Belfast: New Battle-Lines in a Post-Conflict City

Is The city once known for violent sectarian conflict being rebranded as a competitive city, ‘open for business’? Originally published by ‘New Left Project,’ our latest contribution to our series on contentious commemorations and forgotten narratives comes from Stephen Baker, who analyses Belfast, its middle classes and ongoing sectarian tensions. 

Casting off Belfast’s bad image and reputation has been a priority for policy makers in Northern Ireland. The city once better known for violent sectarian conflict and a reliance on a substantial subvention from the British exchequer is being rebranded as a competitive city, ‘open for business’ and offering the sort of boutique lifestyle and cultural experience deemed prerequisites in attracting foreign investment and talented, creative workers. The transformation is most conspicuous in the remaking of the city’s centre. Belfast can now boast cultural and business quarters, grand conference and concert halls; large retail arcades; and attractive riverside developments that combine residential life, work and leisure facilities. The signs of economic dependency and political primitiveness are being erased as the city strives to present an exciting, dynamic urban environment that is free from the signs of the battlefield. What remains is repackaged as heritage.

Complimenting the physical transformation of Belfast is a concerted ‘propaganda of peace’ that explicitly links political progress with economic regeneration (McLaughlin and Baker, 2010). In the late 1980s the Northern Ireland Office commissioned television ‘advertisements’ that encouraged people to report paramilitary activity to the police. Here Belfast was presented as a derelict, dystopia, patrolled by hooded gunmen. But by 1995, the year after the ceasefires, the NIO message had moved on: the images were now of the region’s sporting personalities and celebrities, as well as offering images of beautiful sunrises over Belfast and stunning coastal and rural scenery. Accompanied by the music of Van Morrison, these short-films, made for television, had the look of glossy tourist advertisements. They were not just selling peace, they were presenting Northern Ireland to a domestic audience as a potentially desirable commodity in the global market place.

This is what it means to be a post-conflict city. It is not just the absence of violence that defines it. It is the submission of the city to neo-liberal rationality. As Jewesbury and Porter (2010) argue, Belfast is subject to a ‘moralising politics of social and economic development.’ They go on to say that “post-Agreement Belfast has, to a significant degree, become a story in which the twin moral goods of political progress and privatised, neo-liberal economic development are folded into one another.”

This apparently natural correlation of peace and the global free-market was reiterated recently by the British Prime Minister, David Cameron in October 2013, when he spoke of ‘a new Northern Ireland open for business, ready for investment, strengthening the foundations for peace, stability and prosperity and determined to be defined not by divided past but by shared future’. But there is a fly in the ointment of what Cameron referred to as ‘this incredible success story’. Belfast (and Northern Ireland) remains deeply, politically divided and prone to periodic violence, putting the city’s post-conflict designation into question.

The union flag protests in Belfast that began in December 2012 are a case in point and often held up as a throwback to the city’s ‘bad old days’. But seen in the context of the concerted efforts to rebrand Belfast as a competitive city, they are as much an indication of how much has changed since the peace process. The flag protests began in December 2012 when Belfast City Council voted to reduce the number of days that the Union flag would fly above city hall. Unionists met the decision with anger seeing it as diminution of the city’s British identity. In the run-up to the city council vote the mainstream unionist parties had distributed 40,000 copies of an inflammatory leaflet in which they accused the centrist Alliance Party of conniving with Irish republicans in the removal of the flag. In fact the Alliance Party had been advocating compromise, arguing against the flag’s complete removal and for it to be flown on designated days. But in scapegoating Alliance, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in particular, was looking to capitalise on grassroots unionist disaffection, helping them regain the East Belfast constituency for its leader and Northern Ireland’s First Minster Peter Robinson (a seat he lost to the Alliance Party’s Naomi Long at the last general election). It was a cynical and opportunistic move, and typically, unionist leaders quickly lost control of the situation as protests, fuelled by working class unionist resentment and alienation, gained a momentum of their own. Demonstrations were held, roads in and out of the city were blocked, Alliance Party offices attacked, as were the homes of some of its members, and there were frequent violent clashes between police and protestors. Once again Northern Ireland was making international news headlines for all the wrong reasons, prompting the business community to intervene with stark warnings about the damage being done to the region’s international reputation and the commercial life of the city. According to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) the cost of the flag protests to Belfast businesses lay somewhere in the region of £10 – 15m.


Concern for retailers, restaurateurs and pub owners in the run-up to Christmas 2012 prompted a social media campaign urging customers to #takebackthecity from loyalist protestors. In what looked like a peculiar re-alignment of the Northern Ireland conflict, the #takebackthecity campaign proposed that retailers and consumers challenge loyalist belligerence by engaging in acts of conspicuous consumption. The new battle-lines were emphasised the weekend before Christmas when the Belfast Telegraph carried some good news for city centre businesses on its front page, with a headline that declared: ‘Late-night shoppers defy flag protestors: festive cheer at last for retailers.’ There was more welcome news for retailers after Christmas in the traditionally lean month of January when the Northern Ireland Finance Minister, the DUP’s Sammy Wilson, announced that the Stormont executive would give £600,000 to a major promotional campaign, ‘Backin Belfast’. The aim of the campaign was to revitalise trade in the city centre and counter the impact of the flag protests.

