Civic identity and public space, focussing on Belfast, and bringing together the work of a historian and two social scientists, offers a new perspective on the sometimes lethal conflicts over parades, flags and other issues that continue to disrupt political life in Northern Ireland. The first part of the book shows how these disputes had their origins in the changes that took place during the nineteenth century in the character of urban living, creating new forms of public space whose regulation was from the start a matter of contention and debate. Later chapters show how the establishment of a new Northern Ireland state, with Belfast as its capital, saw unionism and Protestantism achieve a near-complete monopoly of public space. In more recent decades, this monopoly has broken down, partly as a result of political violence, but also through the influence of new ideas of human rights and of a more positive vision of political and cultural diversity. Today policy makers and politicians struggle to devise a strategy for the management of public space in a divided city, while endeavouring to promote a new sense of civic identity that will transcend long-standing political and sectarian divisions.
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.
The middle decades of the nineteenth century saw popular culture become more sober and disciplined, partly through a tightening of police surveillance and regulation, and partly through changes in the aspirations and outlook of the working classes themselves. A revolt by newly enfranchised skilled workers against the cautious leadership of the Conservative party led to the removal in 1872 of the Party Processions Act that had earlier restricted parades. The Orange Order was now able to make its Twelfth of July parades a recognised part of civic ritual. Catholic nationalists faced more restrictions, but were not wholly excluded from public space.
Disputes over access to public space are central to the continuing conflict in Northern Ireland. One key to resolving these disputes is to recognise that public space is not a timeless absolute, but the product of the municipal revolution that took place in the nineteenth-century United Kingdom. From the start, access to that newly created public space involved a balance between liberty and restraint characteristic of Victorian Liberalism. Analysis must also take account of a recent body of theory, the ‘spatial turn’, which emphasises the extent to which space and place are both social product and material actor.
The Donegall family dominated municipal life through their power as landlords and their control of the Corporation. Civic events reflected traditional Tory values of hierarchy and deference. However, the financial difficulties of the second marquis led him to surrender his power as proprietor, while parliamentary reform in 1832 ended the family’s control of the town’s two seats in Parliament. Municipal reform in 1840 transferred control of municipal affairs to an elected council dominated by the town’s business elite, ending the era of proprietorship by the aristocracy.
The new ‘urban squirearchy’ created by municipal reform, in contrast to the traditional Toryism of the Donegalls, was a forward-looking and dynamic group that initiated large-scale schemes of urban redevelopment. Both public and private building reflected a strong ethos of civic pride. The new urban elite was less effective in dealing with the environmental and public health problems created by urban growth. It was also deeply rooted in sectarianism, ruthlessly excluding Catholics from any share in the running of the town. At popular level too, there was segregation between Catholic and Protestant districts in the expanding working-class areas, and sectarian clashes became progressively more prolonged and violent.
The Northern Ireland of the 1960s was marked by rising living standards, and a new climate of optimism and openness to outside influences. Against this background new expressions of identity and aspiration for a time made their claim to a share of public space. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament staged marches and rallies. A tenants’ movement united Catholic and Protestant occupants of public housing. Regular May Day parades reflected attempts by the trade union movement to promote class unity over sectarian divisions. By the end of the decade, however, all of these movements were being overshadowed by the revival of ethnic and sectarian tensions in response to the growth of the civil rights movement.
Belfast in the late eighteenth century was an expanding commercial and social centre, transformed by an extensive rebuilding programme initiated by the first marquis of Donegall, and by the development of factory-based cotton and linen manufacture. Rising population made necessary the tighter regulation of traffic and behaviour, including the creation of a police force. But by later standards this was still a relatively small and intimate urban community.
By the late nineteenth century sectarian and political divisions were inscribed on Belfast’s urban landscape. Residential segregation, creating a large Catholic residential district in West Belfast, permitted the growth of a Catholic and nationalist associational culture that would not otherwise have been possible. Key sites – the Custom House, the Ulster Hall, the city centre – acquired a political significance. Attempts by militant Protestants to impose an absolute veto on Catholic access to the city centre were defeated. But events during the Home Rule crisis of 1912–14 showed that Belfast was already on its way to becoming the capital of a potential Protestant and unionist state.
After Belfast became the capital of a politically separate Northern Ireland, civic ritual became more explicitly Protestant and unionist, echoing to some degree the theatre state favoured by authoritarian regimes elsewhere in inter-war Europe. The Special Powers Act was used to restrict demonstrations and parades both by nationalists and by socialist and Labour movements. Attitudes became more relaxed after 1945, particularly following the collapse of a renewed IRA campaign of violence. In 1966 the government tolerated extensive celebrations for the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising of 1916, though at the price of dividing Protestant and unionist opinion.