Brexit and Northern Ireland

BELFAST — Each year, at midnight on July 11, the Belfast skyline lights up with dozens of bonfires. Scattered across the Northern Irish capital, they are a reminder of a deep-rooted conflict that has in recent years lain largely dormant but which some fear could reignite in the wake of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union.

This year, the pyres, erected to commemorate the arrival of the protestant King William of Orange in 1690, had a novel touch. Alongside the green, white and gold of the Irish tricolor and effigies of the Pope were signs saying “Brexit.” On one blaze, a European flag was burning brightly.

There may be no other place in the U.K. where the decision to leave the EU has more dangerous implications than in Northern Ireland. The vote has deepened divisions and raised the specter that the militarized border that once cut through the island could one day be erected again.

Most Irish nationalists and liberal pro-U.K. unionists supported continuing EU membership. But there is little love for Europe among more hardline protestants.

“Brexit all of a sudden puts you in a box,” said Jonny Byrne, lecturer in politics at the University of Ulster. “It identifies you very much as one or the other. That is damaging, especially in a society in 2016 that is trying to embrace diversity and difference. It is like taking a step back to the 1940s.”

Marching season

On July 12, the high point of the protestant marching season, thousands ofOrangemen in mandarin-colored sashes, bowler hats and umbrellas gathered to parade through Belfast.

In past years, the “Glorious Twelfth” has often been accompanied by violence, especially near Belfast’s corrugated iron “peacewalls” that separate nationalists and unionists. In 2013, several days of rioting took place after the Northern Irish Parades Commission ruled that local Orange lodges could not march past a row of shops in the Catholic Ardoyne neighborhood in north Belfast.

Since then a small protest camp has held a permanent vigil in nearby Twaddell Avenue, which is predominantly protestant. Twaddell has frequently been a flash point for unrest, particularly around the marching season. “This area lives in a siege mentality,” said Alfie McCrory, vice-chair of the Twaddell residents’ association.

As the marchers prepared to set out, dozens of protesters lined the route of the Orange parade. Some republicans opposed to the peace process gesticulated at the rows of heavily armed police. Others demonstrated silently as the Orange band passed by, playing a single drum beat as stipulated by the police.

Among the demonstrators was Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly. The former Irish Republican Army prisoner was confident a solution could eventually be reached to end the Twaddell impasse — but less hopeful for the prospects of a compromise on Brexit.

Kelly’s party has called for a “border poll” on Irish unification in the wake of Brexit. “The vote has been taken, but the democratic decision was taken in the north to remain,” he said.

Signs of hope

The Democratic Unionist party, once Sinn Féin’s sworn enemy, is now its coalition partner in the devolved Assembly, and it is strongly in favor of Brexit. First Minister Arlene Foster has said Northern Ireland must follow the rest of the U.K. in leaving the EU.

But Foster’s is an unpopular position among many inside and outside the Assembly. Some two-thirds of its members advocated a remain vote, and concerns are growing rapidly about political — and economic — ramifications of leaving the EU.

More than a fifth of Northern Ireland’s exports go south, to the Irish Republic, but this could drop quickly if there are changes to the current porous border arrangements. Such is Northern Ireland’s dependence on EU trade that economists predict its GDP will fall by 3 percent as a result of withdrawal.

Any decline in living standards is likely to be keenest felt in places like north Belfast, one of the country’s most deprived areas. Unemployment remains stubbornly above the national average. Even the landscape is still scarred by the Troubles. In this patchwork of terraced streets, the painted curbstones often change from loyalist blue to republican green in a matter of meters.

There are signs of hope, however. A £20 million community hub recently opened on the site of a former army barracks — with funding from the EU. “It is one of the rare spaces in north Belfast where people of all denominations can come together,” said Nicola Mallon, an Assembly representative for the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party.

As we spoke, the Orange parade silently disappeared into the distance, on its way to join thousands of marchers and bandsmen in Belfast city center.

“For British and Irish citizens here, the fact that you are part of a wider European society helps to shape a wider sense of citizenship,” said Winston Irvine, a member of the Progressive Unionist Party, which is linked to the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force. Even though he is a loyalist, he voted to remain. “Now that you have removed the EU, it starts to bring domestic differences into sharper focus, which can’t be good for a society coming out of conflict.”

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement explicitly includes a role, albeit minor, for the European Union. The EU also provided human rights legislation and a supranational underpinning that has allowed Northern Ireland slowly to begin to move beyond the Manichean division between Catholic/nationalist and Protestant/unionist. Now that is under threat.

Brexit worries

Northern Ireland’s fate lies in the hands of politicians hundreds of miles away with limited knowledge of, or interest in, the region’s affairs. The region is low on the list of priorities for Theresa May. During the Brexit campaign the recently anointed prime minister said it was “inconceivable” that the Irish border could remain untouched. Her new secretary of state for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, has dampened expectations of a bespoke deal for the region.

Across Northern Ireland, this year’s marching season has been the most peaceful in living memory.

“The reality of Brexit is people in London making decisions about us who have no real understanding of the issues in Northern Ireland and the uniqueness of the border and the issues around sovereignty,” said Jonny Byrne, the Ulster academic. “That is the antithesis of devolution.”

In Belfast city center, the Twelfth of July parade passed without incident. That evening, more republican protesters gathered outside the Ardoyne shops. A larger police presence separated them from a group of loyalists near the entrance to Twaddell Avenue. But for the first time in years, there was no violence as the marchers attempted to return. Instead, a single Orangeman handed a letter of complaint to the police.

Talks to resolve the Twaddell standoff are expected to restart soon, and hopes for a breakthrough are high. Across Northern Ireland, this year’s marching season has been the most peaceful in living memory. And yet, behind the newfound calm, there are growing fears that events far beyond Belfast’s streets could have serious repercussions for Northern Ireland’s still fragile peace.

This piece originally appeared on Politico Europe. 

Will Northern Ireland’s Peacewalls Ever Come Down?

In 1971, a secret report by the Northern Irish government criticised the speed with which walls, gates and fences were being constructed in Belfast to separate Catholics and Protestants. The so-called “peace lines”, it said, were creating an “atmosphere of abnormality” in the city. But the Stormont report writers did “not expect any insurmountable difficulty” in bringing down the barricades once the violence had subsumed.

Now, more than 40 years after the British Army constructed the first of those barriers, Belfast is still scarred by them: corrugated iron fences, some as high as 18ft, topped with barbed wire. Defensive architecture, it turns out, is far easier to erect than tear down. The city’s gates and walls have become “part of the built environment”, according to Jonny Byrne, a lecturer in politics at the University of Ulster. “The Berlin Wall had to come down for Berlin to be normalised. We have normalised Belfast without taking down the walls.”1938

Indeed, Belfast’s defensive walls are arguably the most famous of those many “divided cities” riven by ethnic conflict. When I was in Mitrovica, Kosovo, another divided city, ethnic Serbs informed me what a putative peace-building trip to Northern Ireland had actually taught them. “We need bigger walls,” one said.

