One summer evening I drove through the town of Milltown in North Down. High above me, affixed to street lights, were a series of heraldic shields, coats-of-arms bearing such familiar but contentious symbols as the Scottish St. Andrew’s Cross and the Ulster flag. The religious and ethnic makeup of the town, and its political allegiances, were being expressed in no uncertain terms to those who approached. These shields were along a major motorway, not a neighborhood street. Pedestrians were unlikely to use it at all. The shields seemed to be a statement to the passing world, a proud assertion of identity, but they certainly caused some consternation among those they excluded—the Irish nationalist population who are a distinct minority in North Down. Public display reflects many intentions and provokes a number of perceptions, but the exclusion of any Catholic, “Irish,” or “Celtic” symbols—along with the semiotic compatibility of the symbols chosen—certainly sends out simultaneous messages of uniformity and exclusion. The very fact that they are so public, positioned as they are along a major thoroughfare, also speaks volumes. The messages appear to be officially sanctioned. Were these shields set up for parade routes? They are perceived by nationalists as hostile statements, and by unionists—perhaps somewhat disingenuously—as mere expressions of identity. Both sides consider the legitimacy of their perceptions to be self-evident, and paradoxically they are both correct in their assertions.
KeywordsPublic Display Ethnic Makeup Mere Expression Neighborhood Street British Army
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