Reimagining Belfast: Obstacles and opportunities since the Good Friday Agreement

3rd Mar 2020 by Simon Mabon

Reimagining Belfast:  Obstacles and opportunities since the Good Friday Agreement

Cathal McManus, Queen's University Belfast.

In April 2018 Northern Ireland marked the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. The occasion, however, rather than being one of celebration, was a somewhat sombre affair given the context of a collapsed power-sharing Assembly and with relations between unionist and nationalist parties having almost totally broken down. As such, those events organised to mark the achievement of the Agreement largely took the form of critical reflections on what might have been and how the promise of 1998 had been seemingly lost (McManus, 2019).

Using Belfast as a case-study, this paper will argue that a primary reason for Northern Ireland’s continued difficulties centres on a failure to adequately address those processes of Othering that help to enable a form of sectarian politics (McManus, 2017). To develop this, the paper will make several key claims. Firstly, it will contend that the sociocultural, political and demographic changes of the past two decades have greatly unsettled the loyalist working class communities in the city and, consequently, their sense of fear and threat has increased considerably. This has been aided by a distinct lack of political leadership from within unionism which has failed to provide direction to those communities at times of significant change. Secondly, the nationalist community, buoyed by an increased and increasing demographic and visibility for their Irish cultural identity, have helped to reinforce the sense of alienation and threat felt by the loyalist community – despite repeated claims that this would not happen. Finally, the paper will argue that Belfast’s civic society, and specifically those who would now claim to be neither unionist or nationalist, have similarly disregarded the fears and insecurities of the loyalist working classes which has served to further generate a new siege mentality within that community – a politics of “us” against the rest (Hayward and McManus, 2019).

To argue these claims, it is necessary to provide a short historical context to Belfast society and the changes it has experienced over recent decades.In using Belfast as a case-study for wider issues faced in Northern Ireland, the paper will draw attention to the role that the urban plays in helping to frame notions of political identity, belonging and, indeed, hegemony. The changing demographic shifts in Belfast are helping to transform it from being the bastion of Ulster Unionism to something new but, as yet, still contested. The power and symbolism of this transformation has not been lost on either nationalists nor unionists and as such generates the potential for further conflict in the years ahead. To argue these claims, it is necessary to provide a short historical context to Belfast society and the changes it has experienced over recent decades.


Belfast – The Decline of the Loyal City?


Between the Act of Union of 1801 – which created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland – and the 1911 census, the population of Belfast grew from approximately 20,000 to over 385,000, transforming it from a small commercial town to Ireland’s largest and most industrial city. Its population was predominantly Protestant and, by 1914, it had become the centre of anti-Home Rule sentiment as moves towards some form of Irish self-government gathered pace. The political tensions generated by the issue of Home Rule between 1885 and 1914 had led to periodic outbreaks of sectarian violence as both communities gave vent to their anger and fears. This intensified during the period 1918-1921 as conflict on the island over Irish independence deepened and as partition became a reality (Bardon, 2001 [1992]).

Northern Ireland first came into being as a result of the 1920 Government of Ireland Act and was reinforced in the aftermath of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty that granted the rest of the island a degree of political independence. Covering the six North-Eastern counties of Derry/Londonderry, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Armagh, Down and Antrim, the new Northern Ireland had a significant Catholic/nationalist minority that amounted to around one-third of the population. Despite claims from Unionist leaders that this population would be treated fairly, Catholics were only ever viewed with suspicion and as posing a threat to the new state and the type of “British” society it was seen to represent. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Belfast – the capital city of the new state – where Catholics, already often excluded from particular forms of employment, were physically forced out of employment as tensions heightened. In the period 1920-22, for example, up to 10,000 Catholics (and those deemed “sympathisers – usually trade unionists) were expelled from the Sirocco Works, Mackie’s, McLaughlin and Harvey’s, Musgrave’s and Combe Barbour’s (Ibid: 470-474). 

The narrative that emerged from this period – but which was already well established – took on two key forms. Firstly, it became popular opinion that the Catholic community were disloyal and, as such, represented a threat to the state. Secondly, it was also a popularised belief that the Catholic Irish identity was backward and as a result posed a threat to the superior British character represented by Protestantism and which was deemed to be at the heart of the new state. As shall be discussed, this latter aspect has taken a deeper significance in the era of the peace process but can be seen, initially, from a parliamentary debate in May 1923 over the Unionist Government employing an “organiser of Irish language instruction”. One unionist contributor to the debate, Robert Lynn, posed a question to the Minister for Education that, in many ways, highlights the manner in which many unionists have come to view expressions of Irishness:

I would like to know from my hon. Friend whether it is really seriously intended to maintain this organiser of Irish language instruction, and I would also like to ask him whether a circular has been issued, I am sorry to say I did not see it myself until this morning, saying that in cases where Irish is taken up history may be dropped? I respectfully suggest to the Ministry of Education that history, that is, real history, not imaginative history of the Irish type, would be of more benefit to the schools than the teaching of Irish. That is purely a sentimental thing. None of these people who take up Irish ever know anything about it. They can spell their own names badly in Irish, but that is all. I do not think it is worth spending any money on (as quoted in Stormont Papers: 1923; 663).