In fact, the number of barricades in Belfast has actually increased since the Good Friday Agreement brought the Northern Irish conflict to an end in 1998. A 2012 study found almost 100 walls, fences, gates and roads forming “interfaces” between communities across the city.

It can seem baffling to outsiders. Why does Belfast still cleave to its walls? In 2008, then New York mayor Michael Bloomberg said that bringing down the barriers would open “floodgates of private investment”. Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government has vowed to remove all the peace walls by 2023.

Yet the scale – if not the impossibility – of that bold promise is all too apparent in North Belfast, a four-mile-squared patchwork of sectarian enclaves and divided loyalties that is home to almost half of the city’s peace walls. North Belfast witnessed some of the worst violence: a fifth of the more than 3,000 people killed during the Troubles died among these streets, where kerbstones alternate between nationalist green and unionist red, white and blue. Most people live on streets that are 90% Catholic or Protestant. The neighbourhood is also among the most economically deprived areas in Northern Ireland. Unlike the bustling city centre, there are no upmarket bars or expensive cafes serving flat whites.

“People say that when the walls come down, the investment will flow in. But they can’t even put in light bulbs here,” says Rab McCallum, a republican ex-prisoner who works for the North Belfast Interface Network (NBIN).

NBIN has been working for the better part of a decade out of a low-ceilinged office in a red-brick terrace near Cliftonville FC’s ground, Solitude. The group has studied peace walls, created an interactive map of them, and worked tirelessly to improve communication and prevent conflict across the “interface”, the city jargon for where Catholic and Protestant communities abut. McCallum and the small team are in touch by telephone with community workers on the loyalist side of the peace line, working constantly to defuse tensions, especially during the contentious summer marching season.

There have been some successes. In 2011, a “peace gate” was installed in the 3.5-meter-high corrugated iron fence that cuts through the tidy Victorian grounds of Alexandra Park. The foundations of that fence had been laid on 1 September 1994 – the day after the Provisional IRA announced a “complete cessation of military operations”.

Since opening, that “peace gate” has operated largely without incident. On a quiet weekday afternoon, dog walkers stroll from the Tiger’s Bay end, where Northern Irish flags fly from lampposts, to the republican Antrim Road, and vice versa. Nearby, a car turns down Newington Street. Until a few years ago, this was impossible: a steel gate, erected in the late 1980s following a spate of sectarian murders, barred the entrance to the nondescript row of terrace houses. Now the gate is open for most of the daytime: the hours have recently been extended.

Numerous other attempts to break down North Belfast’s defensive architecture, however, have run into the sand. Despite residents on both sides agreeing to a peace gate in the metal barrier that divides Flax Street, road authorities have refused to introduce expensive traffic-calming measures.

Even though segregation is estimated to cost Stormont £1.5bn a year, most of the funding for such “community relations” work comes from international donors, who are in the process of pulling out of Northern Ireland. “There is no momentum, there is no resources and the government haven’t provided a vision of a united community. They haven’t sold the benefits and opportunities” of taking down the peace walls, says McCallum. “We are in a situation where deadlines are constantly being put back, quite often because of an inability to secure the resources required.”

The peace walls were constructed, sometimes overnight, under anti-terrorism legislation. No formal mechanism exists for dismantling them. Lack of clear ownership – and legislative control – is compounded by the absence of clear guidelines for community agreement. A single resident’s opposition can be enough to maintain the status quo. “One voice can veto change for the many,” says NBIN’s Brendan Clarke.
Stormont is dominated by once-sworn enemies Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). There is little agreement about how to deal with the past, including peace walls. “There is no political need to build consensus,” says Norman Hamilton, a Presbyterian minister and member of the Community Relations Council.

Tensions between the parties threatened to bring down Stormont this summer, including the involvement of IRA members in the August murder of onetime republican gunman Kevin McGuigan. There have been ongoing anxieties over parades, with occasional incidents of violence. As I was sitting in the NBIN office, an email pinged into Clarke’s inbox. “There’s been a pipe bomb on the Oldpark Road.”

About a mile away, in West Belfast, on the opposite side of the peace line, shoppers on the Shankill Road pass storefronts selling mugs emblazoned with the Queen’s face. A mural depicts Belfast in its industrial heyday: Samson and Goliath, the iconic yellow cranes at Harland and Wolff. A little further down the street is another mural, this time in darker colours: two men bow their heads in honour of slain loyalist paramilitaries.

For four decades, an imposing, 800-metre-long, multilevel barrier has divided the loyalist Shankill and republican Falls Road. “The British Army started putting barbed wire to separate communities, then it was corrugated iron to separate communities, then brick walls that were added to and added to, even after the Good Friday Agreement,” says Ian McLaughlin of the Lower Shankill Community Association.

Men bow their heads in honour of slain loyalist paramilitaries on a mural lining the peace wall on Shankill Road in West Belfast. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
At the same time as barriers were going up between Catholics and Protestants, the decrepit terrace houses of the Shankill were being torn down. In 1961, more than 70,000 people lived in the area; now it’s fewer than 25,000. Most left for loyalist estates that ring the outskirts of the city. Similar movements took place across working-class Belfast. The result is that demand for housing is, in general, far higher in Catholic areas than Protestant.

“Catholics see peace walls as a problem to their community developing. For Protestants, peace walls protect their way of life, their bonfires, their flags,” says Byrne. “The question is, how do we create the conditions in which Protestants don’t see the removal of the wall as a threat to their existence as a community?”

McLaughlin, too, would like to see all the peace walls removed. “But reaching that point is a huge journey,” he says, particularly for Protestants who fear that their areas could go from orange to green almost overnight if the barriers were gone. Meanwhile, many unionist politicians fear that building new homes in Catholic neighbourhoods could dilute their electoral base.

“The difficulty in any peace wall conversation is that a lot of the initial conversations revolve around a sense of loss. What will I lose?’ asks McLaughlin, who has worked with republicans on the Falls area to improve access across the peace line.

The answer to Belfast’s peace wall conundrum lies in regeneration, says McLaughlin. A new housing development in the Shankill area is going up, after an agreement was reached with the local community. “Our core business at one time was peace-building, but now we have a dual approach – regenerating our community and building relations with our neighbours.”

But macro-political tensions can impinge on attempts to build relationships at street level. At Skegoneill Avenue in North Belfast, loyalist paramilitary flags fly from lamp-posts, even though the streets are mostly mixed and even include Belfast’s synagogue. In the shadow of an Ulster Volunteer Force, lettuce and spinach sprout in Peas Park, a community garden created by local residents. Chickens cluck happily beside a shipping container that has been turned into a shop.