There is surely something ironic about a DUP minister giving money to a bruised business class in order to repair the commercial damage his party helped to cause. But it is a sign of how local politicians, skilled in the arts of playing to the fears and prejudices of their traditional voters, are now also obliged to wield administrative and executive power at Stormont in the interests of local entrepreneurs and foreign investors. The problem is that the distance between these constituencies is vast.

The disaffected working class unionists that provided the bulwark of flag protestors increasingly look upon the peace process in terms of what they consider themselves to have lost; most obviously, in this instance, their majority on Belfast City Council. Added to this is the disintegration of the state to which they have historically given their allegiance. Stormont, of course, was prorogued in 1972 but now the United Kingdom, more broadly, is undergoing a radical transformation with the contraction of the welfare state and the gradual break-up of Britain. Waning political power has been accompanied by a loss of economic status, with the disappearance of the heavy industries that once provided working class unionists with employment and prestige. Seen in this context, the dispute in Belfast over flags has less to do with an assertion of the old unionist supremacy and more to do with an economically and politically beleaguered community trying to insist upon symbolic presence in a city that is changing and in which it is becoming increasingly marginalised.

Demographics matter in Belfast and are given an ugly sectarian inflection throughout Northern Ireland where unionists tend to be Protestants and nationalists tend to be Catholics. The Protestant population in the region is in decline and ageing, while in Belfast, Catholics now outnumber Protestants 49% to 42%. Catholics also outstrip Protestants in terms of educational achievement, making up two-thirds of Northern Ireland’s university intake, a figure that perhaps bodes better for Catholic social mobility than Protestant. And yet working class Catholics live in areas that are still disproportionately represented among the poorest wards in Northern Ireland. Indeed these wards were deprived at the start of the troubles in 1969 and they remain deprived today.1102664_569103456482787_1599141785_o.jpg

The volatility of sectarian relations in Belfast often deflects critical attention from the emergence of a new social group: a young, educated and aspiring middle class that has sufficient income to enjoy the city’s new culture of restaurants, shopping malls, bars and night clubs. This is the group most easily rallied by the call to #takebackthecity from the predominately working class flag protestors who many view with a mixture of incomprehension and contempt. The disruption caused by the flag protests moved one local commentator to advance a call-to-arms to his fellow middle class citizens of Northern Ireland.

Just as the young, educated middle classes in the Maghreb states, Eastern Europe and Asia are subjugated by autocratic dictators, so it is that the young, educated, middle-class in Northern Ireland are subjugated by “barbaric sectarian leaders” […] and the feral communities that they play-out to.

The article ends by encouraging the middle class to engage in a campaign of peaceful protest, to challenge the ‘delinquent extremists’, ‘jackboot lunatic class’ and the ‘reactionary throwback politicians and street thugs that continually soil the good name of Northern Ireland.’

Whether this enterprising young middle class can manifest itself in any significant way remains to be seen. Its potential composition is not clear, although the good news stories about Northern Ireland’s growing creative sector and knowledge economy give a clue to where its personnel may be drawn from. One of the key problems in trying to quantify or qualify this group is the absence of any real data. As the Community Relations Council’s Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report from 2013 notes: ‘The hold of poverty on the research agenda has led to the eclipse of inequality as a category.’ And with it, perhaps, goes any serious attention to Northern Ireland’s middle class generally, never mind Belfast’s emerging entrepreneurs.

But if this enterprising young middle class does grow it may have already identified its crucial constitutive outside in the shape of working class unionism. An indication of this is the class character of the criticism levelled at flag protestors, which has sparked a fierce and often bad tempered debate among some local commentators. As Stephanie Lawler (2005) points out, middle class identities are often forged through their disgust at working-class existence and by comparing their own good taste, high morals, work ethic and spending power with the assumed absence of such qualities among the lower orders. This sort of identity formation is apparent in the response of ‘middle Ulster’ to the flag protests. Working class unionists have been routinely ‘satirised’ on various social media for their perceived lack of decorum, their accents and poor literacy-skills. More widely they are berated for their apparent lack of economic understanding (can’t they see what they are doing to the Northern Ireland brand?), their political immaturity (can’t they see the harm they’re doing to themselves and their own communities?) and their atavism (they’re stuck in the past and backward looking). Conversely, ‘middle Ulster’ seems to self-associate with a hard-headed understanding of the economic realities that face Northern Ireland in tough times, looking boldly to the future, identifying with the narrative of Belfast’s rejuvenation.

