For years, both sides of the political, religious and cultural divide have stridently been at odds over each other’s culture. For those of a mainly British and unionist identity, the Union flag, 12th July parades and bonfires and the Ulster Scots language are an indispensable part of their daily lives. The same is true for those of a mainly Irish and nationalist identity, only with the Irish tricolour, 9th August bonfires and parades and the Irish language. Tensions and even violence can arise from the profound disagreement between the two distinct identities. This situation leads many to ask a simple question: can there ever be a solution?
Over the course of the days leading up to and including 12th July, we disappointingly witnessed tension between the two identities, particularly around the interface between the predominantly unionist Tiger’s Bay and mainly nationalist New Lodge estates. Youths from New Lodge for three consecutive nights launched bricks, bottles and petrol bombs not only at police officers but also at passing motorists as well as setting furniture alight in the middle of the busy North Queen Street. This left many families and elderly people in the local area fearful of leaving their own homes. Simultaneously, there were several bonfires in and around the North Belfast area which were embellished with effigies of nationalist politicians, the Irish tricolour, insensitive comments about the late Bobby Storey and sectarian statements such “KAT” (Kill All Taigs i.e Catholics). These kinds of symbols and statements left many feeling offended and insulted. Yet both of these examples are merely a snapshot of the absence of any mutual respect between different identities in Northern Ireland today and just go to demonstrate the sheer magnitude of the challenge that is faced in confronting these very real issues.
Firstly, let’s take flags. Flags are a symbol of a person’s, and more often a nation’s, identity; the Union flag is the national flag of the UK while the Irish tricolour is the national flag of the Republic of Ireland. Therefore, whenever we refer to flags, it’s important we show respect for them as national flags of two states. Now progressing onto flags as a proclamation of someone’s identity, it’s important that respect is also shown to flags used in this scenario. It is not right or proper to flaunt the flag that you identify with over others who may identify with a different flag as is done so frequently with flags adorning innumerable lampposts across Northern Ireland. Likewise, the burning of the flag someone identifies with on a bonfire, as is often the case in certain communities, is effectively giving the two fingers to people who identify with that flag. The solution to the misuse of flags is for them they are flown and displayed on private, not public property and mutual respect is shown for different flags.
Now, let’s move onto parades. Parades are an important aspect of both the British/unionist and Irish/nationalist cultures. They have produced contention for years. This can be seen with the protracted difficulties in the past for example over parades in Drumcree and Ardoyne. Parades passing along a contested route and controversial songs and music during parades are just some of these contentions that have emerged. Disputes and disagreements over parades are virtually an annual event in Northern Ireland. However it doesn’t have to be this way; if we seek to cultivate respectful relationships between bands and local communities to ensure mutual understanding between all parties, parades are more likely to be calm and respectful events. Bands must be encouraged to conduct their parades respectfully whilst local communities must be encouraged to engage with bands to facilitate their legitimate right to parade. Parades can be an enriching aspect of culture but only if all parties involved work collaboratively to make this a reality.
Often the most complex aspect of culture in Northern Ireland is bonfires. These pyres of wood can cause consternation with their displays of photographs of well-known politicians from both sides of the political divide as well as national flags and sectarian statements such as “KAT” (Kill All Taigs i.e. Catholics) and “KAH” (Kill All Huns i.e. Protestants). Sectarian bonfires make my blood boil but the environmental damage of some bonfires alongside the danger they can pose to some peoples’ homes infuriates me further. Bonfires are a legitimate way of expressing one’s culture but there can be no place for bonfires which consist of sectarian bile, which destroy the environment or which pose a threat to peoples’ safety. On this particular issue, more work needs to be done both within communities where the bonfires take place and between communities and relevant agencies to educate around the need for bonfires to be respectful of all, environmentally sound and structurally safe.
One of the issues which has provoked the most debate in recent years in political circles is that of an Irish Language Act and specific rights for Irish speakers in Northern Ireland. It was one of the issues that prevented the re-establishment of power-sharing government here for over three years. However the issue shouldn’t really be with the enshrining of protections for Irish speakers into law, it should be the politicisation of the language by Sinn Fein and others. Sinn Fein and others convey sentiments implying that the language is only for those with an Irish or nationalist identity. This cannot be the case when for example there are many with a unionist or British identity who speak Irish. The politicisation of Irish not only extends to demarcation by Sinn Fein but also to derision and mocking by the DUP and others. We all remember DUP East Londonderry MP, Gregory Campbell’s infamous “Curry my yoghurt” comments in 2014. Comments such as these are nothing short of disgraceful and disrespectful to those who speak the language. Comparable but less serious difficulties can be found with the treatment of the Ulster-Scots language/dialect. All minority languages or dialects, whether indigenous or not, should be respected in Northern Ireland. There is no reason why this can’t be the case and it must be if this is truly to be a more inclusive society.
Sport is an often-forgotten part of culture in Northern Ireland. Whether it’s football, rugby or Gaelic football, many thousands of people right across the country participate in major sports such as these and others week in, week out. Unfortunately, there is still an element of sectarianism rooted in some sports such as football and Gaelic football in particular. Often your political or religious background can play a significant role in how you are treated in both these sports. For example, for some, Gaelic football is perceived as being a sport reserved only for those who are of a nationalist persuasion or there can sometimes be divisions between so-called mainly Catholic or Protestant teams in football. Good work is being done on the ground in sports such as Gaelic football and football to reduce and eventually eliminate sectarianism. A sign of changing times was the recent creation of a new GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) club in predominantly unionist East Belfast which is endeavouring to be inclusive of the entire community. It will be a true sign of success though whenever people from all backgrounds and sections of the community feel able to get involved in all sports without fear of facing sectarianism or prejudice.
Disputes over culture are something which we all wish were not a frequent or regular occurrence but unfortunately there is little we can do about that right now. The work by the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition will hopefully go some way to addressing the substantial issues relating to culture in Northern Ireland today. The onus is on the Northern Ireland Executive and the Assembly to progress work on this, both in terms of policy on the part of the Government and in terms of legislative action by MLAs. Work must also be undertaken within communities and right across society to ensure that the right conversations are held between the right people and to enact change on the ground. The 2020s offer us an opportunity to really progress this issue. Let’s not waste any more time.
Peter Wilson is a 17 year old student studying A Levels in Politics, History and Sociology. He is a member of Alliance and the Liberal Democrats. His interests include local politics, British politics and Irish politics.