“People just independently started doing stuff,” says Callie Persic, an ebullient American who came to Belfast 20 years ago for her PhD in anthropology and stayed. The garden is particularly popular with young people. In September, there is a harvest day with food, music and face painting.

Peas Park, however, has not escaped Belfast territoriality. Earlier this summer, a fence was erected around the garden. “People have been saying to us, ‘You must feel safer now there is a fence,’” says Persic. “But I felt like, why are we putting up a gate at an interface?”

This piece originally appeared in the Guardian.

War by other Means

BELFAST — So far, 2015 has hardly been a vintage summer in Northern Ireland — and not just on account of the unseasonably cold weather. In recent weeks this small corner of the United Kingdom has witnessed clashes between police and pro-union marching bands, and ongoing attacks against security forces by Irish republicans opposed to the peace process. Now the murder of a former IRA man, ostensibly by his onetime comrades, threatens to collapse Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government.

Northern Irish police have said that they believe members of the Provisional IRA were responsible for the killing of Kevin McGuigan in East Belfast earlier this month. The IRA was supposed to have “left the stage” 10 years ago when its weapons arsenal was decommissioned.

Northern Irish First Minister and Democratic Unionist Party leader Peter Robinson says Sinn Féin, the political voice of Irish republicanism, must be excluded from the power-sharing government at Stormont if IRA involvement in the murder is proven. On August 26, the smaller Ulster Unionist party announced that they would be resigning from the Executive.

British Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has been more circumspect, commenting that the continuing existence of the IRA “didn’t come as much of a surprise,” but that there was no evidence that the organization was involved in paramilitary activity.

The current crisis is the latest in a long line of disputes between Irish nationalists and pro-U.K. unionists in the devolved government that was set-up in Northern Ireland in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. That deal brought an end to the 30-year-long “Troubles” that cost more than 3,000 lives.

The once quotidian violence is gone, but this remains a deeply divided society. Belfast is among the most segregated cities in the world. Across the city, rival union flags and Irish tricolors denote separate Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods.

“People don’t hate each other, but Sinn Féin and the DUP hate each other” — Alex Kane, unionist political commentator
The state of play in government is little different.

Even before the McGuigan killing — believed to have been carried out in retaliation for the murder of another former IRA member in Belfast earlier this summer — nationalists and unionists were at loggerheads over proposed welfare cuts for the population of just under two million mandated by the British government in Westminster.

Sinn Fein says reductions in welfare payments would hurt the most vulnerable. Both major unionist parties, the Democratic Unionists (DUP) and the Ulster Unionists, warn that failure to do a deal would leave a £600 million (€825 million) hole in the Belfast Parliament’s budget. Northern Ireland receives an annual subvention of around £12 billion (€16.5 billion) from the U.K. Exchequer.

Earlier this summer, First Minister Robinson insisted that if no deal is struck on spending cuts he would ask the secretary of state to repatriate control of welfare policy back to Westminster. Such a move would probably lead to the collapse of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing administration — if it has not been toppled already by the aftershock of the McGuigan killing.

And yet, Belfast does not feel like a city that could soon be without a government.

Tourists throng the streets, despite the summer showers. The colorful rainbow flags festooned outside bars and clubs ahead of the recent gay pride festival attest to changing attitudes in the once puritan Northern Irish capital.

“I walk around this town and people aren’t saying to me ‘the union is in danger.’ Nobody. People are more interested in jobs and health,” says Alex Kane, a unionist political commentator based in Belfast.

“But there is a general sense of despondency with the assembly. People don’t hate each other, but Sinn Féin and the DUP hate each other.”

* * *

This July marked the 10th anniversary of arguably the most important step in Northern Ireland’s road to peace — the decommissioning of the Provisional IRA’s huge stockpile of weapons. The republicans’ long campaign, which cost more than 1,800 lives, was supposedly over.

The cessation of widespread violence has not, however, meant the end of hostilities between nationalists and unionists. In Northern Ireland, von Clausewitz’s famous maxim is turned on its head: here, politics is war by other means. Clashes over putatively minor issues such as the Irish language provision and the routes for pro-union Orange Order parades are common.

“The Good Friday Agreement managed the end of the conflict. It didn’t give us a blueprint for normal politics,” says Jonny Byrne, lecturer in criminology at the University of Ulster. The past remains deeply contested by all sides. Politicians “have never resolved the fundamentals of the conflict,” says Byrne.

Northern Irish politics is characterized by “an inability to accept losses and gains through normal political mechanics.” Instead politicians of all stripes blame the British or Irish governments for failing to provide resources or solutions to local problems.

The drive for consensus in the peace process also begot a system prone to cronyism. Police are investigating claims that a Belfast law firm held £7 million (€9.6 million) in an offshore bank account for a local politician in a major property sale.

“The question is: When should you complain after 20 years that an absence of violence is not enough?” asks Byrne. “We should want more. We should aspire for more. This is not what we should settle for.”

“Paramilitaries are still active in the community” — Phil Hamilton, community worker
Northern Irish politics is still dominated by many of the same actors that trod the boards during the Troubles. Peter Robinson was elected DUP deputy leader in 1980. Five U.K. prime ministers have held office since Gerry Adams became Sinn Féin president.

“It feels like Cuba,” says Byrne. “Where is the opportunity for new thinking?”

While old stagers dominate party politics, on the street tensions have ratcheted up.

Alongside the union flags, paramilitary standards flutter in the breeze in many loyalist parts of Belfast. Illegal outfits such as the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force have been accused of recruiting new members. Earlier this summer a new loyalist terror group announced its presence.

On the other side of the sectarian divide, republican paramilitaries provided a “guard of honor” at a recent funeral in Derry. Claims of IRA involvement in the McGuigan killing have focused attention on the continuing existence of paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. “Paramilitaries are still active in the community,” says Phil Hamilton, a community worker in Rathcoole, a huge Belfast housing estate where loyalist gunmen still look down menacingly from gable end murals.

“A return to the conflict isn’t on the radar but other people are filling the political vacuum,” says John Loughran, a Sinn Féin member who works with former prisoners from both sides of the conflict in North Belfast. The area is among the most economically deprived in the whole of the U.K.

Gridlock in Stormont is fuelling a wider sense of disillusionment with politics. In May’s general election, Northern Ireland registered the lowest turnout in the U.K.

“The good and proper institutions built into the Belfast Agreement are increasingly the very structures that are disenchanting the electorate,” says Norman Hamilton, a Presbyterian minister and member of the Community Relations Council. “This dissatisfaction is deep. We are tired of crisis.”

I meet Hamilton in a bright, airy shopping arcade in Belfast city center. The building was opened by then British Secretary of State Patrick Mayhew in 1992, an early sign of growing confidence that peace was finally coming to restive Northern Ireland.

