Hand over fist: The Red Hand of Ulster still has the power to divide Northern Ireland

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As the marching season begins in earnest, the photographer Declan O'Neill calls for an end to sectarian fighting over the Red Hand of Ulster and a reassessment of the ancient symbol

They say that you are never more than 100ft from a Red Hand of Ulster in Northern Ireland. Over the course of one afternoon, I photographed more than 100 examples of this ancient Irish symbol – partly in an attempt at divination, and partly as an attempt to show how the red hand is suffering an image problem.

With the summer marching season imminent, flaunting the red hand will be de rigueur on the banners, uniforms and flags of loyalist flute bands and their supporters, who have misappropriated the symbol as an endorsement of their particular brand of ethnic identity and staked a claim to what you might call its cultural copyright.

But while many might associate the red hand with loyalist iconography, there is a cultural tug of war over its ownership. It still adorns the provincial and political flags of Ulster and Northern Ireland, and is deployed frequently by the Ulster Volunteer Force and other loyalist paramilitaries (including the Red Hand Commandos). Yet the Gaelic Athletic Association uses it on County Tyrone's team kit; a red hand marks burial plots maintained by the National Graves Association; adorns stained-glass windows in Belfast's City Hall; and even advertises the services of Indian palmists. For decades, it was the logo for the Northern Ireland tourist board (it has been replaced by the symbol of a heart).

And as you can see from the images on these pages, the majority of the red hands I photographed are vernacular in style – captured in house paint, bathroom mosaic tile and jig-sawed from plywood.

Not surprisingly, there are countless versions of the red-hand tale in the oral traditions of Ireland. The best-known yarn has a Viking longboat war party closing on the shores of Ulster. Their leader promises the first man to touch land full possession of the territory. On board is an Irish mercenary, a turncoat of a man called O'Neill who, with a sword blow, severs his hand and throws it ashore. Ulster is now his property and the mutilated hand becomes the family symbol and icon for a regional creation myth immersed in violence and territorial rights.

And so the image of the hand, constantly revised and eroded, litters the architectural and social topography of Northern Ireland – and, at best, is tolerated for the sake of tourist spectacle. But the policy-makers regard it as irrevocably tainted by a history of violence and are keen to see it removed.

The blood sacrifice in its name has indeed contaminated the hand's image, but as an O'Neill myself, I believe it should be regenerated rather than erased. In the shadow of Belfast's Harland and Wolff dry dock where the Titanic was built, a site for a new public art project is being discussed, and I have submitted my own proposal for a new red-hand sculpture. I don't yet know the outcome – but I believe it's high time we cleaned up the red hand.

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