Unionist politicians have often been hostile to expressions of Irishness in Northern Ireland. For unionism it is important that the British character of the state is emphasised whilst even acknowledging any sense of an Irish dimension can be deemed dangerous – it potentially undermines, for example, Margaret Thatcher’s claim that Northern Ireland is as “British and Finchely”. Such a narrative has been significantly weakened, however, as the demographic makeup of Northern Ireland and Belfast has changed over the past half century. According to the 2011 census there was a continued narrowing of the gap between Catholics (45.1 per cent) and Protestants (48.4 per cent) across the state whilst in Belfast Catholics had become the largest section of the community. According to the 2011 census the number of Catholics in the city had risen from 131,000 in 2001, to 136,000 whilst the number of Protestants had dramatically fallen from 135,000 to 119,000. Current patterns on birth rates/death rates suggest this trend is going to continue for the foreseeable future. 

Importantly, those identifying as “Others” had more than doubled – from 12,000 in 2001 to 26,000 in 2011.


Loyalism under Siege again?


The political ramifications of these demographic changes have been significant. In Belfast City Council, once a bastion of unionism, the balance of power has completely changed. As early as 1997 unionists lost overall control of the Council, with the middle-of-the-road Alliance Party holding the balance between nationalism and unionism. This subsequently led to the City having its first nationalist Lord Mayor, Alban Maginness of the SDLP, and, perhaps even more symbolically, its first Sinn Féin Mayor when Alex Maskey was elected to the office in 2002. Furthermore, in 2011, nationalists outnumbered unionists in the chamber for the first time – 24 to 21 – which had an immediate political impact. It led to calls from nationalist politicians for City Hall, indeed for Belfast more generally, to better reflect the Irish heritage of the Catholic population and to grant a parity of esteem to the Irish identity. This had been an ongoing issue for over a decade as nationalists increasingly complained about the almost exclusively British character of City Hall with Nolan et al highlighting that: 

…it was not just the memorials around the exterior of the building that appeared to represent British identity: the internal decorations could be seen to express the same predominance. Growing controversy about this cultural environment reflects Belfast’s shifting demographic and political landscape in more recent times (Nolan, Bryan, et al, 2014).  

 This became an increasingly important issue following the 2011 election with attention being turned to the Council’s policy of permanently flying the Union flag at City Hall. Sinn Féin, the largest party in the Chamber, had already been querying the policy but this intensified in the aftermath of the elections. As the issue was discussed in committees it became apparent that both the SDLP and Sinn Féin preferred a policy of no flags but, crucially, the Alliance Party backed a Designated Days policy – that the flag would still be flown but only on certain symbolic days of the year. This division meant that there was deadlock on the issue as neither side had the numbers to get their preference through full Council, but this changed dramatically in December 2012 when Sinn Féin decided to back the ‘compromise’ approach put forward by Alliance.

Loyalists reacted with anger to the Council’s vote and violence erupted across parts of the city – especially in the working-class Protestant districts of East Belfast. The decision was interpreted by loyalists as further evidence of a concerted attempt by republicans to undermine the Britishness of the state that had already included attacks on Orange Order parades/culture and efforts to curtail 11th Night bonfires. At the same time, there was, they believed, a concerted effort to promote symbols of Irishness such as the GAA and the Irish language and that this amounted to a cultural war that was being waged predominantly by Sinn Féin but with the support of “others” (Ibid). 


The Cultural War, “Othering” and the Shared City


“Culture” has come to play an important role in the political divisions of Northern Ireland in the era of the peace process (McManus, 2017). David Trimble, as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party during the early years of the peace process, had suggested that this would be so when he told his party conference that culture would be a “political battleground” (Ibid). His experiences during the 1990s, as the parading disputes in Portadown, Derry and Belfast raged, alongside the cultural dimensions of the Agreement – specifically, the prominent status given to the Irish language – had convinced him that the British identity was under attack and, increasingly, becoming delegitimised. It was a priority of his, therefore, to take measures to fight back against what he perceived as those efforts to normalise Irishness within the context of the North. That this was a priority can be seen from his disastrous 2003 Northern Ireland Assembly election campaign in which the UUP adopted a “Simply British” political slogan and employed every stereotypical image of “Britishness”; from red double-decker buses to union flag emblazoned Mini Coopers to fish and chips served in yesterday’s newspaper!    