More than 20 years later there is no sign of a return to the violence of the past. But even if Stormont survives the latest emergency, executive paralysis is eroding faith in the political process, warns Hamilton.

“If democracy cannot deliver stable government, given our history that’s not a good place to be.”

This piece originally appeared in Politico Europe.

Austerity fight threatens Northern Ireland stability

Belfast’s Shankill Road is among the most deprived in the whole of the United Kingdom [Peter Geoghegen/Al Jazeera]

Belfast, Northern Ireland – Political allegiances are hard to miss on the Shankill Road, a short drive from Belfast’s city centre. Red, white, and blue bunting and union flags line the street.

Shoppers pass a peeling mural depicting a pair of men holding rifles. Their blackened, hooded heads are bowed in honour of slain members of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a notorious Protestant armed group.

Northern Ireland’s 30-year-long “Troubles” ended with a peace agreement in 1998, but on the Shankill Road the scars of violence remain. Corrugated iron “peace walls”, up to eight-metres high, separate residents from nearby Catholics. The area is among the most deprived in the whole of the United Kingdom.

Now Shankill Road, and the rest of this country of more than 1.5 million people, is bracing itself for further economic woes amid a deepening impasse over proposed welfare reforms, which some fear could bring down the devolved power-sharing Stormont assembly in Belfast.

Northern Ireland’s rival nationalist and unionist blocs are divided over hundreds of millions of pounds worth of budget cuts, mandated by the UK government in Westminster.

On Tuesday, cross-party talks in Belfast aimed at preventing the collapse of the power-sharing executive failed to resolve a standoff over welfare cuts. Unless a deal is found soon, Northern Ireland faces the prospect of bankruptcy.

“Welfare reform is a huge issue right across Northern Ireland, it cuts across social boundaries,” says Winston Irvine, a community worker on the Shankill Road and a spokesman for the loyalist Progressive Unionist Party (PUP).

“We are talking about a £600 million [$922m] black-hole in the Northern Ireland budget that has huge ramifications for people who are already struggling with huge inequalities,” Irvine says.

“Unemployment here is above average. Educational attainment is obscene in some Protestant working-class communities. We have high rates of suicide.”

Age of austerity

The nationalist SDLP and Sinn Fein, the political voice of the Irish Republican Army during the conflict, oppose spending reductions, which they say would hurt the most vulnerable in society. Both major unionist parties, the Democratic Unionists and the Ulster Unionists, have warned that cuts are inevitable.

“The current crisis has come about solely through the actions of the British government, it could only be resolved by the actions of the British government,” Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said recently.

Democratic Unionist leader and Northern Irish First Minister Peter Robinson has insisted if no deal is struck he will ask the UK secretary of state to repatriate control of welfare policy back to Westminster. Such a move could destabilise the power-sharing government in Belfast.

“The crisis around welfare and the economy has tested even the most stable of states. Here it is tearing us apart,” says Duncan Morrow, professor of politics at the University of Ulster.

Welfare reform is particularly sensitive for Sinn Fein, which is wary of damaging its standing in the Irish republic, where the party is riding high in polls on a platform opposed to spending cuts.

A British soldier foot-patrols Shankill Road, west Belfast, in 2001 [Reuters]

“Sinn Fein want to be the peace party and the anti-austerity party, but those things are moving apart in the north,” says Morrow.

The current crisis is a reflection of the continuing dominance of constitutional politics in Northern Ireland more than a decade-and-a-half on from the end of the Troubles, says John McCallister, an independent unionist member of the Stormont assembly.

“We live in this bubble, a policy-vacuum bubble with no ideas. Our only policy is ‘the Brits ought to send more money’,” says McCallister.

Little to gain

Ahead of the recent UK general election, both Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists called for significant increases in government spending in the region.

Northern Ireland’s power-sharing arrangements require both nationalists and unionists hold power in government. With no formal opposition and little threat of losing support to parties on the opposite side of the sectarian divide, politicians often have little to gain by reaching effective compromises on big issues.

“The Northern Ireland government is great at opening things, great at going to New York [on trade visits], but when it comes to governing, making decisions that are tough and unpopular, they haven’t been up to it,” says McCallister. “We haven’t matured into a functioning democracy.”

Certainly traces of the dark days of the Troubles remain. Paramilitary groups are still active in many parts of Northern Ireland. In working-class urban communities so-called “punishment beatings” are all too frequent. Intimidation and forced evictions are common, particularly in loyalist areas of Belfast.

Neil Jarman, Institute for Conflict Research [Peter Geoghegen]

“The question nobody is asking is 20 years after the ceasefires, why are the UVF [Ulster Volunteer Force] and the UDA [Ulster Defence Association] still there? What is their role?” says Neil Jarman, director of the Institute for Conflict Research, in Belfast.

Rather than addressing the presence of former combatants in communities, paramilitaries are increasingly being treated as legitimate, says Jarman. “We talk of them as civil society organisations, rather than uncivil society organisations.”

Wanting to move on

Political life in Northern Ireland remains framed by the Troubles. Almost every senior figure at Stormont was involved in party politics during the conflict. There have been few new faces on government benches, particularly on the nationalist side.

Signs are emerging that the electorate is tiring of this staid status quo. At just 58 percent, turnout in Northern Ireland was the lowest of the four UK nations in last month’s general election.

There were few major surprises, but Sinn Fein did see its vote fall slightly, losing a seat in Fermanagh/South Tyrone. In the republicans’ West Belfast stronghold, a left-wing candidate took almost one-fifth of the vote. Despite losing its sole seat, the avowedly cross-community Alliance Party polled a record high in east Belfast.

Northern Ireland is increasingly Janus-faced. The paramilitary insignia and national flags are unlikely to be taken down on Shankill Road and its republican equivalent across the peace line any time soon. But a kilometre or so away in Belfast city centre, young people mix freely without any talk of religion or politics.

“What gets in the news is the Northern Ireland that is stuck in the past,” says Jarman. “What doesn’t get in the news is the younger generation wanting to move on from it.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Rape allegations and IRA paramilitary justice

Group’s culture of summary justice is back in Northern Ireland’s spotlight after new sexual assault accusations.

Mairia Cahill claims republicans tried to cover up her rape allegations against an IRA figure [Getty Images]

Maintaining law and order in Belfast during the violent days of the Troubles – the 30-year-long conflict in Northern Ireland – was no easy task.

Anti-police graffiti was a common sight on walls across the city. Many hardline Irish republican neighbourhoods were no-go areas, where police officers would seldom tread, and even more rarely be called in by locals to investigate crimes.

In the absence of an effective police force, paramilitaries on both sides became the law in parts of Northern Ireland. Their justice was often rough and ready. Suspects were tried in secret without legal protection. Sentences could range from a curfew to a bullet in the head.

The Troubles in Northern Ireland are over. Former rivals Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, and the staunchly pro-British Democratic Unionist Party now share power in Belfast.

