Our sense of identity shapes who we are and how we act; this is as true of collective identity as it is individual. But, what happens when the cohesiveness of collective and national identity is ruptured, divided, and used as a weapon?

Northern Ireland’s troubled history has been defined by the continuing clashing of religious and national identities: a history many had hoped they could put behind them. Yet, recent protests over the decision to restrict the flying of the Union Jack over Belfast City Hall expose the deep divisions running through the Northern Irish consciousness.

Image courtesy of Sineakee, © 2011, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Sineakee, © 2011, some rights reserved.

Religion has always influenced politics throughout history, but in Northern Ireland the two are almost inseparable. Political considerations intertwine with deeply rooted religious beliefs in a toxic mix of highly charged, divisive opinions. The break up of Ireland in 1921 into a largely Catholic Republic in the South, and a Protestant North remaining part of the United Kingdom, raises difficult questions about the supposed separation of church and state. While both countries do not identify themselves solely through religion, it cannot be denied that it plays an important part in the constitution of Northern Ireland’s politics. This became gravely clear during the Troubles, a violent period spanning three decades, where civil unrest and targeted attacks on both sides incited the prejudices and religious biases of many Northern Irish. Angered by the unrelenting discrimination of Catholic Northern Irish’s civil rights, Republican dissidents resorted to taking up arms in the name of Catholicism and the nationalist cause. Paramilitary groups on both Republican and Loyalist sides were guilty of some of the most violent conflict in Ireland’s history, and often the violence spilled over onto those not deemed ‘legitimate targets’ by paramilitary groups.

While it may have been a minority carrying out the violence during this period, the identity of Northern Ireland is still, to some extent, defined by a dichotomy between Catholic and Protestant. Older generations, in particular, still harbour prejudices, and are adamant that Northern Ireland, as a nation, has at least some holy and religious significance. This blend of religious conviction and territorial politics has been curbed by the Good Friday Agreements of 1998, which saw the identity of being Northern Irish win out over religion. With the memory of the Troubles still fresh in many politicians’ minds, they chose to bury their differences and made provisions for both factions to have a say in the running of Northern Ireland, despite it remaining part of the United Kingdom.

Although outright violence has largely receded from everyday life in Northern Ireland, sectarian mindsets are hard to change. Intimidating two-stories-high murals still mark out Loyalist and Republican neighbourhoods in Belfast and towns across the province, and sectarianism remains rife within many subcultures, most visibly the rivalry between Glasgow based football clubs Rangers and Celtic. Given these tendencies, to sectarianism bubbling under the surface, it is surprising that Belfast City Council did not foresee the anger caused by the decision to restrict the flying of the Union Jack over Belfast City Hall to only national holidays. It may seem ridiculous to fight over a flag, but the decision opens old wounds and inflames such strong reactions because of the flag’s symbolic significance.

Afraid of having their British identity taken from them, loyalist protestors staged demonstrations outside City Hall in Belfast city centre in the run up to the 2012 Christmas period, and riots broke out in working class, loyalist heartlands in East Belfast over eight weeks. The provocative nature of the protests was unmistakable, and a large proportion of the protestors were the disaffected youth, hit hard by the affects of economic recession, rising youth unemployment, and a growing sense of political alienation. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has been criticised for its response to the protests, where police officers resorted to water cannons and rubber bullets to control the dissenters. Were such harsh measures strictly necessary when, although the protests were violent, the use of these tactics would have been unthinkable in other parts of the UK? It was precisely the haunting memories of the Troubles that may have elicited such a reactionary response by the PSNI. Indeed, British media coverage of the riots and protests almost seemed to convey a sense of ‘business as usual’ at the prospect of renewed violence in a region with such a checkered history. This kind of complacency, however, can be extremely dangerous. To implicitly suggest that the Northern Irish will always be susceptible to outbursts of sectarian violence is at once culturally dismissive of the opportunities for Northern Ireland to move forward. It should not be accepted that this region will continued to be characterised and held back by the actions of a minority. If we cannot envision a future for Northern Ireland free of sectarian violence then what hope is there for the plight of other groups across the world facing persecution and bloodshed over religious differences?

However, real efforts are being made to secure a peaceful and prosperous future for Northern Ireland. Considering the challenges faced during the Troubles, the Good Friday Accords have been remarkably successful, and the inclusion of both sides in the political process has no doubt benefited the democratic political process. In fact, the Northern Ireland peace process has been hailed internationally as an example for conflict resolution strategies across the world, in particular in the conflict between the Turks and Kurds.

Northern Ireland itself has seized the opportunity to carve out a new future for itself, with major redevelopments in Belfast, including the newly opened Titanic Belfast Centre, the naming of Londonderry as 2013’s UK City of Culture, and a revamped tourism plan emphasising the richness and diversity of the region. It remains to be seen how damaging the protests will prove to be for Northern Ireland’s international reputation and attempt to attract visitors from around the world. The prospect of an independent Scotland also threatens to isolate the region from the rest of the UK; the historical links between the Scots-Irish could be said to be instrumental in forming cultural ties between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. As a whole, Northern Ireland appears to be looking forward, but with so much of their collective identity grounded on past divisions and prejudices it is unclear whether the identity of ‘Northern Irish’ is enough to overcome the rift between Loyalist and Republican identities.

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