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Northern Ireland: Still a deeply divided society?

Article by Professor John Nagle

July 19, 2022

Northern Ireland: Still a deeply divided society?

Northern Ireland is often described as a ‘deeply divided society’, yet it is recognised that religious difference – Catholic and Protestant – is not the main source of political polarisation.[1] The peace process and the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (GFA) primarily recognised the ethnonational character of antagonistic divisions. The institutions of the Agreement thus place emphasis on accommodating rival claims to national self-determination – Irish unity or UK unionism – and giving parity of esteem to the identities that underlie these ethnonationalist aspirations.[2]


Yet, as one major report published in 2019 concludes, ‘sectarianism remains a serious issue’ in post-Agreement Northern Ireland ‘despite strenuous and continuing efforts on the part of government, voluntary organisations and others to deal with its many manifestations’.[3]


What, then, is sectarianism in Northern Ireland? To what extent has the post-Agreement power-sharing framework acted to either ameliorate or exacerbate sectarianism? And, does sectarian difference adequately capture a society increasingly characterised by hybrid identities and agonistic positions vis-à-vis Northern Ireland’s constitutional position?



Ethnonationalism – while capturing contested expressions of political sovereignty – appears to be inescapable from religion. Religious affiliation continues to have a strong overlap with political and constitutional preferences. The national census is invariably read through the skewed mathematics of sectarian headcounting since it is assumed that a high percentage of Catholics support unity and an equal proportion of Protestants favour maintenance of the union. Elections also tend to be de facto sectarian censuses with the nationalist and unionist political parties drawing their support largely from either the Protestant or Catholic sections of society.[4] More than 90 per cent of Northern Ireland’s children are educated in schools that are largely segregated along religious lines and 94 per cent of Belfast’s public housing is segregated.[5]


The role that religion plays in shaping ethnonational identities and boundaries is debated in scholarly literature. Certainly, religious animus has historically animated sectarianism in Northern Ireland. The partition of Ireland and consequent formation of Northern Ireland in 1921 was purposely designed to ensure a two-thirds sectarian majority of Protestant unionists over Catholic nationalists. Sectarian rhetoric was instrumentalised by political leaders as a means to demonise the ‘other’ and to present themselves as defenders of their group. Religion, in this sense, was fused with ethonationalism. For instance, the primary appeal of Dr Ian Paisley, the leader of both Democratic Unionist Party and the Free Presbyterian Church, played ‘on political and ethnic-national interests based around the antinomies of Britishness (against Irishness) and Protestantism (against Catholicism)’.[6]


Such appeals to sectarian animosity are rarely if at all made today from the established political parties. No serious scholar or policymaker can credibly frame sectarianism in Northern Ireland though the risibly simplistic frame of ancient hatreds of primordial clashed of religious identity that bedevils analyses of conflict in the Middle East.


To understand sectarianism in Northern Ireland is to view the key issues that drive division and antagonism. To return to the beginning, the main cleavage in Northern Ireland is mutually exclusive forms of national self-determination. This dynamic fuelled the conflict known as the Troubles, resulting in 3,500 deaths and in the region of 100,000 serious injuries.[7] Political and social divisions unsurprisingly were intensified in this period, particularly in relation to political polarisation and residential segregation.


The peace process has seen this conflict move away from political violence to expressions of identity, culture, and community being the main ground for dispute. Group based rights have become ‘war by other means’ as nationalist and unionist political demand public recognition and parity of esteem for their respective identities. Sectarianism and sectarian difference are increasingly mediated through conflicts over flags symbols, language equality, and parades.[8]


This turn to group rights as a fundamental line of contestation is best understood as being facilitated by the architecture and language of the Good Friday Agreement. As noted earlier, the Agreement acknowledges not only the legitimacy of rival claims to national belonging; it further stresses the importance of parity of esteem to nationalist and unionist identities. This emphasis on multiculturalism and recognition of different identities is notably challenging in a divided society defined by mutually exclusive claims to statehood. The ultimate form of recognition for groups in divided societies is to have their demand for national self-determination legitimated. With reference to Bourdieu and Wacquant, conflicts of self-determination revolve around the defence of symbolic capital which is only of value within the ethnonational group.[9] Contending claims to self-determination represent zero-sum conflicts to declare the group’s symbolic capital as the only valid currency in the constitution of the state. The main ethnonationalist groups thus construct not only different myth-symbol complexes, but modes of symbolic expression that are largely constituted in antagonism to the ‘other’. Thus demands for one group’s symbolic capital is likely to be seen by the other group as a threat to its legitimacy.[10]


This has certainly been the case in post-Agreement Northern Ireland. Ulster unionists, whose symbolic culture dominated the state from its inception, view the Agreement as inexorably leading to a process in which their cultural capital is eroded by nationalists.[11] A notable example of this was the 2012 protests in Belfast after a motion by Belfast City Council to restrict the flying of the union flag to designated days. The protests, which lasted over four months, resulted in injuries to 160 police officers and 34 rioters receiving custodial sentences.[12] A proposed Irish Language Act to give the Irish language equal status to English in Northern Ireland are opposed by the main unionist parties, who have accused nationalists of ‘using the Irish language as a tool to beat Unionism over the head’. Sectarianism, rather than an expression of religious intolerance, is fundamentally expressed in terms of the cultural and political identities of ethnonationalism.


