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Brexit: never underestimate the political potency of symbolism in Northern Ireland

Reaching for peace. Steven McAuley/PA Archive

In Northern Ireland, political uncertainties are par for the course. Since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, devolution at the Stormont Assembly has been, at times, a fraught exercise. But up until the recent collapse of the devolved power-sharing executive, the assembly had been fully functioning for a remarkable ten years.

It is Brexit – a crisis that transcends the confines of Stormont – that is creating new uncertainties, and this time across Ireland as a whole.

While the overall majority of the population of Northern Ireland voted to remain part of the European Union in the June 2016 referendum, the region is now embroiled in the turmoil following the UK’s collective decision to leave.

In Northern Ireland, voting along ethno-national lines has become a feature of the post-Good Friday Agreement landscape. Research by John Garry, an expert in political behaviour, showed that the way people voted in the referendum was “very strongly predicted by their core ethno-national characteristics”. Protestant unionists tended to vote Leave, whereas catholic nationalists voted to Remain.

Even when the question at hand is beyond the everyday governance of Northern Ireland, identity politics and ethno-national tribalism continue to rear their unhelpful heads.

Symbolism and politics

The intersection between politics and symbolism in Northern Ireland has always been clear. For example, reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) – a major feature of the 1998 agreement – required more than merely a commitment to ensure greater representation from the catholic community within the force. Symbols and trappings attached to the old RUC were rendered obsolete. A new “inclusive” logo and significant rebrand of the name to the Police Service of Northern Ireland attempted to generate a symbolically resonant and palatable institution that was acceptable across both sections of the community.

Rituals specific to certain communities, including commemorative and “cultural” events, continue to reinforce old tribal lines. They have become the new battlegrounds upon which political differences are publicly displayed.

When identities are perceived to be “under threat”, violent responses can erupt and undermine the great progress that has been made since the onset of peace. In 2012, Belfast experienced a serious escalation in civil disobedience following a democratic decision by Belfast City Council to restrict the flying of the Union flag over government buildings to only designated days. Ironically, this brought Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the UK but angered Loyalists who viewed such a move as an attack on their British identity.

A few years later, in 2015, a stand-off between the Loyalist Orange Order and members of the Nationalist Ardoyne community in North Belfast over disputed “historical” parading routes in the city, also led to the erection of a permanent protest camp, which was only recently dismantled. This move cost the police in excess of £21m.

At a time when cool heads are needed to navigate uncertain waters, the paucity of leaders attuned to the power of symbolism in the north is more evident than ever. Few currently in positions of power were as adept as the late Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Féin politician and former deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, in stage managing the power of symbolism and reaching beyond the tribal divide.

Beyond the Brexit economics

So when it comes to Brexit, in the already polarised political climate of the north, there is more than just economic prosperity to consider. Practically speaking, in accepting that the majority of exports from Northern Ireland are to the Republic of Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has already indicated its preference to avoid a “hard border”.

However, as the UK prime minister Theresa May found out to her dismay, the potential location of any customs checks, be they on the main Newry-to-Dublin dual carriageway or in the Irish sea, is highly significant. Despite guaranteeing the DUP a bumper financial package in return for support at Westminster, May proved either oblivious or naive to the symbolically resonant issue of the border between the north and south of Ireland during the latest series of Brexit negotiations.

DUP: strongly against a different deal for Northern Ireland. David Young/PA Wire

Everyday issues will generate the greatest concern to the average citizen in the north. These include ease of movement across the border and access to Ireland as a longstanding trading partner. Yet, the very symbolism of a border on the island and how this is in turn sold across the community divide, is an issue that requires sensitive consideration.

While the creation of a hard border carries very serious economic and practical implications, the reemergence of any physical signs of division on the island could carry hugely problematic symbolic importance.

Despite the 20-year anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement approaching in 2018, identity politics in Northern Ireland continue to be as sharp as ever. Those negotiating Brexit and its impact on the island of Ireland have the unenviable task of appearing sensitive to the frustratingly intangible, destructive power of symbolism in Northern Ireland’s post-conflict era.

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