Alternative Ulster © Deepa Mann-Kler used with permission

The term “culture” is often viewed through a lens of contestation and division in Northern Ireland, with culture and its associated practices branded as a new front on which the selective memories of the past can still play out.

Ramsey and Waterhouse-Bradley define cultural space in Northern Ireland as a “two community- straightjacket”. This is a clear reference to the most common and arguably traditional view of culture, which is broken down into two competing and opposing brands along ethno-nationalist lines. Therefore, culture is either British/Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist (BPUL) or Irish/Catholic/Nationalist/Republican (ICRN). Even within such categories, common cultural practices are generalised to fit all. For example, within the BPUL community, “Orange” culture refers to marching flute bands and bonfires, and within the ICNR community, the GAA, Irish language, or Irish traditional music. However, such straightjacket categorisations can be revisionist. For example, the Hibernian Society has a parading tradition and the Irish language was promoted historically by Presbyterians

Attempting to define the term culture is fraught with difficulty, due to a lack of an umbrella definition for Northern Ireland but also of a universal definition within academia. Although, when studying the wide variety of definitions that have been put forward common themes do emerge. The most prominent is a focus on the shared nature of culture, which is defined widely as practices that unite nations, ethnicities, and classes. For example, National Geographic defines culture as “the shared characteristics of a group of people, which encompasses place of birth, religion, language, cuisine, social behaviours, art, literature, and music”. 

The notion of culture to be of a shared nature that encompasses all within society is, as previously stated, a contested notion in Northern Ireland. Thompson along with Ramsey and Waterhouse-Bradley state that the politicisation of culture in Northern Ireland is the root cause of its contested nature. But is all culture in Northern Ireland reduced to polar opposites?

In an attempt to address Northern Ireland’s politically contested culture, a Commission on Flags, Identity, Culture and Tradition, consisting of cross-party and independent experts, was established in 2016. The commission published its recommendations in 2021. It defined culture as “everything we learn and acquire to form our familiar and habitual sense of being as individuals and to become interdependent in groups with others”. A focus was placed on defining and understanding the terms “culture” and “cultural identity”, and the difference between the two. The commission concluded that the term culture can be understood on a more broad and general level, encompassing the majority of the population under a shared culture. For example, in Northern Ireland much of the greater culture is shared and influenced by a common context — cultural spheres such as academia, sport, music, media, art, and language all show influences from both the UK and the island of Ireland. However, cultural identity, the commission said, is reflective of our own personal culture that is often used as a way to define ourselves as different to others; this would include the BPUL and ICNR aspects of culture. 

The commission recommended a greater understanding of culture on a broad and overarching level as a shared culture does exist amongst all in Northern Ireland. It added that although individuals and communities may share differing cultural identities, society as a whole should serve as a common cultural space, celebrating what we share in common and not solely an arena in which cultural identities clash. 

Over 20 years have passed since the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and arguably the resulting peace has encouraged the development of a third tradition and new ways of viewing culture in Northern Ireland. Politically, the centrist Alliance Party of Northern Ireland emerged as the third largest party in the 2022 Assembly elections, which has been viewed by commentators as a clear signal of the existence of a non-aligned tradition that does not subscribe to an either/or political culture. However, it could be argued that the existence of such a third tradition has long been evident. This has been displayed through various cultural celebrations held across Northern Ireland for years, such as the popular Belfast Culture night, held annually in September. 

Northern Ireland is not solely inhabited by those who identify within the “two communities”, as an ever-growing section of society comes from various ethnic and religious backgrounds, bringing their cultures with them. For example, members of the Islamic community across Northern Ireland recently celebrated the festival of Eid. This was marked in Belfast with 1,000 people celebrating at Davitts GAA Club. 

Culture in Northern Ireland must be released from a two-community straightjacket. Efforts should be made to distinguish between a broad understanding of culture and cultural identity, through the promotion of the idea that we can have a shared civic culture that will not undermine an individual community’s cultural identity. In doing so, it will not only allow Northern Irish society to further progress in its violent past but will also create an understanding of culture that is more reflective of contemporary society here. 

Image: Alternative Ulster © Deepa Mann-Kler used with permission

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