin, a republican party, at election counts in the 2002 Irish general election to triumphantly celebrate its electoral victories caused considerable comment and criticism in the Irish print and broadcast media, the party and its members being accused of showing 'gross disrespect' to the National Flag.
Under the Belfast Agreement, provision has been made for 'parity of esteem' in how symbols are used in Northern Ireland. The British flag is no longer flown over Parliament Buildings and state offices except on a limited number of 'named days' (honouring, for example Queen Elizabeth II's official birthday), and the Lord Mayor of Belfast displays both flags in his own offices. In addition, a new neutral police badge has been adopted for the new Police Service of Northern Ireland. In time, it is expected that both communities will grow more tolerant of each other's symbols and flags, allowing the tricolour to be flown more freely in Northern Ireland than at present.