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City profile

1. The ‘uniqueness’ of the city

Since its development as a small garrison town, Belfast has been a contested place where British state building in Ireland has faced various obstacles and forms of resistance. The city has been unique in many ways: in its economic development as the only major nineteenth century industrial city on the island of Ireland; in its political trajectory – from a settlement town, to a town of revolutionary republicanism and then a capital of unionism and imperial politics, and further still to a twentieth century capital of a devolved government in a region where the state is contested. Yet the kind of uniqueness that Belfast has become best known for stems from the extraordinary durability of its ethno-national tensions, religion-based segregation and periodic riots over a period of some 200 years, and the way in which its social and political divisions have been embedded in the fabric of the industrial and post-industrial city.

2. Origins as an ethno/nationally/religious divided city in its imperialist/nationalist context

Historically, wider conflicts set the context and fuelled local divisions in Belfast, from Britain's wars with Catholic Spain and France, through England's Civil War, Williamite wars in the late seventeenth century, the American and French revolutionary conflicts, and the ensuing struggle between Irish nationalism and the nationalism of imperial Britain. Whereas external actors have historically served to exacerbate or preserve division and conflict in Belfast, significantly it was an international coalition - the US government, the EU, civil society organisations, and, most importantly, a strong partnership between the London and Dublin governments - which was instrumental in forging the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the current political order. This marks a major break in the context of deep-rooted ethno-religious and ethno-national divisions which have generated recurring conflict in Belfast and its hinterland over at least three centuries.

From the early 1600s to 1750, Belfast was a relatively small settler's town, juxtaposing English (Anglican) and Scotch (dissenting Presbyterian) settlers with a small and marginalised (Catholic) Irish population. Although the city's population had reached only 20,000 by 1800, in the previous fifty years it had developed substantially as a commercial centre, a port of exit for large-scale Scotch-Irish emigration to America, and a centre of the cotton industry. It had also become a centre of Presbyterian radicalism, influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment and American and French revolutionary ideas, and opposed to the landed Anglican gentry - the 'Protestant Ascendancy' - who owned most of Ireland and exclusively controlled the Dublin parliament, long subordinate to its British counterpart.

The United Irishmen, founded by Presbyterians in Belfast in 1791, sought to unite 'Protestants, Catholics and Dissenters' in establishing a republican Irish state in alliance with revolutionary France. The United Irish rebellion in 1798 was bloodily suppressed and the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland followed in 1801.

Under the Union, Belfast was dramatically transformed into the largest city in Ireland. Between the late 1830s and 1901 its population increased over ten-fold from 30,000 to 350,000, in a period when the Irish population as a whole declined dramatically following the Great Famine of 1840s. Bigger than Dublin by the early 1900s, it was the only major centre of industrialisation in Ireland, specialising in linen manufacture, shipbuilding and engineering. Strongly integrated into British imperial networks, industrial Belfast embedded and deepened ethno-religious and ethno-national divisions in its social and physical fabric. As Catholic and Protestant migrants flooded into the city from the countryside, their rural sectarian struggles re-formed within the new urban, industrial environment. By the 1880s these popular divisions crystallised in a political struggle over Irish Home Rule. Belfast became the centre of an Ulster Unionist movement implacably opposed to even limited Home Rule for Catholic-majority Ireland; and then the capital of a new jurisdiction, Northern Ireland, carved out by the British partition of Ireland in 1920. Belfast was now the iconic city of Protestant, unionist and British Ireland, but nearly a third of its population were Catholic and Irish nationalist.

3. Internal Structuring of the city itself

The basic structure of industrial Belfast and its sectarian geography persisted from the 1920s to the 1960s, as a quasi-ethnocratic local administration sought to protect a Protestant-unionist majority and by extension Northern Ireland's place within the UK. From the early 1960s, however, a series of interrelated developments laid the basis for unprecedented upheaval: the rapid contraction of traditional industries, the attraction of new industries, the decentralisation of population and employment from Belfast to new growth centres in the wider metropolitan area, and the mobilisation of nationalists against what they perceived to be the modernisation of sectarian discrimination and unionist monopoly power. As the 'Troubles' escalated from the late 1960s, Catholics became even more concentrated in overcrowded enclaves within the city. Protestants were more concentrated in the new suburbs and outline growth centres and their suburbanization left behind residual 'loyalist' working class communities, especially in west and north Belfast. They were committed to defending their territory against the perceived threat of encroachment by Catholics from their overcrowded enclaves.

The 'Troubles', the paramilitary campaigns and the military containment policies of the British government, sharpened and extended the sectarian boundaries in Belfast. The 'City of the Troubles' was characterised by economic crisis, mass unemployment, especially in Catholic areas, a sustained bombing campaign and a central shopping area surrounded by a formidable metal barrier, though much of the lethal violence was concentrated in working class areas to its west and north. The city became disarticulated into a series of poorly connected districts and communities; and the city council area became more disconnected from the wider metropolitan region as its ethnic balance shifted to near parity between the two dominant ethno-national communities while surrounding metropolitan areas remained heavily unionist. Contrarily, with the decline of old segregated industrial workplaces and the gradual implementation of equality legislation, workplaces, unlike residential areas, in general became more mixed. Like the rest of Northern Ireland, Belfast's economy became heavily dependent on high levels of public expenditure and subvention from Westminster, with heavy subsidisation of the private sector and investment in new health and leisure facilities. While working class housing was substantially improved, this had the overall effect of widening the gulf with middle class areas relatively unaffected by violence.

