A report compiled by researchers at Queen’s University Belfast has unveiled that there is much to learn from mistakes made during the notorious Belfast flag protest of December 2012.
In December 2012, a decision was made by Belfast City Council to reduce the number of days which the Union flag is flown at the City Hall. This decision proved to be a controversial move, which heightened tensions and lead to numerous street protests across the City Centre.
QUB’s Institute for the Study of Conflict and Transformation and Social Justice has produced a report entitled ‘The flag Dispute: Anatomy of a Protest”. The paper suggests that the flag debacle called into question the ability of politicians in Northern Ireland to resolve political issues within democratic institutions in which they preside.
The research also highlights that issues which remain unresolved by politicians within society, tend not to dissolve, but remain prevalent within communities. Dr Paul Nolan, the lead author of the study, depicted how the analysis contained within the report shows “that when politicians fail to find agreement on issues, they do not go away. Instead power ‘leeches out’ onto the street and the issues reappear in the form of street protests and public disorder”
The report not only explores the political fall out, but also examines how the protests originated and gained momentum. Beyond this, the study casts greater insight into how the police service managed the fallout from the demonstrations in terms of crowd management, arrests and sentencing of protestors.
A large amount of original data provided the basis of the report, including interviews with various respondents directly affected by the protests including senior police officers, politicians, community workers, local residents and protestors. Print, broadcast and social media were also analysed to provide an overview of changes in public attitudes towards flags, protest and the peace protest 2012/13.
Co-author of the study, Dr Katy Hayward, said that the after effects of the Belfast flag protest, alongside “ongoing problems of poverty and marginalisation”, have developed “familiar trends of cultural contestation and distrust of political institutions”, which therefore “shaped people’s experience of the protest and contributed to its lasting impact on individuals and the wider community”. However according to another co-author of the study, Professor Peter Shirlow, this impact is on a significantly smaller scale that similar events in Northern Ireland’s troubled past, and believes descriptions of a “culture war” to be misleading and unhelpful.
Emphasis is however placed in the report upon instances when differences over symbols have been resolved successfully, and encourages a creative type of thinking be adapted to similar scenarios in the future. In particular, Dr Dominic Bryan stated, “there will be other symbolic issues which could ignite similar passions. The politicians and civic society have a duty to work together to make sure that they do not. That means they must do more than simply express grievance; instead they must work to find solutions”.
This particular study could not be more timely, due to the current political talks which seek to deal with contentious issues such as flags, parades and the past. It is hoped this research will provide optimism and reassurance that difficult matters can be resolved.
The full and summary reports can be found here:
A print version of the report will be launched by Queen’s in January.
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