But more than a decade and a half since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the issue of paramilitary justice is back on the Northern Irish political agenda.

Earlier this month, Mairia Cahill, a 33-year-old former junior Sinn Fein official and relative of former IRA chief of staff Joe Cahill, went public with claims that a prominent republican in west Belfast had raped and sexually abused her when she was 16. Shortly afterwards the IRA, Cahill said, conducted its own inquiry into her accusations, acquitting her alleged attacker, and warning her not to go to the police.

The police were seen as the enemy. The more republicans attacked the police, the less the police could do normal cops-on-the-beat stuff and the more the pressure came on the IRA to take action against hoods.

– Anthony McIntyre, former IRA prisoner

Knee-capping suspects

Such IRA-led extra-judicial investigations were part of life in Belfast during the Troubles, says Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA prisoner in the 1980s.

“The police were seen as the enemy. The more republicans attacked the police, the less the police could do normal cops-on-the-beat stuff and the more the pressure came on the IRA to take action against hoods,” says McIntyre, author of Good Friday: The Death of Irish Republicanism.

“Hoods” in Belfast parlance means anybody engaging in anti-social behaviour, from minor thieves and joyriders to drug dealers and, in some cases, perpetrators of sexual crimes. In republican areas, the IRA’s “Civil Administration Team” was charged with dealing with suspected offenders, and handing out sentences that had been approved in advance by the organisation’s Army Council. Punishment included expulsion from the area, to having kneecaps shot, and also summary execution.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams joined the IRA Army Council in 1977. Last year, Adam’s younger brother, Liam, was jailed for 16 years for raping his own daughter.

McIntyre says sexual abusers were often moved out of republican areas to safeguard the reputation of the movement. “The IRA could have publicly tarred and feathered sexual abusers, but they didn’t. They spirited them away not because they liked them, but because they wanted to protect the organisation.”

“Community policing” was not a role the IRA welcomed because it diverted time and resources, says McIntyre, but the organisation felt “that if they didn’t respond [to criminal behaviour], they would risk losing support”.

The Cahill case is not the first time that attention has focused on the IRA’s role as community enforcers since the peace process began in 1994. In the mid-1990s, an IRA front organisation, Direct Action Against Drugs, was responsible for a spate of killings of major players in the Irish drug scene.

In 2005, the murder of Robert McCartney following an argument in a Belfast bar provoked outrage. The killing of west Belfast mother-of-10 Jean McConville in 1972, and subsequent IRA cover-up, remains a live issue. Community leaders frequently decry the so-called “punishment beatings” that are still prevalent in some republican areas.

In the absence of an effective police force, paramilitaries on both sides became the law in parts of Northern Ireland [EPA]

‘Republican royalty’

But the detailed allegations made by Mairia Cahill are of a different order to previous criticism, says Paddy Hoey, a lecturer in media at Edge Hill University in London.

“This is republican royalty going against one of the top men in republicanism. It is an expression of the thought policing that goes on in west Belfast. Someone who could have gone to the police but didn’t because she was worried about the damage it would have done,” says Hoey.

By the late 1990s, when Cahill’s alleged abuse occurred, west Belfast had effectively been a “state-within-a-state” controlled by Sinn Fein and the IRA for almost two decades. The area even had its own radio stations and newspapers that were used to maintain discipline and were turned against anyone who spoke out.

“The full force of the republican movement as a pseudo-state in west Belfast or Derry would come down against you,” says Hoey. “Part of the reason that victims of these kind of crimes didn’t come forward was because of the power that was centralised in an elite [in the republican movement].”

Everyone is talking about it, but one day they won’t. The question is what damage is done in the meantime.

– Mick Fealty, journalist

McIntyre says he remembers when his home in west Belfast was picketed in 2000. “My wife was six months pregnant and we had the IRA outside the door. It was all because I had said that the IRA had killed Joseph O’Connor [an anti-peace process republican shot dead in 2000].”

This kind of “direct policing” is less widespread in Northern Ireland now. The IRA has disappeared off the streets of Belfast. Since 2007, Sinn Fein has officially supported the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein is fabled for its loyalty and discipline. But these characteristics, so essential in a war setting, have proved damaging in peacetime.

“The main threat to republicanism in the age of the peace process hasn’t come from the government. It’s come from within the republican movement, from control and abuse and cover-up,” says Hoey.

Culture of summary justice

The vicious beatings and intimidation that characterised “community policing” have returned to some areas where anti-peace process republicans have a significant presence. About half of paramilitary-style punishment shootings in Northern Ireland in 2013-14 were carried out in west Belfast, according to police statistics.

In Derry, dissident group Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD) has carried out dozens of punishment attacks in recent years. The group claimed responsibility for the murder of Derry man Andrew Allen across the border in Donegal, in the Irish Republic, in 2012. RAAD has even carried out non-lethal punishment shootings by appointment, with parents instructed to drop children off and wait while they are shot.

Mairia Cahill’s testimony has shone a spotlight on the culture of summary justice in republican areas. Sinn Fein chief Gerry Adams has acknowledged that the IRA passed judgement on sexual offences, but has denied Cahill’s allegations.

It remains to be seen whether memories of the brutal Troubles-era violence stirred by the latest charges will have lasting repercussions for Sinn Fein, says journalist and commentator Mick Fealty.

“[The story] is going to go away at some point. People I speak to close to Sinn Fein are saying that it’s like the McCartney sisters. Everyone is talking about it, but one day they won’t. The question is what damage is done in the meantime.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Is Northern Ireland’s peace on the rocks?

Belfast – On Sunday morning, prominent Irish politician Gerry Adams woke alone in a cell in Antrim police station. By the following evening, the Sinn Fein president was stepping onto a podium at an election rally at the Devenish Centre, West Belfast as an 800-strong crowd chanted his name.

Adams, who smiled widely, did not look like a man who had spent four nights in police custody. He told cheering supporters that his arrest in connection with the 1972 killing of West Belfast mother of ten Jean McConville was “a sham”, but that Sinn Fein would not be diverted from “the job of building the peace”.

The Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, ended the 30-year “Troubles” that cost over 3,000 lives. Since 2007, Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), has shared power with the Democratic Unionist Party in a devolved parliament in Belfast.

Concerns, however, are being raised about the fragility of the peace in Northern Ireland. The murals and flags that line many streets across this country of just 1.8 million attest to on-going tensions between unionists, who favour a political union between Northern Ireland and the Great Britain, and republicans, who want a united Ireland.

Recent months have been particularly difficult. Attacks by republicans opposed to the peace process have been frequent. Early in the New Year, talks in Belfast brokered by US diplomat Richard Haass to resolve issues of the past, parading, and symbols collapsed without a deal.

In February, the devolved power-sharing government stood on the brink of collapse after the revelation that almost 200 republican paramilitaries wanted for crimes committed during the conflict had mistakenly been issued with letters informing them that they were not being sought by UK authorities.

