Community relations hit low point during 2012 flags protests

Loyalist protesters during the 2012 flags dispute, sparked when Belfast City Council decided to fly the Union Flag only on designated days
Loyalist protesters during the 2012 flags dispute, sparked when Belfast City Council decided to fly the Union Flag only on designated days

The protests that erupted after Belfast City Council’s decision to fly the Union Flag from City Hall only on designated days marked the lowest point in community relations since the Holy Cross dispute in 2001, a review of two decades of survey data has found.

A new publication highlights the changes to public opinion since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, using data from the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey and related surveys for children and young people.

The publication, a joint initiative between Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University, shows the changes not only to community relations but also in the attitudes of the public to sensitive issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

On community relations, the lowest point came in 2001 when just 28% of respondents thought that relations between Catholics and Protestants had improved in the preceeding five years.

In 2007, that figure had risen to over 60% before dropping again in 2012 and 2013. The most recent figure, taken in 2017, was 49%.

The authors of the new publication link these “peaks and troughs” with notable events at those times.

“While the positivity associated with the paramilitary ceasefires of 1994, and the restoration of devolution in 2007 is clearly evident, so too is the influence of more negative events on respondents’ perceptions,” the report states.

“In 2001, relations between the two communities were very strained during the Holy Cross school dispute where sectarian protests, which were often violent, prevented children walking to school; in 2012 and 2013 significant civil unrest and rioting occurred in response to restrictions on the flying of the Union Flag from Belfast City Hall.”

Professor Paddy Nixon, vice-chancellor and president of Ulster University, said: “The Life and Times Surveys have been a vital barometer of public attitudes.”