Class, political economy and loyalist political disaffection: Agonistic politics and the flag protests

John Barry*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The flag protests in Northern Ireland (2012–13) offer an opportunity on the one hand to examine the politics of dispossession, national identity, decline and political violence in loyalist areas in Belfast. On the other, they are an opportunity to examine of hope, leadership and change within working class loyalism – not least, around the re-imagining of what Britishness can/could or perhaps should mean in post-Agreement Northern Ireland. This article offers an activist-academic perspective on and interpretation of the meaning and potential of those protests around how they reveal both a fracturing and potential for rethinking Britishness. It suggests the possibilities and limits of an inclusive, civic, rather than ethnic, national identity, and a sense of Britishness sufficient to the task of agonistic (as opposed to antagonistic) engagement and contestation with Irish nationalism and republicanism. By antagonistic I mean relations that are characterised in whole or part in terms of ‘friend-enemy’ thus containing within them the possibility of violence, while by agonistic I mean oppositional relations that do not contain this threat of violence. Agonism (from Greek agon, meaning ‘struggle’) emphasises the potentially positive aspects of certain (but not all) forms of political conflict. It accepts a permanent place for such conflict, but seeks to show how we might accept and channel this positively. It is also to affirm the legitimacy of one’s political adversary and their objectives even if one fundamentally disagrees with those objectives. The article argues that an agonistic conceptualisation of democracy and democratic change understood as nonviolent disagreement (as opposed to consensus and agreement) is a more accurate and useful understanding than a conceptualisation of democracy and politics as either agreement or antagonism. In this way one can interpret the flag protests as vacillating between a legitimate democratic agonistic politics of struggle and contestation and an illegitimate, reactionary antagonistic politics of violence and threat.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)457-477
Number of pages21
JournalGlobal Discourse
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 01 Sep 2019


  • Agonism
  • Britishness
  • Contestation
  • Loyalism
  • Non-violent disagreement

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


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