Northern Ireland Is in a Culture War. Brexit Is Making It Worse.

Nationalists and unionists are in a battle for cultural supremacy, complicating the U.K.’s withdrawal from the EU.

By Jonathan Gorvett, a journalist specializing in European and Middle Eastern affairs.
Protesters fly Union Jack flags and hold banners as they demonstrate outside City Hall in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Jan. 12, 2013, amid protests against City Hall's decision not to fly the Union Jack every day.
Protesters fly Union Jack flags and hold banners as they demonstrate outside City Hall in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Jan. 12, 2013, amid protests against City Hall's decision not to fly the Union Jack every day. Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images

The United Kingdom’s final departure from the European Union today leaves most of the people of Northern Ireland concerned—or excited, depending on who is asked—about the constitutional future of their country. Brexit has certainly reignited the debate over Irish unification, but on a deeper level, it seems to have exacerbated a more fundamental “culture war” between Britishness and Irishness that predates Brexit by several years.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, as Northern Ireland seemed to be moving tortuously toward a peace settlement, the culture war escalated sharply. A series of disputes between nationalists (who identify as Irish and are primarily Catholic) and unionists (who identify as British and are mostly Protestant) in the town of Portadown over the route of a march for a Protestant group led to fierce street clashes that almost derailed the peace process entirely. In the early 2000s, a few years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, angry unionist mobs gained international notoriety after threatening and assaulting Catholic schoolgirls as they walked to Holy Cross Girls’ School in a Protestant section of North Belfast.

Disputes over territory, symbols, and status have long shaped much of Northern Irish political and social discourse, but they took on a heightened importance after the end of large-scale violence. Brexit brings out the worst of those divisions, combining a political battle over the future of Northern Ireland with a separate (but inextricably linked) clash over which cultural identity reigns supreme in the country.

“There’s a real danger here,” said Thomas Hennessey, professor of modern British and Irish history at Canterbury Christ Church University and member of the Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition established as part of the Northern Irish peace process. “Identity is what it’s all about here—and Brexit brings all of the issues around [identity] right back into the heart of things,” he added.

Ever since the six northeastern counties of Ireland were carved out into a Protestant-majority political entity separate from the Catholic-majority remainder of the island in 1920, symbols have served to define—and divide—the two communities.Disputes over territory, symbols, and status have long shaped much of Northern Irish political and social discourse.

Some of the key markers of territory include the Union Jack and the Irish tricolor; curbstones painted with the colors of each flag; murals displaying key events from each community’s past; and annual marches, also commemorating historical events. One can easily discern whether they are in a nationalist or unionist part of an area based on which cultural symbols happen to be present.

A more recent, toxic addition to this mix are flags expressing allegiances to particular paramilitary organizations active during the Troubles, coupled with new murals and memorials commemorating republican and loyalist militants killed in the fighting. These are often decorated with the cultural and historic symbols that help define each community. In one recent case, several flags featuring emblems of the unionist paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force were hung in a mixed housing estate in Belfast, creating a sense of fear and intimidation among local Catholics and directly causing four Catholic families to move elsewhere.

While the country’s anti-terrorism laws ban such overt displays of sympathy for paramilitary groups, removing such markers “can be very dangerous,” said Hennessey. “Council workers or police charged with doing so may be threatened or attacked.”

This attachment to symbols has sometimes led to mass public unrest. In 2012, Belfast City Council voted to end the practice of flying the Union Jack from the city hall on a daily basis, a decision that would have brought Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the United Kingdom, but was seen by unionists as an open assault on their cultural heritage. It led directly to weeks of rioting by loyalist groups across Northern Ireland.

In recent years, language has also become a defining cultural issue. “Irish nationalists have long had a demand for Irish to be recognized as an official language in Northern Ireland via an Irish language act,” said Hennessey, “but the loyalists see this as an attack on their culture—their Britishness—and regard it with deep suspicion.”

The country’s devolved power-sharing government collapsed in January 2017 over a botched renewable heating scheme, but when nationalist and unionist politicians came together to restore the government, it quickly became clear that cultural issues were at the heart of the impending impasse. Sinn Fein (the country’s largest nationalist party) demanded a standalone Irish language act, but the Democratic Unionist Party (the largest unionist grouping) would not sign on unless the proposed legislation included similar protections for Ulster Scots.

