Research on how flag use affects tension between communities in Northern Ireland has transformed understanding and fed into reconciliation strategies.


  • Findings informed the NI Government’s 2005 Shared Future policy document, leading to further research commissioned by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) as an indicator of community relations.
  • Since 2009, Dr Bryan has influenced government policy approaches through his membership of the Flags Protocol Review Group, constituted by the OFMDFM. Findings produced a measure of cross-party agreement in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
  • The research helped District Councils and the Rural Community Network as well as organisations including Mediation Northern Ireland pursue strategies to reduce conflict over flags, enhance broader democratic participation in local government debates and empower mediation and peace-building networks. More local survey work for Armagh City and District Council laid the basis for significant policy change in the area.
  • In 2013 the research informed the Richard Haass negotiation team's attempts to achieve cross-party agreement on the issues of flags, parades and dealing with the past.
  • The research influenced United Nations' work on divided societies, with findings cited in the United Nations 2013 report on 'Human Right to Culture in Post-Conflict Societies', and Dr Bryan was invited to join a UN panel on cultural rights convened in Derry in 2013.

"The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has provided advice to the Northern Ireland Executive and All Party Talks chaired by Dr Richard Hass on the display of flags, symbols and emblems. In this regard, the expertise of Dr Dominic Bryan and his research conducted at the Institute of Irish Studies has been of great value." (Dr David Russell, Deputy Director, Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission)

About the research

Sectarian divisions continue to have huge personal and financial costs (estimated at £1.5 billion a year) in Northern Ireland. Controversy over the flying of the Union Flag on Belfast Council buildings have been widely covered in the press - but an even thornier problem is the use of flags on lampposts to demarcate Catholic and Protestant communities, argues Dr Dominic Bryan of Queen's University, Belfast.

"Northern Ireland remains a highly divided society," Dr Bryan points out. "And one of the ways that division is sustained today is through the marking of public space by flying flags."

Over the past 12 years, research by Dr Bryan and his colleagues into the divisive issue of flags has transformed the understanding of this problem, and provided policymakers and reconciliation groups with a starting point for positive policy and community engagement.

Now policymakers, mediation groups and local councils have a very clear understanding of people's attitudes to flags; how, why and where they are used; as well as the merits of adopting a co-ordinated multi-agency approach in tandem with the development of local agreements and mediation practices in order to help tackle this problem.

Further afield, these findings are now informing work by the United Nations on the part played by cultural clashes over symbols such as flags in ethnic conflicts.