‘The volcano will erupt’

Just last week, Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers ruled out independent reviews into the killing of eleven civilians by British troops at Ballmurphy in 1971 and a 1978 IRA bombing that left twelve people dead

“The problem now is that events are coming along quicker than [the 1998 peace deal at] Stormont can deal with. In the past there were periods of calmness, now there is no time for recovery,” says Jonny Byrne, a lecturer in criminology at the University of Ulster. “It’s like the early signs of Vesuvius, we know the volcano is going to erupt.”

In the past there were periods of calmness, now there is no time for recovery… It’s like the early signs of Vesuvius, we know the volcano is going to erupt.

Jonny Byrne, University of Ulster

International onlookers have wondered aloud whether Northern Ireland might be on the verge of a return to violence. Gary White, a former Police Service of Northern Ireland chief superintendent, says it already has. “Over this last number of years we have had police officers killed, we have had soldiers killed, we have had prison officers killed, we have had many people injured, members of the public, members of the police and other security forces,” White says. “So it is a fact that violence is present in our society.”

An indication of the on-going friction in Northern Ireland came in December 2012. After a vote at Belfast city council to fly the Union flag on designated days rather than all year round, riots broke out in pro-union areas. As streets across the city were blockaded, Belfast effectively came to a standstill.

One of the reasons loyalists, who support the maintenance of the union with Great Britain, are so angry is that they feel they have lost out to republicans in the peace process, says Mark Vinton, a member of the Progressive Unionist Party, which is linked to the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force.

Vinton feels that the peace agreement has allowed republicans to further their political goal of Irish unification. Since 1998, Sinn Fein has become the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland and is growing in popularity south of the border.

“Sinn Fein and republicanism have used the Agreement as a stepping-stone to further their own aims. So basically anybody that you speak to within a working class Unionist or loyalist community will feel massively let down, that it wasn’t an agreement at all, that there were shafted,” says Vinton.

Paying a peace divident?

Loyalists such as Mark Vinton say their communities have never received the much-vaunted “peace dividend” promised by politicians after the 1998 agreement that ushered in the historic power sharing arrangement between Catholics and Protestants.

“If you come into Belfast city centre you will see [it] flourishing,” he says. “But if you take a 10 minute sidestep to either side of North, South, East, West Belfast, you go into working class areas, you will then see the dividend that was meant to pay off peace-wise, has not paid off in those communities, they still live in mass deprivation.”

Ardoyne, a republican area in North Belfast, regularly ranks as one of the most deprived communities in Northern Ireland. Political tensions here have risen in recent months. Just across the “interface” that separates Catholics from Protestants, a loyalist protest has been ongoing since July, when a parade by the Protestant Orange Order was prevented from passing through a nearby nationalist area.

“Negative elements” are trying to manipulate and exploit tensions over flags and other symbols of identity, says Joe Marlay, a community worker in Ardoyne.

But life has changed for the better since the ceasefires, says Marlay, whose father was shot dead by loyalists. “The life I had sort of growing up, is not the life of my sons and daughters have now in our house. We had bullet-proof [glass] on the doors, and some of the windows, we had security gates on the stairs, we had our own security procedures [for] how we lived…. If we were driven to school in the mornings we had to check under the car for devices.”

Ghosts of the past

Nevertheless, fears are growing that demographic and social changes could put further pressure on the gains of peace. The 2012 census found that, for the first time, Protestants do not constitute a majority in Northern Ireland. Formal education is sorely lacking in working-class Protestant areas, and the local economy is still struggling to recover from the global financial crisis.

Mistrust between unionists and republicans continues despite a peace deal signed in 1998 [EPA]

Relations between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party, who share power in the devolved assembly at Stormont, are icy and getting colder with each passing week.

“The principles, the goodwill and ethos of the Good Friday Agreement are gone,” says Dr Jonny Byrne.

The Conservative-led coalition government in London has shown little appetite for involving itself in Northern Irish affairs. Prime Minister David Cameron is from a generation of Tories that have little psychological or emotional attachment to a peace process that was the product of Tony Blair and New Labour.

The failure of the British government – and its Irish counterpart – to engage with the situation in Northern Ireland is creating a power vacuum, says Steven McCaffery, editor of Belfast-based investigative website the Detail.

“The whole premise of the Good Friday agreement was that it was not an internal solution. There were three legs to the stool: there was London, Dublin and Belfast. The London leg and the Dublin leg have effectively fallen away, so the stool is wobbling.”

With a divided leadership in power at Stormont and growing tensions on the ground, any agreement on the past is likely to remain elusive. This makes the task of creating a shared future after conflict even more difficult.

“We don’t have an agreed narrative of the past from which to try to build an agreed vision of the future,” says Norman Hamilton, former moderator of the Presbyterian Church, which campaigned for decades for an end to the sectarian conflict.

“In order to create the political stability, to create enforced power-sharing, the narrative of the past was set aside in the hope that as an executive assembly delivered real progress on the ground the pain of the past would recede. That hasn’t happened.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Protestants go for Gaelic in Northern Ireland

The majority of the 5,000 children in Irish-language education hail from nationalist areas [Reuters]
Belfast, Northern Ireland  Seomra ranga – “classroom”, in Ireland’s indigenous language – reads a cardboard sign tacked onto a door. A little further down the hall, a leabharlann is filled with books. It is a very Irish scene, but in a very unlikely place: East Belfast Mission on Newtownards Road.

Across the street, a mural commemorates the Protestant paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force. Union Jack flags fly from lampposts in the shadow of the shipyards that built the Titanic.

In Northern Ireland, the Irish Gaelic language has traditionally been a largely Catholic pursuit. The overwhelming majority of the 5,000 children in Irish-language education hail from nationalist areas.

But this might be about to change. The Turas Centre in the East Belfast Mission – turas means “journey” in Irish Gaelic  hosts 10 Irish-language classes a week. About 90 percent of those filing in and out of theseomra ranga and reading textbooks in the leabherlann are Protestant.

“The Irish language is part of our culture. It belongs to everyone,” said Linda Ervine, an Irish language development officer at the East Belfast Mission.

I would just call it a bullying session. There were three men and myself. They accused me of diluting ulster Protestantism. I said, ‘Well it depends what your definition of Ulster Protestantism is.’

– Linda Ervine, Irish language development officer

 

Ervine is the closest East Belfast comes to royalty: loyalist leader David Ervine was her brother-in-law; her husband, Brian, is like his late brother David, a former leader of the Progressive Unionist Party.

From the ancient Gaelic-speaking kingdom

Linda Ervine’s soft voice and gentle manner bely a formidable passion for the Irish language – and for why Northern Ireland’s Protestant community should take it up.

