Displaying the Flag: Transforming Conflict in Northern Ireland
Submitting InstitutionQueen's University Belfast
Unit of AssessmentAnthropology and Development Studies
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Law and Legal Studies: Other Law and Legal Studies
Summary of the impact
In Northern Ireland the display of symbols in public spaces has remained
a highly contested and consistent cause of public disorder. The research
outlined in this case study is a leading Office of the First Minister and
Deputy First Minister Indicator for effective policies on community
relations. Impact is evidenced through the research in five ways. It has
(i) altered government policies; (ii) enhanced broader democratic
participation in local government debates; (iii) increased conflict
resolution opportunities as part of local peace-building schemes; (iv)
informed United Nations' work on divided societies; and (v) facilitated
mediation networks dedicated to changing the nature of public space. It
has been carried out according to a government brief for the whole
Northern Ireland population, thereby encompassing the maximum scope
possible for impact within the legal jurisdiction of the state. The
research has been transformative in understanding and tackling the
extremely contested issue of how and when flags are used in public spaces
in Northern Ireland and it has influenced United Nations' consultations on
Anthropological approaches to understanding rituals and symbols can make
an important contribution to conflict transformation processes. In
Northern Ireland, disputes over flags and parades were centre stage as
severe violence erupted in the late 1960s. Identity conflicts have
continued to be marked by public symbols. Originating in ethnographic
research conducted by Dominic Bryan before and after the 1998 Northern
Ireland peace agreement, this case study examines the nature, distribution
and effect of displays of political symbols, particularly flags, on the
streets of Northern Ireland.
Between 2002 and 2006, Bryan held an ESRC award (Grant 1) which explored
how public symbols changed in the period after the signing of the 1998
Multi-Party Agreement between the UK and Irish governments. This research
demonstrated how markers of public identity altered according to new
social and political circumstances in a series of ethnographic research
case studies detailing the use of (a) emblems and flags by public bodies;
(b) contested spaces and emblems during St Patrick's Day; and (c) at
The impact of this work led to a second period of research commissioned
by the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland
(OFMDFM) from 2006-2010 (Grant 2). Despite public awareness of political
sensitivities around display, the research showed that 4,000 flags on
average were still placed on the main roads of Northern Ireland every
year. Research demonstrated that, on the one hand, socio-political
transformations were taking place in new symbols for the Northern Ireland
Assembly with a recognition of changing identities e.g. in the new badge
for the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) but that, on the other
hand, contestation in certain areas around the public flying of flags,
increased levels of conflict [2, 3, 4]. The research was graded `good' by
ESRC peer reviewers who commented that, `the quality of analysis was
generally excellent', `generating new knowledge and insights that in turn
are subject to rigorous social scientific analyses'. These research
findings have been referred to in Government reports, discussed in 4.1
below, as key indicators of the changing nature of conflicts over symbols
and space, first identified in the 1998 Multi-Party Agreement.
This 2006-2010 (OFMDFM) research specifically analysed the demarcation of
ethnic territory through displays of flags and emblems in public spaces.
Bryan developed (a) a mechanism for surveying all the arterial routes in
Northern Ireland over a 5 year period; (b) survey questions to test public
attitudes annually; and (c) five ethnographic case studies to give more
nuanced understandings of who puts flags up, when and why [5, 6]. The
research evaluated the on-going effectiveness of the Government's Shared
Future (2005) policy document and the multi-agency Joint
Protocol in Relation to Displays of Flags in Public Areas (2005) led
by the PSNI.
The research  provided clear evidence of how public space was
controlled using displays of flags, organised by young men with a
relationship to paramilitary groups. It showed that Government policy had
little impact on the numbers of flags displayed on main roads from
2006-2010; and that consistently over one-third of flags visible in July
remain flying after September but that there had been some reduction in
the display of paramilitary flags. The attitude surveys suggest that over
50% of people think that both the Union flags and the national flag of
Ireland are put up on lampposts by paramilitaries and that this makes
people less likely to use services and businesses in those areas.
Importantly, the research showed that flying of flags on lampposts does
not have widespread community support and that there is a commonly held
sense of threat around the displays. Results from this research were
confirmed by a more local level project carried out in Armagh City in 2012
funded by the Community Relations Council (CRC) (Grant 3).
References to the research
. Bryan, D. 2000. Orange Parades: Ritual, Tradition and Control.
London: Pluto Press.
. Bryan, D. and G. Gillespie (2005) Transforming Conflict: Flags
and Emblems. Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies.
. Bryan, D. and G. McIntosh (2005). `Symbols: Sites of Creation and
Contest in Northern Ireland' SAIS Review of International Affairs
Vol. XXV, No.2 pp127-137.
