‘A New Beginning?’: Enduring Division in 2017 Northern Ireland

‘A New Beginning?’: Enduring Division in 2017 Northern Ireland

This week, Amanda Hall (St Andrews) examines enduring division in Northern Ireland, from the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement until the present.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement declared itself to be ‘a truly historic opportunity for new beginning’ (1998, 1.1). In many ways, this prediction has proven true. Nearly two decades later paramilitary ceasefires have endured; devolved, power-sharing government has become the norm; and – at least outwardly – many of the hallmarks of the region’s violent ‘Troubles’ seem to be a thing of the past. Despite such progress, however, the division at the heart of the outbreak of violence in 1968 continues to endure. While the Good Friday Agreement was an important first step toward positive peace in Northern Ireland, it has unfortunately fallen far short of its promise of a new beginning. Northern Ireland today is best classified under Galtung’s model of ‘negative peace’ – managing and reducing violence – rather than a positive peace in which conflict is truly transformed (Galtung 1964). There is still significant work to be done on the grassroots level to move beyond the current ‘negative peace’, as evidenced by societal division seen even within the past year.

The 2016 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey (NILTS), like each previous iteration of the project, included a survey module on ‘Community Relations’ (alternatively listed as ‘Good Relations’ in their official media). This recent survey asked 1,208 adults in the region their thoughts on relations between the two major identity groups in Northern Ireland, sectarianism, and political/cultural displays. In a series of questions about the openness of supposedly shared and public spaces to both Protestants and Catholics, responses were telling about the enduring social schism: at most, two-thirds of respondents articulated their belief that leisure centres (61%), parks (63%), libraries (67%), and shopping centres (67%) in their area were ‘yes, definitely’ ‘“shared and open” to both Protestants and Catholics’ (NILTS, 2016). The next-most popular answer to each of these questions was ‘yes, probably’ – a conditional bringing with it the implication that these supposedly public spaces may not be truly inclusive (other possible survey responses were ‘no, probably not’, ‘no, definitely not’, ‘none in this area’, and ‘don’t know’ (NILTS, 2016). While respondents seemed generally positive about the inclusion of all residents at community spaces, reactions were less steadfast when asked about markers of cultural expression, with 33% of those surveyed either disagreeing or ‘strongly’ disagreeing that bonfires were a form of cultural expression, and 42% agreeing or ‘strongly’ agreeing (NILTS, 2016). Opinions were even more negative when asked if Northern Ireland was a place free of displays of sectarianism: 52% disagreed with the statement, while 24% ‘strongly’ disagreed (and only 1% ‘strongly agreed’) (NILTS, 2016). While public spaces may be open to most, if not all, markers of division can be seen by those on both sides of the divide. This is a worrying statistic if the conflict in Northern Ireland is to be considered ‘solved’ and peace is to be considered ‘achieved’ – if civil society remains divided, it seems impossible to move beyond simply managing the aftermath of conflict toward a truly inclusive future.

Not surprisingly, the mixed opinion on the cultural legitimacy of bonfires and flag displays could be observed across Northern Ireland throughout the 2017 marching season, culminating with myriad July 12 bonfire displays. In 2014, the Community Relations Council noted in its biennial Peace Monitoring Report that nearly half of all bonfires erected in 2013 included the Irish flag or other obvious Irish insignia (Nolan, 2014: 125). This trend has endured in the years since, with many Irish in Northern Ireland interpreting these displays as forms of aggression – or even hate crimes, as with the display of John Finucane’s Sinn Féin campaign poster on a Belfast bonfire in 2017 (Williamson, 11 July 2017). The bonfire structures are not the only way the annual displays make the degree of division in Northern Ireland apparent – reactions to bonfire celebrations also highlights the enduring schism. In July 2017, during the lead-up to Eleventh Night, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service ran a social media campaign aimed at protecting the safety of their personnel, reminding bonfire attendees that firefighters who may appear at the scene would have to have been called there because people were worried the fire was out of control, and were ‘not there to spoil anyone’s fun’ as they had no power to remove safe structures (04:06, 11 July 2017; 07:46, 11 July 2017). Posts across Twitter and Facebook encouraged community leaders to protect firefighters if their intervention was necessary, but these posts were evidently not enough to protect first responders: two groups of firefighters came under attack over the course of the evening while responding to fires threatening property and personal safety (BBC News Northern Ireland, 12 July 2017). Despite every attempt to position the role of these public service officials as non-partisan, their politicisation through simply doing their job raises considerable concerns for the progress made to date on bringing about positive peace in Northern Ireland: nearly two decades after the end of the Troubles, this remains a potential symptom of a larger problem as Catholics and Protestants clash over both social and political issues.

