‘If you’re an 18-year-old walking down the street in Northern Ireland, you know what a kerb painted red, white and blue, means’

Children as young as five identify with political symbols, according to an international study

Children as young as five identify with political symbols such as flags and painted kerbs in the North, according to an international study.

Researchers from Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) were part of a team that found similar patterns among children living in post-conflict societies in Kosovo, Macedonia and Northern Ireland in relation to their “preferences” for certain symbols.

Images of the poppy and shamrock, Irish dancing, Orange Order parades, priests and Rangers/Celtic sports jerseys were among used in the Belfast study to represent Catholic and Protestant backgrounds.

It emerged that just over 70 per cent of children recognised the images — with the Irish and British flags as well as kerbs painted in “rival conflict” colours having the “highest preference” at a “very early age”, said Dr Laura K Taylor of QUB.


“We were interested in a whole range of symbols from political life to religious and cultural life. If you are an 18-year-old walking down the street in Northern Ireland, you know what a kerb painted red, white and blue, means.

“We wanted to learn at what age do children know that. We also wanted to know how these children will interact with each other — and how this affects peace building.”

More than 700 children aged five to 11 attending schools divided by ethnicity and religion took part in the project.

Political, cultural and religious symbols were used in trials involving almost 300 pupils in the North.

Each child was shown two images and asked to select which they liked better. They were also queried about their perspectives on peace and to explain their thoughts by drawing pictures.

At the end, they are given seven stickers and asked to give them to two people with names (Edward and Seamus) linked to community background.

Critically, it was discovered that children from different religious backgrounds shared resources, which researchers say is a positive sign and has implications for conflict and its resolution.

“Our research shows that children begin to identify with symbols as early as the age of five but that as they get older — towards the age of 11 — they express higher ‘in-group’ [relating to their own background] symbol preference. Interestingly, this is the case internationally,” said Dr Taylor.

“But kids in the North were still willing to share with other conflict groups. It was the same in Kosovo and Macedonia.

“Why we think this matters is that conflict is often perceived as a zero sum; something that the other group gets is ‘a loss for my community’. So we think even if they are sharing these resources at an early age, that might have long-term implications for their willingness to share and support parties that are willing to share across group lines. By group, I mean those from different community backgrounds.

“This outgroup sharing can be a seed of peace.”

Dr Taylor said further understanding of early years symbol preferences among young children is “vitally important”.

“We look to South Africa, where the division is largely based on race, you could easily walk down the street and know who someone is.

“But in Northern Ireland, because ethnically the language is the same and the accent is the same, those community markers and symbols take on a heightened importance.

“The research suggests that primary school may be a sensitive period and potentially a good time to work on prosocial behaviour — behaviour that intends to benefit others — and one way of addressing this could be through empathy interventions or promoting inclusive, overarching identities.”

The project included experts from University College Dublin, Rochester Institute of Technology, Kosovo, and the American University College Skopje, Republic of North Macedonia.

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times