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The Union Flag, commonly known as the Union Jack, is the national flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The original Union Flag was introduced in 1606 as a maritime flag and in 1634, a Royal Proclamation laid down that the Union Flag was reserved for His Majesty’s Ships of War.

When the ‘Union Jack’ was first introduced in 1606, it was known simply as ‘the British flag’ or ‘the flag of Britain’. The term ‘Jack’ was first used in the British Navy to describe the Union Flag that was at that time flown at the main masthead. Variations of the Union Flag have existed since the beginning of the 17th century when the crowns of England and Scotland were joined together under King James I (James VI of Scotland) in 1603.

Flying of flags, including the Union flag, is not the subject of statute law in England, Wales or Scotland. Advice is issued by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DDCMS) on flying of national flags on government buildings, apart from those which are the responsibility of a devolved administration. The advice relates to government buildings only, but many councils also follow the advice on a voluntary basis.

In Northern Ireland only there is specific legislation setting out the arrangements for the flying of flags from government buildings. This legislation was recently updated to remove a day for flying the European flag, as part of preparation for the UK’s exit from the EU. In Scotland the Scottish Government, and at their instigation the Scottish Parliament, took the decision to continue to fly the European flag after UK exit.

During the period between the 2016 Referendum and the official exit on 31 January 2020, the European Flag came to be identified as a symbol of “remain” campaigning, whilst the Union flag was identified as a symbol of “leave” campaigns.

The cultural significance of flags, along with other symbols of identity, is contentious in Northern Ireland. A Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition was established in 2016 to scope the issues and make recommendations for change. The Northern Ireland Assembly did not sit between February 2017 and January 2020, which has meant that the Commission has been unable to publish its research or recommendations.

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