Northern Ireland's challenge to protect its brand

As Northern Ireland's improving reputation is threatened by violent protests over the flying of the Union Flag above Belfast City Hall, social media are playing a small part in presenting a more positive image.

Belfast City Hall: Union flag change has provoked protests
Belfast City Hall: Union flag change has provoked protests

The transformation of Northern Ireland over the past couple of decades has been a good news story of global repute, with the peace process bringing a confidence and optimism not seen before in the region.

Last year Belfast hosted the MTV EMA awards, this year Derry/Londonderry is the UK city of culture, and seemingly the sky is the limit.

However, in recent weeks echoes of the past have challenged the ability of the new Northern Ireland to maintain its lustre, with protests taking place on a daily basis over a decision by Belfast City Council to fly the Union Flag above City Hall on designated days, rather than every day.

With the flag issue coming before council last month, unionist politicians wanted to maintain the status quo of flying it year-round, while nationalists wanted to take it down altogether. Finally an Alliance Party amendment saw a vote in favour of flying the flag on specific dates.

This decision sparked protests in Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland, some of which have turned violent. With no end in sight, the challenge is for Northern Ireland to avoid the unravelling of the modern, forward-looking brand it has built for itself.

It’s fair to say that those involved in rioting only represent a very small proportion of society in Northern Ireland, but with images of petrol bombs being hurled at police flashing across TV screens around the world, it is vital that Northern Ireland does what it can to avoid creating a lasting impression that it has taken a step back to the bad old days.

With much of the civil unrest being organised online, those who want to reinvigorate a positive image of Belfast have also taken to Twitter to build momentum around countering the impact of the protests.

Recently on a Friday evening, in response to an attempt by protest organisers to bring Northern Ireland to a standstill, the hashtag #operationsitin began trending as members of the public vowed to go to restaurants and bars and stay there all evening until the protests had concluded to show solidarity with businesses whose profits have been hit by recent events.

Other hashtags such as #embarrassedmajority have also emerged for those who want to make the point that the disturbances are not representative of the views of most people in Northern Ireland. However, it will take more than Twitter hashtags to protect the image of Northern Ireland, so it is vital that the energy and hope that has built up in recent years is channelled into promoting the region positively.

Northern Ireland has a canny knack of delivering effective PR for itself though, against a backdrop of historical baggage and sporadic trouble, and no doubt it will pick itself up, dust itself off, and continue to move forward on this occasion as it has done so effectively in the past.

Gary McKeown is the chair elect of the CIPR in Northern Ireland and comms manager at the country’s Public Health Agency.

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