And there is something compelling about that narrative given its obvious expression in Belfast’s hosting of spectacular events like the MTV European Music Awards in 2011 and the on-going filming of HBO’s acclaimed television series Game of Thrones on the site of city’s now redundant shipbuilding industry. The patronage of such global brands is highly prized in Belfast, vouching for the recuperation of the city’s international image and reputation, and the economic dividend it brings to boot. The European Music Awards are reported to have generated approximately £22m for the region – £25 for every £1 of public money spent on the event. Meanwhile, the filming of Game of Thrones is estimated to have pumped £65m into the local economy, a substantial return on the £6.05m Northern Ireland Screen Fund (supported by Invest NI) paid in grants to HBO to help with the costs of the first two series. Quite where the surplus money goes is a moot point. But it certainly doesn’t seem to be reaching the working class areas that have waited a long time for any sign of the vaunted ‘peace dividend’ that was promised as an accompaniment to political accord in Northern Ireland. Instead working class constituents have been confronted with a vicious, punitive form of austerity imposed from above, resulting in the loss of jobs, pay, working conditions and public services. At the same time Northern Ireland faces a dramatic process of economic restructuring, which along with an end to paramilitary violence, was always a key objective of the peace process.

This is what Conor McCabe refers to as Northern Ireland’s ‘double transition’, from conflict to political accord, and from a broadly social democratic settlement to neoliberalism. Indeed the ‘peace dividend’ is better understood, not as some economic bonanza awarded for good political behaviour, but as the region’s incorporation into free market capitalism after years dependency. But the potential of this economic transition to threaten peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland should not be underestimated. As McCabe (2013) argues:

The rebuilding of Northern Ireland’s social space on a stable and secure footing is not possible in a world where people rent their lives, and the lives of their children, from finance and its standing army of lawyers, accountants, stockbrokers and estate agents. The future of Northern Ireland rests with what it holds in common – that is, its health, education, housing and infrastructure networks – as these are the things which all modern societies need in order to reproduce themselves in a sustainable way.

Reflecting upon the prospects for war and peace in the twenty-first century, Eric Hobsbawm points out that ‘the more rapidly growing inequalities created by uncontrolled free-market globalisation are natural incubators of grievance and instability’. In a city like Belfast, with two historically antagonistic communities, growing inequality has the potential to create violent competition for diminishing resources. Indeed there is something risible about the idea of rebranding Belfast as a competitive city, where everyone is encouraged to see themselves as entrepreneurs dedicated to the pursuit of profit. Doesn’t peace in a divided society require mutuality and cooperation?

What we have instead are the loyalist flag protests, as well as the growing threat from violent Irish republicanism with its own reasons to be disenchanted, that testify to the very real danger of a new wave of violence. Neo-liberalism’s answer to conflict is to try to strip away the meaningful cultural and political frameworks within which people are situated, offering consumerism as preferable to political forms of citizenship and solidarity. David Harvey (2008) describes the environment in which we find ourselves as ‘a world in which the neoliberal ethic of intense, possessive individualism, and its political withdrawal from collective forms of action, becomes the template for human socialisation.’ As Northern Ireland acquaints itself with neo-liberalism (red in tooth and claw) it is learning that the old communal loyalties are not welcome. Now everyone is expected to acquiesce to the atomising and commercial demands of the market. But the pleasures of the market are not enjoyed evenly. For many people, forms of unreconstructed loyalism and republicanism may provide greater satisfaction than consumerism, which in any case may be out of their financial reach. If there is one thing that can be said for sectarianism, it gives meaning to one’s life and it’s free at the point of entry.

The choice in Northern Ireland was once a question of constitutional arrangements: would the region be governed as a constituent of the United Kingdom or as a part of a united, sovereign Ireland. With the Good Friday Agreement now over 17 years old, the apparent choice today is between sectarianism and shopping. Certainly the most obvious tensions in Belfast seem to be between an emergent culture of individual, middle class consumer lifestyle choices and residual identities, rooted in stout political allegiances and noisy public manifestations. That should change how we look at the city. The tendency to see political conflict in Belfast as defined by sectarian rivalry shouldn’t obscure the important role that contemporary capitalism and class play in its dynamic. Understandably academics and commentators have been fascinated by the thinking and behaviour of loyalists and republicans, but maybe a little more attention needs to be paid to the city’s middle class. Its privileged positioning within the institutions of government, education and media, as well as its crucial place among the new entrepreneurs, means that middle class political influence should not be underestimated, allowed to go unnoticed or taken for granted. Since it enjoys relative definitional authority its values and prejudices should be interrogated for the role they play in exacerbating the tensions that beset the city, just as loyalism’s and republicanism’s are.

Stephen is a member of the Green Party, UCU Trade Unionist and Co-Author of ‘The Propaganda of Peace.’ You can follow his musings on the tweet machine.