As part of this post-Agreement culture war over identity new issues have emerged as dividing lines. Most notably, contestation has arisen over LGBTQ rights. Despite the minimal attention to sexuality in the GFA, it is notable that LGBTQ rights increasingly assumed an important area of dispute within the power-sharing assembly. On five occasions between 2012 and 2019 Northern Ireland’s power-sharing Assembly has voted on same-sex legislation and on each occasion the vote has exposed ethnonational cleavages. In particular, while Irish nationalist parties and political representatives have largely voted in support of legalising same-sex marriage, Ulster Unionists have broadly opposed the motion and have used their veto power permitted within power-sharing to stymie such legislation.[13]


Rather than explain differences in relation to same-sex marriage as purely the product of the relationship of some unionist parties to protestant evangelicalism, it must be understood within the context of ethnonational polarisation. The term ‘sextarianism’ captures how sexual difference has increasingly become bound up with expressions of sectarian difference.[14] LGBTQ rights are thus a co-opted issue used as part of a broader culture war.


This demonstrates that sectarianism in Northern Ireland is not simply a marker of immutable ethnoreligious characteristics, but is instead a form of constant boundary marking in which practically anything can become a signal for difference and contestation.


Most significantly, Brexit has developed into a deeply polarising issue in Northern Ireland. Although the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted remain, the vote broadly mapped onto political identities, with nationalist parties supporting remain and unionists supporting the leave campaign.[15] Brexit has become particularly divisive in Northern Ireland over the issue of the Protocol as a mechanism to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and to make sure of the integrity of the EU’s single market for goods. The protocol is intensely opposed by unionists who see this it as creating an effective border across the Irish Sea thus undermining Northern Ireland’s place within the UK.[16]


The rise of the ‘Others’

While the GFA fundamentally sought to recognise nationalist/unionist identities and claims to self-determination, it also makes provisions for those people who identify as neither nationalist or unionist and/or both British and Irish. Public opinion surveys have demonstrated an upward trajectory of people in Northern Ireland who define themselves as ‘neither’ unionist nor nationalist. In fact, the largest plurality of identification (circa 40 per cent) is now this ‘neither’ category.[17] According to the 2021 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, 27 per cent of the population also claim to have no religion. The rise of the ‘neithers’ indicates a population that is increasingly open to complex social and political identities. To an extent, this is reflected in the recent breakthrough of the non-sectarian Alliance Party, which won 17 seats in the 2022 Northern Ireland Assembly elections, more than doubling its tally from 2017.[18] Yet, despite the emergence of ‘neithers’ and non-sectarian parties, it would be mistaken to assume that this represents the settlement of Northern Ireland’s constitutional position. The ascendency of the nationalist Sinn Fein as the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly will fuel momentum for a so-called ‘border poll’ on Irish unity.


John Nagle is Professor of Sociology at Queen’s University Belfast. His research focusses on social movements and divided societies. His most recent book is Resisting Sectarianism: Queer Activism in Postwar Lebanon (co-authored with Tamirace Fakhoury).


[1] McGarry, John and O’Leary, Brendan. 1995. Explaining Northern Ireland: Broken Images. Oxford: Wiley.

[2] Nagle, John. Between conflict and peace: An analysis of the complex consequences of the Good Friday Agreement. Parliamentary Affairs 71, no. 2 (2018): 395-416.

[3] Duncan Morrow, Sectarianism in Northern Ireland: A Review, Queen’s University Belfast, December 2018,

[4] Evans, Jocelyn and Tonge, Jonathan. ‘Social Class and Party Choice in Northern Ireland’s Ethnic Blocs’. West European Politics, no. 32, (2009): 1012–1030.

[5] Morrow, Sectarianism in Northern Ireland.

[6] Brewer, John and Higgins, Gareth. 1998. Anti-Catholicism in Northern Ireland, 1600–1998: The Mote and the Beam. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan.

[7] Morrissey, Mike and Smyth, Marie. 2002. Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement: Victims, Grievance, and Blame. London, UK: Pluto Press.

[8] Nagle, John. From the Politics of Antagonistic Recognition to Agonistic Peace Building: An Exploration of Symbols and Rituals in Divided Societies’. Peace & Change 39, no. 4, (2014): 468-494.

[9] Bourdieu, Pierre and Wacquant, Loic. Symbolic Capital and Social Classes. Journal of Classical Sociology, 13, no. 2, (2013): 292-302.

[10] Nagle, From the Politics.

[11] McAuley, James W. and Tonge, Jonathan. ‘Britishness (and Irishness) in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement’, Parliamentary Affairs, no. 63, (2010): 266–285.

[12] Nolan, Paul, Bryan, Dominic, Dwyer, Clare, Hayward, Katy, Radford, Katy, and Shirlow, Peter. 2014. The Flag Dispute: Anatomy of a Protest, Belfast, NI: Queen’s University Belfast. Northern Ireland Office (1998) Agreement Reached in the Multi–Party Negotiations. Belfast, HMSO

[13] Hayes, Bernadette and Nagle, John. Ethnonationalism and Attitudes Towards Gay Rights in Northern Ireland. Nations and Nationalism, no. 22, (2016): 20–41.

[14] Maginn, Paul J., and Ellison, Graham. ‘Ulster Says No’: Regulating the consumption of commercial sex spaces and services in Northern Ireland. Urban Studies 54, no. 3 (2017): 806-821.

[15] Gormley-Heenan, Cathy, and Arthur Aughey. Northern Ireland and Brexit: Three effects on ‘the border in the mind’. The British Journal of Politics and International Relations 19, no. 3 (2017): 497-511.

[16] BBC, Brexit: What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?, June 2022,

[17] Hayward, Katy, Komarova, Milena, & Rosher, Ben. 2022. Political Attitudes in Northern Ireland after Brexit and under the Protocol. Belfast, NI: Queen’s University of Belfast.

[18] Cera Murtagh, Northern Ireland is politically divided. Maybe that’s changing, Washington Post, June 2022,

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