“There is every reason why Protestants should be learning Irish,” she said. “Ninety-five percent of our place names come from Gaelic… We are using words in our language every day that come from the Gaelic language. We are steeped in it.”

On a nearby wall hangs a map of Britain and Ireland turned on its side, showing the ancient Gaelic-speaking kingdom of Dalriada, which spread across the north coast of Ireland and the western isles of Scotland in the late sixth and early seventh centuries.

Most Gaelic speakers in Scotland are Protestant, and when they came to Ireland during the Plantations, they brought their language with them, Ervine explained.

Ervine’s own turas to Irish began three years ago, when the women’s group she was part of at the East Belfast Mission took a starter course in the language. She was bitten by the bug and soon enrolled in an intensive course at an Irish centre in a nearby nationalist area.

Since then, Ervine has been travelling across Northern Ireland giving presentations and talks about the history of Protestantism and the Irish language. “We discovered that in the 1901 and 1911 census, people listed themselves as having Irish here in East Belfast,” she said.

Ervine is not the first figure from a loyalist background to shine a light on the Irish aspect of Ulster Protestant identity.

In the early 1990s, not far from where the Turas Centre sits today, the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force – responsible for hundreds of killings during the 30-year-long “Troubles – painted a mural on Newtownards Road celebrating the Irish mythological hero Cuchulainn as a defender of Ulster. The Red Hand Commando, a splinter group of the Ulster Volunteer Force, had “Lamh Dearg Abu” (Victory to the Red Hand) as its motto.

Belfast blast victims’ families want answers

Mind your language 

But many unionists have not been sympathetic to Ervine’s efforts to encourage Protestants to embrace Irish.

At a meeting of Down District Council in March, three Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) councillors walked out just minutes before she was due to give a presentation. UUP councillor Walter Lyons said the party “had to make a stand” because the Irish language was being “forced upon” unionists and “used against us”.

Earlier this year, George Chittick, Belfast County Grand Master of the Orange Order, an influential Protestant organisation, issued a “word of warning to Protestants who go learn Irish”. He later said his remarks were aimed at Protestants seeking funding for Irish-language projects – a thinly veiled attack on the Turas Centre.

The Orange Order’s criticism was “very sad”, said Ervine.

“I was invited to speak to the Orange Order shortly after that, and I would just call it a bullying session. There were three men and myself. They accused me of diluting Ulster Protestantism. I said, ‘Well, it depends what your definition of Ulster Protestantism is’.”

Irish has official recognition in Northern Ireland under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The peace deal also recognised Ulster Scots, a distinctive dialect spoken by some Protestants. But the Democratic Unionist Party, who share power in a devolved government at Stormont, in Belfast, have blocked subsequent attempts to enact an Irish-language act.

In January, the Council of Europe criticised what it called Stormont’s “hostile” attitude towards Irish. Earlier this month, Irish language speakers marched in Belfast in protest over what they described as Stormont’s “failure” to protect the language.

“The ongoing failure to protect and promote the language in the courts, in public signage and in the education sector continues to unravel the promises made in the Good Friday Agreement,” said Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League) in a statement.

In spite of government policy, people all over Ireland are choosing Irish medium education. In Belfast, we are seeing a critical mass of kids coming out with Irish.

– Eimear Ní Mhathúna, director of the Cultúrlann centre

 

Critical mass

Despite government gridlock, Irish is thriving on the ground, said Eimear Ni Mhathuna, director of the Culturlann centre on the Falls Road in West Belfast.

“As we speak, a group from the Shankill [a nearby majority Protestant area] are doing an Irish-language course upstairs,” she told Al Jazeera.

Irish took off in West Belfast in the late 1960s, when a group of Irish-speaking families set up an urban Gaeltacht, the name given to an Irish-speaking area. In 1971, a school called Bunscoil Phobal Feirste began with nine children. Nowthere are 12 Irish-language primary schools in Belfast.

Colaiste Feirste, a nearby secondary school, has nearly 600 pupils, and St Mary’s College provides teacher training in Irish. Two of Belfast’s last three Lord Mayors – including the incumbent Mairtin O Muilleoir – have been associated with the West Belfast Gaeltacht.

“In spite of government policy, people all over Ireland are choosing Irish medium education,” said Ni Mhathuna. “In Belfast, we are seeing a critical mass of kids coming out with Irish.”

Back in East Belfast, Ervine argued that Northern Ireland’s rich linguistic diversity should be cherished as an opportunity to bring people together, not push them apart.

“As people in Northern Ireland, when we open our mouths we speak beautiful constructions of English, Scots, Scots Gaelic and Irish Gaelic. We are using all those words, all that syntax, because we as a people bring all that together,” Ervine said.

“I am trying to show people that you can’t divide people into these boxes. You can’t say just because someone is Catholic they should speak Gaelic, or because they are a Protestant they should speak Ulster Scots. It just doesn’t work like that.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Is Northern Ireland’s peace on the rocks?

Belfast – On Sunday morning, prominent Irish politician Gerry Adams woke alone in a cell in Antrim police station. By the following evening, the Sinn Fein president was stepping onto a podium at an election rally at the Devenish Centre, West Belfast as an 800-strong crowd chanted his name.

Adams, who smiled widely, did not look like a man who had spent four nights in police custody. He told cheering supporters that his arrest in connection with the 1972 killing of West Belfast mother of ten Jean McConville was “a sham”, but that Sinn Fein would not be diverted from “the job of building the peace”.

The Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, ended the 30-year “Troubles” that cost over 3,000 lives. Since 2007, Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), has shared power with the Democratic Unionist Party in a devolved parliament in Belfast.

Concerns, however, are being raised about the fragility of the peace in Northern Ireland. The murals and flags that line many streets across this country of just 1.8 million attest to on-going tensions between unionists, who favour a political union between Northern Ireland and the Great Britain, and republicans, who want a united Ireland.

Recent months have been particularly difficult. Attacks by republicans opposed to the peace process have been frequent. Early in the New Year, talks in Belfast brokered by US diplomat Richard Haass to resolve issues of the past, parading, and symbols collapsed without a deal.

In February, the devolved power-sharing government stood on the brink of collapse after the revelation that almost 200 republican paramilitaries wanted for crimes committed during the conflict had mistakenly been issued with letters informing them that they were not being sought by UK authorities.

‘The volcano will erupt’

Just last week, Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers ruled out independent reviews into the killing of eleven civilians by British troops at Ballmurphy in 1971 and a 1978 IRA bombing that left twelve people dead

“The problem now is that events are coming along quicker than [the 1998 peace deal at] Stormont can deal with. In the past there were periods of calmness, now there is no time for recovery,” says Jonny Byrne, a lecturer in criminology at the University of Ulster. “It’s like the early signs of Vesuvius, we know the volcano is going to erupt.”

In the past there were periods of calmness, now there is no time for recovery… It’s like the early signs of Vesuvius, we know the volcano is going to erupt.

