Imagining Belfast: Political Ritual, Symbols and Crowds
For a concise downloadable abstract of this project please click here.
The aim of the project is to explore the formation and public expression of identity in Belfast by means of a long term historical study combined with an anthropological investigation of recent developments. By exploring the variety of urban identities that have found expression across this period it will challenge conventional perceptions of Northern Ireland society as dominated by two monolithic and inflexible 'traditions'. At the same time it will try to move beyond simplistic debates on the authenticity of particular cultural forms to an understanding of the way in which historically-based identities can be both sustained over time and redefined in response to changing circumstances.
Outline of the project
Issues of identity and what is presented as tradition play a major part both in the writing of Irish history and in contemporary cultural and political debate. The thrust of much academic work has been negative, emphasising the extent to which 'the invention of tradition' has been employed to legitimise particular political positions, or as a refuge from the reality of social and cultural change. More recently such scepticism has produced the inevitable reaction, in the form of a defiant reassertion, at both academic and popular levels, of traditional values and understandings. The most sophisticated work, however, recognises the need to move beyond this potentially sterile debate between essentialism and iconoclasm. Instead it seeks to highlight the uncertain boundaries between cultural invention and cultural adaptation, and complex relationship between 'tradition' and the management of change.
In contemporary Northern Ireland, issues of cultural identity retain a direct political relevance. Rival groupings define themselves in terms of historically grounded traditions, and questions of parity for alternative identities remain central to political debate. Disputes over the display of flags and other symbols, the observance of anniversaries, and the use of public space, are an unavoidable part of public debate. Rival strategies are proposed: the institutionalisation of self-defined alternative traditions, or a deliberate attempt to promote an alternative, shared set of symbols of identity.
Belfast, the administrative capital and largest urban centre in Northern Ireland, and consistently a cockpit of sectarian and political conflict, has been the subject of a variety of studies. These, however, have tended to be confined within paramaters set by the current conflict. Studies of the politics, rituals and symbolism of green and orange have eclipsed a variety of other aspects of a complex past and present, as an industrial centre of world importance, a de facto regional capital, and as an Irish city whose economic and cultural links were primarily to England and Scotland. A narrow focus on the origins of current conflicts also fails to do justice to a series of dramatic political realignments, which saw Belfast move from being the capital of Irish radicalism in 1800 to become the capital of conservative-aligned unionism less than a century later. The potential for engaging with alternative definitions of the city's identities, but also the difficulties of doing so convincingly, were demonstrated in Belfast's failed bid, in 2003, to represent the UK as a European City of Culture.
In proposing a detailed study, both historical and contemporary of public ritual, symbols and crowds in Belfast, we thus offer two things. First, there is what promises to be a particularly fertile case study of contested identities arising from political, ethnic and religious conflict. Secondly, there is a unique opportunity to explore the potential both for negotiation between rival identities, and for the construction of new, more inclusive definitions of identity, in a context where the outcome of such efforts are matters of urgent public policy.
The research will have three main strands:
(i) A survey of manifestations of collective identity across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, based on a systematic analysis of newspaper sources. The aim here is to develop as comprehensive as possible a survey of events reflecting or contributing to collective identities, with the aim of moving beyond contemporary preconceptions to recover the full range of such identities that have existed in Belfast's past. A second stage will then be to select a cross section of the events thus charted for more detailed study, on the basis of a wider range of documentary sources.
(ii) A study of visual symbols of identity, taking in statues and other public monuments, mass produced visual representations in advertising, packaging and souvenirs, as well as Belfast's distinctive tradition of mural painting. This part of the research will combine archival investigation and fieldwork.
(iii) An investigation of Belfast as a public arena in the period since the 1960s, drawing on participant observation, research into primary and secondary sources, and interviews to examine public policy and control of public space. The research will draw on theories of ritual and symbol, and will take particular cognisance of debates over the politics of recognition.
The project will provide empirical evidence on how a range of ritual practices and symbols have influenced relationships and groupings within the city of Belfast. It will develop a unique map of practices over time, placing these in both a historical and a contemporary social context. Using the disciplines of history and anthropology, it will offer theoretical contributions to the role of 'tradition' in the development and maintenance and identity. It will look at the role of ritual within the social conflict that continues to mark the city of Belfast, and thus provide policy possibilities for a divided city.
A central theme running through the research is the notion of civic space. As relationships of power within the city have changed the types of political and social behaviour deemed acceptable have altered. The use of public space has been routinely contested, not only in terms of 'orange' and 'green' identities, but also at the level of social class, age and gender. At different points in time social and political groups have claimed civic space in a ways that suggest significant changes in the nature of what is socially acceptable. For example, in August 2006 the centre of Belfast played host to a major Pride event with remarkably few protestors opposing what was taking place. Public manifestations of gay and lesbian identities were on this sort of a level would have been unthinkable for much of the twentieth century. In some respects such activities are encouraged precisely because they are shared in a way that British and Irish identities, so often competing for civic space, are not.
Existing political identities are themselves the site for struggles over the nature of civic. There have been ongoing debates over the celebration of St Patrick's Day in the city centre. A civic event in many other parts of the world, including down the road in Dublin, St Patrick's Day in Belfast with its displays of the Irish Tricolour as well as green shamrocks has been highly contested but is now funded by the council as part of 'good relations' and a 'shared future'.
The project will be conducted over two years, between July 2005 and July 2007.