The Northern Ireland flag was derived from the coat of arms of the Northern Ireland government and so it may be helpful to explain the origin of that coat of arms.
Three years later, on 2 August 1924, a royal warrant was issued granting arms to the government of Northern Ireland. The warrant described these as: ‘Argent, a Cross gules, over all on a sixpointed Star of the field ensigned by an Imperial Crown proper, a dexter Hand couped at the wrist of the second.’ In plain terms this means a red cross upon a silver (or white) field, with a small silver (or white) six pointed star bearing a red right hand cut off at the wrist, placed on the centre of the cross, the star being surmounted by the Imperial Crown.
A further royal warrant of 17 August 1925 granted supporters to the Northern Ireland government arms. These were a red lion, with a harp and crown on a banner, and an Irish elk, with a red cross on a banner.
In the coat of arms of the Northern Ireland government the gold field of the Ulster provincial arms was replaced by a silver (or white) field and the small shield by a six-pointed star. The red cross and red hand were retained unchanged and an imperial crown was added. The addition of the crown is understandable but why was the six-pointed star used?
In a letter to the Northern Whig (27 July 1953) Captain H Malcolm McKee said, ‘I think it was the Duke (of Abercorn) who suggested the six-pointed star to replace the white inescutcheon (small shield inside a larger one) for Northern Ireland.’ The 3rd Duke of Abercorn James A E Hamilton was the first Governor of Northern Ireland, an office he held from 1922 to 1945, and he was a member of an old Ulster-Scots family. He resigned on 6 September 1945 and died on 12 September 1953.
In fact the six-pointed star is an emblem of great antiquity and here in Ulster it has been associated with the O’Neills for many centuries. The signet used by Owen Roe O’Neill (1590-1649) showed as its chief device a right hand but above this there were three six-pointed stars.
[A History of Irish Flags p 62]
The six-pointed star is also to be found on the Dunvegan Cup which is displayed in Dunvegan Castle, home of the Macleods on the Isle of Skye. The cup is a beaker of bog oak with mountings of silver and precious stones and the star is the chief item of the decorations. According to tradition it belonged to Niall Glun Dubh (d 919), King of Ulster, from whom the O’Neills derived their name. The mountings and decorations were added in 1493and eventually the cup was given by one of the O’Neills as a gift to Rory Mor, 11th chief of the Macleods, around 1600.