. Bryan, D. and G. McIntosh 2007. `Symbols and Identity in the `New'
Northern Ireland'. In P. Carmichael, C. Knox and R. Osborne (eds) Devolution
and Constitutional Change in Northern Ireland Manchester: Manchester
University Press. Pp. 125-137.
. Bryan, D. 2007 `Between the national and the civic: Flagging peace
in, or a piece of, Northern Ireland'. In Thomas Hylland Eriksen and
Richard Jenkins (eds) Flag, Nation and Symbolism in Europe and America.
London: Routledge. Pp. 102-114.
. Bryan, D. and C. Stevenson 2009. `Flagging Peace: Struggles Over
Symbolic Landscape in the New Northern Ireland'. In Marc Howard Ross (ed)
Culture and Belonging in Divided Societies Philadelphia: University
of Pennsylvania Press. Pp.68-84.
1. ESRC no.L219252112, (2002-2006). £114,000. PI: Dr Dominic Bryan.
`Representing a new Northern Ireland: Sites of creation and contest in
devolved governance'. Referees' Evaluation Report: Good.
2. Office of the First and Deputy First Minister, Northern Ireland
(2006-2010). £160,000. PI: Dr Dominic Bryan. `Flags and Emblems Survey'.
3. Community Relations Council/Armagh City and District Council (2012):
£5,000. PI: Dr Dominic Bryan. `Attitudes Survey on Flags in the City of
Details of the impact
Contestation over displays of flags in public space has remained a key
issue in public debate in Northern Ireland and is an on-going issue in
peace-building. This research has provided the basis for the development
of public policy; it has had a very high profile in public debates over
the use of flags and emblems; it has been at the forefront of discussions
between public agencies attempting to engage with symbolic contestation;
it has been used by District councils and mediation groups in problem
solving; and it is being used by the United Nations as an example of how
to develop a strategy for understanding human rights and cultural
contestation in divided societies.
4.1 Impacts on Government Policy:
The initial project policy report, Transforming Conflict (Grant 2) had its
findings incorporated into the Government's Shared Future (2005:
19) policy. At the same time, the PSNI and Government departments
developed The Joint Protocol in Relation to the Displays of Flags in
Public Areas (2005). Funded by OFMDFM, the research team produced
annual reports (1) from 2006-2011 for the Government website as part of
their Good Relations Indicator Set (2). These reports evaluated
changes that might accrue as a result of the policies and Protocol.
Since 2009, Bryan has been a member of the Flags Protocol Review Group
(FPRG--constituted by OFMDFM- along with the Chief Executives of three
district Councils and representatives from Community Relations Council,
Equality Commission, PSNI, NI Housing Executive and four government
departments). In addition, the Community Relations Council (CRC) invited
Bryan to assist with the redrafting of policy (3) and in 2012, after
OFMDFM were unable to agree on a Cohesion, Sharing and Integration
policy, Bryan was asked to chair the FPRG under the auspices of the CRC to
produce new policy guidelines (3).
4.2 Influencing Government Action:
The research findings were discussed by the First Minister, Peter
Robinson, in the Northern Ireland Assembly in September 2009 and by the
Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness in November 2009. McGuiness
commented, `Queen's University has been involved in a number of surveys on
the issue since 2007. We appreciate the difficulties that the issue
presents in communities. Action has been taken to update our approach, and
I hope that the work of the review group will pay dividends for all of
us.' In September 2011 Robinson further identified the importance of the
monitoring process in terms of revising the Flags Protocol. On 11 October
2011 the `flags issue' was discussed in an emergency debate at the NI
Assembly. Five Members of the Local Assembly (MLA), from four different
political parties, referred to the research conclusions. Robin Newton,
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MLA for East Belfast said, `I, like Dr
McDonnell and my colleague Sammy Douglas, want to pay tribute to the work
done by Queen's University in its report on the display of flags and
emblems in Northern Ireland. Without that piece of work, we would have
been unable to quantify the situation or determine what progress has been
made'. The impact of this research has led to the redrafting in 2012 (2,
7) of the 2005 multi-agency Protocols. In addition, the North Belfast Task
Force, chaired by OFMDFM advisors Gerry Kelly MLA and Jeffrey Donaldson MP
asked for a special report to be produced by Bryan and Kelly based on the
survey findings (2).
