The 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement contained little direct reference to
public space, partly because the creation of the Parades Commission had
already dealt with one central issue. However, it created a legal and
institutional framework within which local authorities were required to
address the broader question of shared space. This was the background to a
long series of decisions on the flying of flags on official buildings,
culminating in the mass loyalist protests of 2012–13. The same process led
to the negotiated admission of republican and nationalist events to the city
centre, while at the same time the Orange Order found itself struggling to
reclaim the legitimacy it had once enjoyed without question.
The municipal elite of Victorian and Edwardian Belfast, like their
counterparts in other growing cities, sought to cope with the rapidly
expanding industrial city for which they were responsible by promoting a
sense of civic pride, and by developing a new policy of open but conditional
access to public space. Both strategies were partly undermined, in the case
of Belfast, by a pervasive religious and political sectionalism. Today
policy makers pursue parallel goals, in the context of new ideas of human
rights and the acceptance of diversity. Attempts to promote a shared civic
identity have had some success, but the long-term future remains unclear.
The alternative would be partition, continuing to close off the realisation
in Belfast of the full potential of modern urban living.