4. Recent/contemporary nature and stage of the ethno-national conflict

Following the paramilitary ceasefires of the mid-1990s, popular ethno-national struggles to symbolically claim or re-claim territories paradoxically intensified, in the form of parades, marches, flag-flying, murals, and extending so-called 'peacewalls'. Throughout the torturous peace process, culminating in the Good Friday Agreement (1998) and its uncertain aftermath, concerted efforts were made to address the legacy of the conflict, to re-brand the city as a place for new investment, improved housing, infrastructure and tourism. Under Direct Rule from Westminster (1972-1998), the governance of Belfast had been characterised by a highly complex and unwieldy bureaucracy and a vibrant voluntary sector, but with the full implementation of the Agreement in 2007 hitherto marginalised elected representatives are now attempting to influence urban regeneration. While the economic base of the city remains heavily dependent on a consumer economy and public expenditure, the increased population of Belfast Urban Area (approx. 567,000 - of which 276,000 are in the Belfast City Council area; see fig. 1), together with the dramatic rise of Greater Dublin (now 1.7 million) and the promotion of a Belfast-Dublin growth corridor, has encouraged a re-imagining of Belfast within a wider island economy.

Visually, 'Consumerist Belfast', as represented by the Laganside, Titanic Quarter and large scale retail and leisure developments in the city centre, contrasts starkly with the persistence of 'Troubles Belfast' in areas still characterised by the 'peacewalls' and 'interfaces' between socially deprived working class communities, still deeply segregated along ethno-national lines.

5. Prospects/expectations/scenarios for the future

The major, overarching question is whether, so called 'post-conflict' Belfast can make the transition from a 'divided' to a 'shared' city. Can it generate the dynamics to challenge the persistent patterns of ethno-national segregation and recurring violence that have marked its previous 200 years?

Much depends on the course of the wider ethno-national conflict over Northern Ireland’s future – remaining an integral part of the United Kingdom with some cross-border linkages with the Republic of Ireland, or becoming more integrated with the latter? Within Northern Ireland, there is the more immediate issue of whether the devolved power-sharing arrangements established in 1998 can be made to work effectively? Both issues will in part be shaped by forces fundamentally opposed to the 1998 Agreement – on the one hand, a sizeable minority of Unionists still oppose sharing power with the largest Nationalist party, Sinn Fein; and, on the other hand, a rump of ‘dissident Republicans’ are attempting to continue armed struggle against the British state and people they deem collaborators with it.

In Belfast itself, a major physical and political transition is clearly evident.  Since the late 1990s, with the cessation of violence, the physical environment has been regenerated in highly visible ways, notably along the waterfront and in the city centre.  The present make-up of the Belfast City Council area is historically unprecedented as its population is almost evenly divided between the ‘two communities’.  This has encouraged forms co-operative politics on Belfast City Council, even if it has very limited powers currently.  Belfast City Council actively promotes ‘good community relations’ and the aim of developing a ‘Shared City’.

While transition is evident in a number of dimensions, it is unclear as yet, if deep-rooted transformation is occurring, most notably in the relationships between the working class communities of the city that remain sharply segregated and  socially and politically divided.  On the one hand, there remains the prospect, that as in the past, a period of stability or non-violence, will only be an interlude until another bout of ethno-sectarian violence erupts.  In other words, in this scenario, contemporary Belfast has not escaped its history of recurring violence and division. On the other hand, a more benign scenario may also be contemplated: The socio-economic divisions between the ‘two communities’ have moderated over the last three decades.  External influences, such as the British and Irish governments, the US, and the EU have no interest in fuelling internal division.  On the contrary, they are supportive of the political settlement that has emerged. Levels of violence have been reduced out of all recognition since the mid-1990s and while it may flare up again it is unlikely to reach pre-1990 levels.

But  ‘political violence’ and ‘conflict’ are not synonymous. Many forms of conflict characterise Belfast in the ‘post-conflict’ era that fall short of sustained violence.  The central question is whether certain elements of urban conflict  have the potential to generate a constructive dynamic that might replace the recurring, ethno-national and ethno-religious violence which had bedeviled so much of Belfast’s history.


Click here to learn more about our current research on Belfast.

Click here to see our publications on Belfast.

Click here to see our working papers on Belfast.

6. References
J. Bardon (1982) An Illustrated History of Belfast, Belfast: Blackstaff;
F.Boal and S. Royle (eds) Enduring City: Belfast in the Twentieth Century, Belfast: Blackstaff;
E. Jones (1960) A Social Geography of Belfast, London: Oxford University Press.
Hepburn, A. C. (2004) ‘Chapter 6. The Failure of Chronic Violence: Belfast’, In: Hepburn, A. C. Contested Cities in the Modern West. Basingstoke: Palgrave. 158 – 188.