The actions of republicans have unquestionably served to reinforce the fears of unionists, but they also demonstrate the ongoing processes of Othering within the Catholic community that remain evident within the evolving peace process; an Othering that is helping to maintain and reinforce sectarian divisions in younger generations. Throughout the peace process Sinn Féin have insisted that Irish unity was an inevitability but, similarly, that this did not represent a threat to the British identity of Ulster’s Protestants. Indeed, they have consistently guaranteed that measures would be put in place to protect the Protestant/Orange heritage in any unified state.[1] Yet, their actions, especially since the 1990s, have done little to reassure unionists that this would be the case. The parading disputes, the Belfast City Hall flag issue and, most recently, a war of words on loyalist bonfires, have all suggested an agenda to delegitimise the British heritage of many Protestants. Moreover, they have been quite successful in this and have largely been aided by the often violent reactions of unionists to events. Thus, the parading disputes of the 1990s and, most recently, the stand-off in Ardoyne, has led to a gradual decline of the Orange Order that has been particularly evident within the Protestant middle-classes. (McAuley, Tonge, Mycock, 2011). This has been especially true in Belfast where the Orange Order’s reputation has been tarnished quite considerably and is now often associated with the loyalist working classes and, more specifically, loyalist paramilitaries. What is more, the middle-class exodus has led to a lack of political leadership capable of reversing the fortunes of the Order in the city. 

This has had significant repercussions on efforts to build a shared city that represents all communities. Although there is now a real willingness to incorporate elements of the Irish cultural heritage – the Irish language, traditional music and Gaelic games – it has become more complicated to incorporate the Orange heritage as it has become so tainted by sectarianism. Indeed, not only do nationalists and republicans tend to look down on loyalist culture but so too do the middle-class “others”. This has, inevitably, fed the anger and frustrations of unionists and loyalists who increasingly believe that their identity is under threat by a wide conspiracy that incorporates not only Sinn Féin and the SDLP but increasingly the moderate Alliance Party. That their anger and frustrations often manifest in violence only reinforces the negative imagery in the minds of nationalists and those “others” charged with building a shared city.




The experiences of Northern Ireland over the past twenty-one years highlight a number of key points when it comes to the on-going problem of sectarianism. Firstly, sectarianism is the result of long-term historical dynamics and as such it will not disappear overnight. Secondly, no group will claim/admit 

to being sectarian and often will only identify sectarianism in their “other”. This makes addressing sectarianism increasingly problematic. Thirdly, sectarianism manifests itself in different ways which can make it more difficult to identify in some groups than in others. Whilst it can be argued that the sectarianism of organisations such as the Orange Order is obvious, it is important to recognise the manner in which a more covert form of sectarianism drives the political agenda of others.       




Bardon, J. (2001 [1992]). A History of Ulster. Belfast: Blackstaff Press. 

Hayward, K., & McManus, C. (2019). Neither/nor: The rejection of unionist and nationalist identities in post-Agreement Northern Ireland. Capital and Class, 43(1), 139-155

McAuley, J. W.,Tonge, J., & Mycock, A. (2011). Loyal to the core? Orangeism and Britishness in Northern Ireland. Dublin: Irish Academic Press.

McManus, C. (2019). Identity and conflict in Northern Ireland. In S. Ratuva (Ed.), The Palgrave Handbook of Ethnicity (pp. 1-16). Singapore: Springer Nature.

McManus, C. (2017). Dealing with the legacy of ethnic conflict: Confronting “Othering” through transformative adult education—A Northern Ireland case study. Ethnopolitics, 16(4), 411-429.

Nolan, P.; Bryan, D.; Dwyer, C.; Hayward, K.; Radford, K.; Shirlow, P. (2014). The flag dispute: Anatomy of a protest. Belfast: Queen’s University.

[1] See for example: Matt Carthy writing in The Journal, ‘Unionists have nothing to fear from a united Ireland’: 30th June 2017


Cathal McManus is a Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen’s University Belfast. His research interests centre on political violence and, in particular, on processes of Othering that help to create the social and political conditions for extremism and leading to conflict. Related to this, he is interested in political identity formation and the role of nationalist ideology in generating sectarian divisions in contemporary society