Cultivating identity, Depoliticising culture

The flag protests have largely died out and now the parading season looms. Amid such tensions, it is an apt time to consider the compatibility of Northern Ireland’s peace process with the internationally recognised freedoms of expression and assembly. This blog will address only the flying of a national flag and parading as aspects of cultural identity. Exploration of the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (B/GFA) is necessary to better understand cultural identity formation within power-sharing government fifteen years on. This is a summary of a paper submitted to the Irish Centre for Human Rights in May 2013.[1]

Due to the restraints of the current political model – a form of power-sharing known as consociationalism – effective engagement with the electorate by community elites is made difficult. It has been argued that consociationalism forges a “gap” between the electorate and the elected as a result of “an incentive structure that has rewarded political elites who play the nationalist card”.[2] As politicians strive for the security of their own political ambition, voters’ identities are subsumed – and defined – within this political context.[3] It is, of course, important that Stormont ‘remembers’ past cultural tensions so as to prevent future conflict, but it is submitted that power-sharing governance must not exploit cultural tensions for electoral gain.

Consociational governance necessarily entails “the recognition and (to a degree) the institutionalization, of the two major communities as the key political actors”.[4] As a practical way of ensuring post-conflict group representation, community elites have been granted control over policies most affecting their community (so-called “carving up the center”).[5] However, this “primordialist and segragationist logic” serves to uphold the ‘co-dominant’ identities of Nationalist and Unionist as separate and thus maintains ethnic division.[6] It is submitted that such segregation in Northern Ireland could be counter-acted by cultivating a shared public sphere in which culture and religion are celebrated independently of constitutional politics.


At present, international human rights law does not provide adequate certainty for ‘cultural rights’ to be justiciable (invokable in court). Existing laws may, however, be interpreted to protect cultural practices such as parading and the flying of flags. Arguably, the most useful interpretation is found in the B/GFA, which states that the Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland (BoRNI) should guarantee “freedom from sectarian harassment”. Although this legal concept has not yet been enforced, it has potential to provide a solution in the absence of other appropriate rights mechanisms.

Cultural protections in 2013 do not extend to a right “to have a flag ‘flown for you’, [or] not to have a flag ‘flown at you’.”[7] A prohibition on flags or parading altogether as a means of forcing a shared public sphere could constitute a breach of human rights law if unjustified by one of the limitations under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) – the act of flying a flag may be interpreted as falling under the protection of freedom of expression under article 10 of the ECHR. Article 10(2), however, lays out criteria under which flying a flag may be considered illegitimate: in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety; in the interests of prevention of disorder or crime; or in the interests of protection of the reputation or rights of others.[8] The same limitations apply to parading and public processions in Northern Ireland under article 11(2) ECHR, which provides for freedom of assembly.


Consociational governance has a dual effect: first, it locks groups into “the very identity politics that the society seeks to transcend”;[9] second, it marginalises those in the Others category who do not self-define along those lines. For as long as consociationalism prevents non-denominational governance in the region, it is submitted that politicians will fuel cultural conflict on the streets from behind closed (office) doors. Moreover, without the BoRNI, cultural identity remains ambiguous in law, cultural rights remain non-justiciable, and full human rights protections therefore remain out of reach.

Rather than promoting cultural tolerance, identity politics delineate individuals based on traditional conflicts. When delivering cultural protections, it is vital to recognise that identities evolve; as Tom Nairn put it, “imagined” communities are moulded and influenced over time.[10] Introducing “freedom from sectarian harassment” to Northern Ireland would go some way to remedying cultural tensions using the law. In the community, too, narratives can be “reemphasised” by citizens;[11] paramilitary murals have been resurfaced[12] and leaders have crossed seemingly impenetrable political boundaries.[13]

However petty these ‘achievements’ may seem to some, this is how culture can be depoliticised in the public sphere. Chris McCrudden has said that one of the successes of consociationalism has been the realisation that, for all its woes, “the Northern Ireland state was capable of reform and transformation”.[14] Because identity is the “product of human action and speech”, there is every possibility that a civic public sphere is attainable in which cultural and religious symbolism is depoliticised and celebrated by all citizens alike. If steps are not actively taken to cultivate such a civic public sphere, consociational governance will continue to entrench cultural differences more profoundly and future generations may react violently to extant cultural tensions left simmering below a surface peace.

To achieve a civic public sphere, what is necessary is the depoliticisation of cultural institutions alongside avid promotion of a civic Northern Ireland identity; an identity based on inclusive citizenship rather than romanticised ethno-sectarian nationalism.


[1] Kearney, D., “The compatibility of consociational governance with cultural identity protection” [2013] – Available on request

[2] Hooghe, Liesbet, “Belgium: Hollowing the Center” in Amoretti, Ugo and Bermeo, Nancy (eds.), “Federalism, Unitarism, and Territorial Cleavages”, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2004

[3] Marjanovic, Maja, “Post-Conflict Democratization and Depoliticizing of Conflicting Identities: Constitutional Transformation in Bosnia and Herzegovina” (2005)

[4] McCrudden, Christopher, “Equality and the Good Friday Agreement: Fifteen Years On” (29/03/2013)

[5] Hooghe, Liesbet, “Belgium: Hollowing the Center” in Amoretti, Ugo and Bermeo, Nancy (eds.), “Federalism, Unitarism, and Territorial Cleavages”, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2004

[6] Nagle, John, “From Secessionist Mobilization to Substate Nationalism? Assessing the Impact of Consociationalism and Devolution on Irish Nationalism in Northern Ireland”

[7] Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, “Flag Flying: Briefing Paper on Human Rights Compliance and Commission Policy”, February 2011,


[9] Bell, Christine, “Power-sharing and human rights law”, The International Journal of Human Rights (2013) 17:2

[10] Kearney, Richard, “A Post-National Council of Isles: The British-Irish Conflict Reconsidered”  in “The Shape of Europe” (Cambridge), 2006, p. 169

[11] Nagle, John, “Constructing a Shared Public Identity in Divided Societies: Comparing Consociational and Transformationist Perspectives” (2012)



[14] McCrudden, Christopher, “Equality and the Good Friday Agreement: Fifteen Years On” (29/03/2013)