The annual bonfires and parades are not the only aspect of the ‘culture war’ resisting the new beginnings promised by the Good Friday Agreement, replacing active fighting in the region with new hallmarks of division. As of the time of this posting, the Northern Ireland Executive at Stormont has been suspended since 16 January 2017 – over nine months. The most recent impasse between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin is over the issue of the Irish Language Act – an effort alternatively seen as supporting Irish identity or threatening to erode British identity (Dunbar, 2017). This shift from the use of violence and paramilitary actors to enforce and define patterns of division has allowed the general population to take up the mantle instead, reaching the highest levels of civil society in Northern Ireland and forcing the government ultimately to take a side if it wants to regain its footing and maintain devolved government in the region.

Northern Ireland today bears a striking difference to the years of the peace process, and yet patterns of division appear relatively static. The region, for the time being, seems locked in this cycle of negative peace, succeeding in significantly reducing instances of sectarian violence but failing to properly account for the endurance of the opinions and beliefs at the heart of these past clashes. Without continuing work at the grassroots level, aimed at changing generational division and challenging historical patterns of division, it seems likely that such a schism will endure into the future. Outside forces now at play in the region – most notably Brexit and the controversial debate about the border with the Republic of Ireland – have the potential to exacerbate, rather than alleviate, the on-going culture war, providing new focal points for the undercurrent of anxiety over identity and politics that have characterised the region for the past two decades.


BBC News. ‘Gerry Adams: No Assembly without Irish Language Act’. 30 August 2017.

BBC News Northern Ireland. ‘Eleventh Night bonfires: ‘Exceptionally busy’ for firefighters’. 12 July 2017.

Dunbar, C 2017 Northern Ireland Assembly Divided by Irish Language Act. BBC News Northern Ireland. 28 June 2017.

Galtung, J 1964 An Editorial. Journal of Peace Research, 1 (1): 1-4.

Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service (@NIFRSOFFICIAL) 2017 ‘If you’re at a bonfire tonight & see Firefighters, it’s because someone in the area is concerned & has contacted us for help. #firesafety’. 04:06, 11 June 2017. Tweet.

Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service (@NIFRSOFFICIAL) 2017 ‘Firefighters are not our to spoil anyone’s fun tonight–their job is to protect life&property from the dangers of fire #protectingoucommunity’. 07:46, 11 June 2017. Tweet.

Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey 2016. Ark Northern Ireland. 2017.

Nolan, P 2014 Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report Number Three. Community Relations Council.

‘The Agreement’. 10 April 1998. Available from <https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/136652/agreement.pdf&gt;. [3 May 2017].

Williamson, C 2017 Sinn Fein’s John Finucane reports election posters on bonfire to PSNI. Belfast Telegraph. 11 July 2017.

Amanda Hall is a PhD Candidate in International Relations at the University of St Andrews. Her research focuses on the ‘inter-referendum years’ in Northern Ireland, exploring patterns of community division and role of the grassroots peace process in the region from 1998 to 2016. Her broader academic interests include post-conflict politics, peace processes, identity, nationalism, and borders. She tweets @amandalhall.

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