The flag of the Republic of Ireland is green, white and orange. Symbolizing the ideal of peaceful unity and coexistence between Catholics and Protestants, the ensign was first flown in 1848. The green stripe represents Ireland's Gaelic heritage and its Catholic majority, though it is only relatively recently that the color green has come to be linked to Ireland; blue was long associated with the country. The orange stripe represents the Protestant minority with its historic links to Britain. The white stripe represents peace between the two communities.

The Irish Republican Tradition

The symbolism of the Irish flag reflects the original membership of the movement to create an independent Irish republic. Founded in 1791 by both Catholics and Protestants dissatisfied with British rule in Ireland, the Society of United Irishmen were admirers of the revolutions in France and America who hoped to stage a similar revolt in Ireland by uniting the country's two religious communities. The uprising began in 1798, and some members of both communities did participate as planned, however, sectarian massacres also took place between Protestants and Catholics. Afterwards, the Irish independence movement was primarily Catholic.

The Unionist Tradition

The unionist tradition in Ireland traces its own history back to 1690, when the Protestant King William of Orange defeated the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne. Although Irish unionists adopted William of Orange's color as their own, their tradition actually began almost a century after William's famous victory. In 1795, loyalist Protestants opposed to Catholicism and the Irish Republican movement founded the Orange Order after a small battle with local Catholic fighters. The Orange Order became extremely powerful in the Protestant community and its uses the color orange prominently in its banners, sashes and other symbols.

An Unrealized Ideal

Although the three colors of the Irish flag represent peace and unity between Catholics and Protestants, the actual history of the flag has been marked by conflict. In 1916, the Irish Republican Army seized control of the General Post Office in Dublin and began the Easter Rising against British rule. IRA fighters pulled down the British Union Jack and replaced it with two flags of their own, a green flag with a harp on it, a traditional symbol of Ireland, and the Irish tricolor. The inclusion of the tricolor was an idealistic gesture directed at Ireland's Protestants, most of whom wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom.

Divided Communities

After Ireland became an independent nation in 1922, the green, white and orange tricolor was chosen as the official flag of the new nation. However, the six Protestant-majority counties of Northern Ireland remained in the UK. Under the Flags and Emblems Act, it was illegal to display the tricolor. In the years of conflict known as "The Troubles" that began in the 1960s, the use of the tricolor in Northern Ireland indicated support for the Catholic and nationalist community rather than peace and unity between both communities.

Flag Controversies

Although the conflict in Northern Ireland ended with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the use of flags has remained contentious. The flag of the Northern Irish government showed a red hand over a St. George's cross until the unionist-dominated Stormont assembly was abolished in 1973, but it has had no official status since then. The official flag of Northern Ireland from 1973 onward was the Union Jack, the flag of the United Kingdom. However, Irish republicans view the Union Jack as a symbol of unionism, and republican-majority town councils in Northern Ireland often refuse to fly it.