On Jan. 13, Northern Ireland’s parties reached an agreement to restore power sharing. The agreement provided some protections for both Irish and Ulster Scots, but it gave neither language its own piece of legislation. For many nationalists, the deal didn’t go far enough; for unionists, it was a step too far.This attachment to symbols has sometimes led to mass public unrest.

Unionists feel that a standalone Irish language act would be a major step toward a bilingual society that would put Irishness on par with Britishness. This, they fear, would be symbolized by the use of Irish-language street signs, legislation translated into Irish, and Irish-language requirements in schools. For most nationalists, however, the legislation would be a long-overdue official recognition of the legitimacy of their Irish national identity inside Northern Ireland, where they feel their cultural traditions have long been disrespected and disparaged.

Indeed, the language debate goes down to the granular level too, as even the name of the country is disputed. Many nationalists prefer to use the term “the north of Ireland” rather than “Northern Ireland,” a reflection of their historic refusal to recognize the island’s partition. There is a similar disagreement over the use of the city name Londonderry. (This is the term preferred by unionists. Nationalists almost exclusively use “Derry.”)

This pervasive cultural divide helped complicate Brexit and is now a vital component of the recently revived debate over Irish unification. A majority of the Northern Irish electorate voted Remain in the June 2016 Brexit referendum, and the EU subsequently guaranteed that Northern Ireland would retain its EU membership if it chose to unify with the Republic. For many nationalists, that gave unification a strong economic benefit that should have been enough to win unionists over, but it completely disregarded that community’s deep cultural attachment to the United Kingdom. It is, in their view, their best defense against Irishness.

That is partly why unionists are so opposed to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s EU withdrawal agreement, and some loyalists have gone as far as to call it the “Betrayal Act.” The agreement makes provisions for customs checks on goods flowing across the Irish Sea between Britain and Northern Ireland, a mechanism designed to avoid putting physical infrastructure along the Irish border.

“This combines an economic fear and a cultural one for the loyalists,” says Dr Eamonn O’Kane, a reader in conflict studies at the University of Wolverhampton. “Small businesses in particular are afraid that such checks will be detrimental to them, while culturally, loyalists fear a customs border dilutes their “Britishness”—it makes Northern Ireland’s terms of trade different from the rest of the U.K. They also suspect it moves the prospect of a future united Ireland closer.”Unionists thus see the withdrawal agreement as a betrayal by the British government.

Unionists thus see the withdrawal agreement as a betrayal by the British government—the representatives of the very country their sense of identity is so bound up with.

“It’s a terrible irony,” said Hennessey. “Unionists and loyalists have always thought the main enemy was Irish nationalism, but it turns out it was really English nationalism, instead.” He was referring to the charge that the Brexit Leave campaign was largely driven by a resurgence of English nationalism that manifested in a strong sense of Euroskeptic populism.

In Northern Ireland, opposition to the withdrawal agreement has been strongest among unionists (despite their overall support for Brexit), with loyalist groups spontaneously convening large meetings protesting it in the months leading to the December 2019 general election in the United Kingdom.

There are, however, some signs that Northern Ireland is moving away from the politics of identity and sectarianism.

“The old, violent, ‘no surrender’ unionism isn’t so powerful anymore,” said Peter Shirlow, director of the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies. “Now you have another type of people in the community who are pro-EU, pro-union, rather than unionist, looking to the future and socially liberal. They don’t care about an Irish language act and see Irish as part of their heritage, too.”

This drift away from old identities and loyalties was evident in the recent election, which saw both the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein lose support, while the nonsectarian Alliance Party gained significant ground. It was the third election in 2019 in which Alliance saw significant gains, reinforcing a growing trend of (especially) younger people choosing to identify as neither nationalist nor unionist.

Still, the traditional nationalist and unionist cultural identities are deeply entrenched and will continue to define politics in this part of the United Kingdom for the foreseeable future. As the British government begins what will likely be a long, slow process of negotiating the detail of its future relationship with the EU, the battle over flags and other cultural symbols in Northern Ireland will continue to rage.

Jonathan Gorvett is a journalist specializing in European and Middle Eastern affairs, currently based in Cyprus.