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Union flag or Union jack?

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.

When are flags flown on official buildings?

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. This was updated in March 2021 to set out an assumption that the Union flag would be flown every day. 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 updated to remove a day for flying the European flag, as a consequence of 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.

How might flags be used as cultural symbols in the UK?

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 Commission submitted its report to the Northern Ireland Executive in July 2020. The report has not yet been published.

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