The pre-1972 period
The flag was introduced in 1953 but is a banner of arms which had been used by the Northern Ireland government since 1925. The arms of Northern Ireland were based on those of Ulster but the yellow field was changed to white, giving a design identical to the St George's Cross - the historical flag of England. The red hand of the O'Neills appears on a six-pointed star, representing the six counties which comprise Northern Ireland, and the crown emphasises the region's status as part of the United Kingdom.
Official use of the flag was discontinued when the Stormont parliament was abolished in 1972. The flag was never accepted by northern nationalists but it continues to be widely used within the unionist community and is often seen with a Union Jack in the canton.
The unionist community
Another flag used exclusively by the unionist community is that of the Orange Order. It is usually carried with the Union Jack at the head of Orange parades. The flag is reputed to be based on Williamite colours which were carried at the battle of the Boyne (1690).
This flag was first used by the Williamite forces during the siege of Derry (1688-9). It is currently used by the Apprentice Boys of Derry.
For some years past the Ulster Independence Movement (UIM) has used a flag that combines the crosses of St Patrick and St Andrew (for Scotland), together with the central badge from the formerly official flag of Northern Ireland. The flag is now in use among many loyalists apart from the members of the UIM, which remains a very minor group.
The nationalist community
The nationalist community in Northern Ireland uses the same flags as are flown in the rest of Ireland: the Tricolour, the Sunburst, the Starry Plough and the provincial banners can all be seen in the picture above.