“You feel citizenship when you can use public space”: Dr Dominic Bryan
By Vanessa VASSALLO for Northern Ireland Foundation
18 February 2013
A weekly seminar programme is a key feature of the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University in Belfast, which started within the very first year of the Institute’s existence in 1965. It is open to the public and gives an opportunity for academics and specialists to communicate to a wider audience the results of their research in the field of Irish Studies.
The latest seminar topic, “The symbolic landscape and conflict: making policy about public space in Northern Ireland”, is extremely relevant considering the still ongoing flag protests in Belfast. The discussion was led by Dr Dominic Bryan, Director of the Institute.
The main question was how, in a divided society, do citizens express their identity through public space? Dr Bryan traced a brief but comprehensive history of civic identity and the use of public space in Northern Ireland.
The display of symbols in the public space is not only a reflection of culture and identity, but significantly, power.
It isn’t a surprise then — argued Dr Bryan — to see how the Loyalist tradition has dominated the sphere until quite recently. For them, public space borne the signs of their political power. It was not just limited to flags and parades, but also to less evident symbols, like statues or the naming of streets.
The Nationalist community, meanwhile, couldn’t respond in kind, limited by the laws of the time. Funerals were one of the only settings where the law could not do much to restrain the expressions of Nationalist identity. Dr Bryan noted how this situation is similar, for example, to South Africa and their tradition of politicised funerals.
The Northern Ireland Civic Right Movement in the 1960s brought disruptions to the status quo. In addition to campaigning for the end of discrimination in Northern Ireland, the movement organised peaceful parades as well — challenging the monopoly of public space.
Yet there is still a disparity in regards to the use of public space.
The main problem is a lack of a proper policy. The current legislation only deals with flags and parades (even A Shared Future considers just flags). Even with this, it is not uncommon for the police to avoid implementing the law if this might lead to public disorder (e.g removing flags from street lamp posts).
Northern Ireland, concluded Dominic Bryan, should learn from Scotland, where peaceful Orange parades are indeed allowed, but limited in number in order to contain the costs of providing adequate security.
Indeed, the costs of managing disputed public space in Northern Ireland runs into millions of pounds, per annum.