4.3 Changing Local Government Policy and Transforming Public
Bryan worked with District Councils and peace and reconciliation groups to
help local groups engage more effectively with this highly contested
policy process. In 2012 further survey work and a report undertaken for
Armagh District Council and CRC (Grant 3) showed that over 90% of people
surveyed do not support flags flying on lampposts throughout the year. The
research findings resulted in a change of policy accepted by all political
parties in the Council (3). The research has played an important role in
community participation, particularly in rural areas (4 a, b, c). Bryan
has worked closely with the Rural Community Network (RCN) to engage with a
wide range of rural groups, using the research to inform a strategic
report on flags that was presented to OFMDFM (4b). `The most extensive and
far reaching of these projects has been the Transforming Conflict: Flags
and Emblems Project funded by OFMDFM and delivered by Bryan...at the
Institute for Irish Studies at Queen's University' (4c).
In addition, having worked with St Columb's Park House in
Derry/Londonderry, the flags research model was used in Derry, Strabane,
Claudy, Limavady and Castlederg resulting in policy reports which have
also been submitted to the FPRG and enabled St Columb's Park house to work
more effectively on the North West Peace partnership and Peace Walls
Programme (5). Bryan has also consistently worked with Mediation Northern
Ireland on the issue to inform peace building work in Newry, Down and
4.4 United Nations Engagement:
In May 2013, Bryan was asked to review a draft consultative document on
the use of flags and emblems produced by the Northern Ireland Human Rights
Commission. The research has been utilised in a UN paper Realising the
Human Right to Culture in Post-Conflict Societies. The UN report
quotes the flags research (from reference  above) in that it
`recognises the complexity of the local symbolic landscape and the role of
the peace process in intensifying `symbolic contestation' as `a
principal means for the two sides to express their difference' (8).
Following on from this United Nation's report, Bryan was invited by the UN
Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights, Farida Shaheed, to join a panel of
international experts in Derry in July 2013, who provided comments on the
UN paper to be put to the UN Council. Experts made reference to the
significance of understanding the dilemmas of contested space from a broad
public perspective in specific national contexts such as the Northern
4.5 Challenging Public Debate:
The research has consistently informed public debate. The publication of
the 2009 report led to 226 citations in the press across Ireland and the
UK, including the BBC, Ulster Television (UTV), the Irish News and
Newsletter and a further 46 outlets after the 2011 report (9). In addition
to his many media appearances enumerated in the impact template, Bryan
engaged directly with the Minister for Justice in a forty minute radio
programme following riots in Ballyclare over the removal of flags (Radio
Ulster, 10 July 2013). In addition, Bryan curated an Exhibition (24 May -
10 June 2012) at the Naughton Gallery displaying 38 of the flags collected
during the research (10).
Sources to corroborate the impact
(1). Project reports published in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010a, 2011 (e.g.)
and 2010 b). http://www.ofmdfmni.gov.uk/qub_flags_report_may_2010
(2). Research Office, Equality & Strategy Directorate,
(see the first Triennial Shared Future plan 2006-2009: 42,43,112).
(3). Minutes to FPRG and Reference: Research Office, Equality &
Strategy Directorate, OFMDFM. CRC PD Committee Minutes,
minutes/item/73/may-2005/?keywords=flags+and+emblems and reference
from Chief Executive Officer, Community Relations Council.
(4). (a) See Reference from Cohesion Sharing and Integration Officer,
Rural Community Network. Donnell, N, 2008, Flags and Emblems — a rural
perspective. Community Relations Council see 3.18. http://www.community-relations.org.uk/about-the-council/background-info/policy-and-
(b) Flagging it up: A community conversation on Flags and Emblems
across Northern Ireland (2012) Rural Enabler Network/SEUPB (Special
European Union Programme Bodies)
(c)Flagging up the Issues: A review of good practice in dealing with
community tensions caused by visible manifestations of the conflict in
Northern Ireland, and methods of engaging hard to reach groups. (2010)
Lynn Moffett, North East Peace III Partnership.
(5). Reference from Director, St Columb's Park House. Flags Audit
& Household Survey (2007), http://www.stcolumbsparkhouse.org/programme6.htm
`The team at Queen's... were able to provide guidance on specific
research issues such as acceptable sample sizes, selection of sample areas
and questions to ask'. St Columb's Park Household Survey Research
Findings (2011) http://www.stcolumbsparkhouse.org/Flags%20PDF%202011.pdf
(6). Senior Facilitator, LINC, (Local Initiative for Needy Communities),
Conflict Transformation, Belfast.
(7). Northern Ireland Assembly Hansard: 21/9/2009, p.141; 9/11/09,
p129-130; 20/9/2011 p.213; 11/10/ 2011, Volume 67, No 4, pp. 226-234.
(8). Confidential Draft Paper Realising the Human Right to Culture in
Post-Conflict Societies (pages 34-46), produced for the UN Special
Rapporteur in the field of Cultural Rights by Dr Elizabeth Craig.
(Confidential paper available). Reference Deputy Director of the Northern
Ireland Human Rights Commission.
(9). QUB Press office logs and visitor numbers.