Jonny Byrne, University of Ulster

International onlookers have wondered aloud whether Northern Ireland might be on the verge of a return to violence. Gary White, a former Police Service of Northern Ireland chief superintendent, says it already has. “Over this last number of years we have had police officers killed, we have had soldiers killed, we have had prison officers killed, we have had many people injured, members of the public, members of the police and other security forces,” White says. “So it is a fact that violence is present in our society.”

An indication of the on-going friction in Northern Ireland came in December 2012. After a vote at Belfast city council to fly the Union flag on designated days rather than all year round, riots broke out in pro-union areas. As streets across the city were blockaded, Belfast effectively came to a standstill.

One of the reasons loyalists, who support the maintenance of the union with Great Britain, are so angry is that they feel they have lost out to republicans in the peace process, says Mark Vinton, a member of the Progressive Unionist Party, which is linked to the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force.

Vinton feels that the peace agreement has allowed republicans to further their political goal of Irish unification. Since 1998, Sinn Fein has become the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland and is growing in popularity south of the border.

“Sinn Fein and republicanism have used the Agreement as a stepping-stone to further their own aims. So basically anybody that you speak to within a working class Unionist or loyalist community will feel massively let down, that it wasn’t an agreement at all, that there were shafted,” says Vinton.

Paying a peace divident?

Loyalists such as Mark Vinton say their communities have never received the much-vaunted “peace dividend” promised by politicians after the 1998 agreement that ushered in the historic power sharing arrangement between Catholics and Protestants.

“If you come into Belfast city centre you will see [it] flourishing,” he says. “But if you take a 10 minute sidestep to either side of North, South, East, West Belfast, you go into working class areas, you will then see the dividend that was meant to pay off peace-wise, has not paid off in those communities, they still live in mass deprivation.”

Ardoyne, a republican area in North Belfast, regularly ranks as one of the most deprived communities in Northern Ireland. Political tensions here have risen in recent months. Just across the “interface” that separates Catholics from Protestants, a loyalist protest has been ongoing since July, when a parade by the Protestant Orange Order was prevented from passing through a nearby nationalist area.

“Negative elements” are trying to manipulate and exploit tensions over flags and other symbols of identity, says Joe Marlay, a community worker in Ardoyne.

But life has changed for the better since the ceasefires, says Marlay, whose father was shot dead by loyalists. “The life I had sort of growing up, is not the life of my sons and daughters have now in our house. We had bullet-proof [glass] on the doors, and some of the windows, we had security gates on the stairs, we had our own security procedures [for] how we lived…. If we were driven to school in the mornings we had to check under the car for devices.”

Ghosts of the past

Nevertheless, fears are growing that demographic and social changes could put further pressure on the gains of peace. The 2012 census found that, for the first time, Protestants do not constitute a majority in Northern Ireland. Formal education is sorely lacking in working-class Protestant areas, and the local economy is still struggling to recover from the global financial crisis.

Mistrust between unionists and republicans continues despite a peace deal signed in 1998 [EPA]

Relations between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party, who share power in the devolved assembly at Stormont, are icy and getting colder with each passing week.

“The principles, the goodwill and ethos of the Good Friday Agreement are gone,” says Dr Jonny Byrne.

The Conservative-led coalition government in London has shown little appetite for involving itself in Northern Irish affairs. Prime Minister David Cameron is from a generation of Tories that have little psychological or emotional attachment to a peace process that was the product of Tony Blair and New Labour.

The failure of the British government – and its Irish counterpart – to engage with the situation in Northern Ireland is creating a power vacuum, says Steven McCaffery, editor of Belfast-based investigative websitethe Detail.

“The whole premise of the Good Friday agreement was that it was not an internal solution. There were three legs to the stool: there was London, Dublin and Belfast. The London leg and the Dublin leg have effectively fallen away, so the stool is wobbling.”

With a divided leadership in power at Stormont and growing tensions on the ground, any agreement on the past is likely to remain elusive. This makes the task of creating a shared future after conflict even more difficult.

“We don’t have an agreed narrative of the past from which to try to build an agreed vision of the future,” says Norman Hamilton, former moderator of the Presbyterian Church, which campaigned for decades for an end to the sectarian conflict.

“In order to create the political stability, to create enforced power-sharing, the narrative of the past was set aside in the hope that as an executive assembly delivered real progress on the ground the pain of the past would recede. That hasn’t happened.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera English.

Protestants go for Gaelic in Northern Ireland

Belfast, Northern Ireland  Seomra ranga – “classroom”, in Ireland’s indigenous language – reads a cardboard sign tacked onto a door. A little further down the hall, a leabharlann is filled with books. It is a very Irish scene, but in a very unlikely place: East Belfast Mission on Newtownards Road.

Across the street, a mural commemorates the Protestant paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force. Union Jack flags fly from lampposts in the shadow of the shipyards that built the Titanic.

In Northern Ireland, the Irish Gaelic language has traditionally been a largely Catholic pursuit. The overwhelming majority of the 5,000 children in Irish-language education hail from nationalist areas.

But this might be about to change. The Turas Centre in the East Belfast Mission – turas means “journey” in Irish Gaelic  hosts 10 Irish-language classes a week. About 90 percent of those filing in and out of the seomra ranga and reading textbooks in the leabherlann are Protestant.FILE PHOTO OF SCHOOL BOYS PASSING IN FRONT OF A MURAL IN BELFAST.

“The Irish language is part of our culture. It belongs to everyone,” said Linda Ervine, an Irish language development officer at the East Belfast Mission.

I would just call it a bullying session. There were three men and myself. They accused me of diluting ulster Protestantism. I said, ‘Well it depends what your definition of Ulster Protestantism is.’

– Linda Ervine, Irish language development officer

Ervine is the closest East Belfast comes to royalty: loyalist leader David Ervine was her brother-in-law; her husband, Brian, is like his late brother David, a former leader of the Progressive Unionist Party.

From the ancient Gaelic-speaking kingdom

Linda Ervine’s soft voice and gentle manner bely a formidable passion for the Irish language – and for why Northern Ireland’s Protestant community should take it up.

“There is every reason why Protestants should be learning Irish,” she said. “Ninety-five percent of our place names come from Gaelic… We are using words in our language every day that come from the Gaelic language. We are steeped in it.”

On a nearby wall hangs a map of Britain and Ireland turned on its side, showing the ancient Gaelic-speaking kingdom of Dalriada, which spread across the north coast of Ireland and the western isles of Scotland in the late sixth and early seventh centuries.

Most Gaelic speakers in Scotland are Protestant, and when they came to Ireland during the Plantations, they brought their language with them, Ervine explained.

Ervine’s own turas to Irish began three years ago, when the women’s group she was part of at the East Belfast Mission took a starter course in the language. She was bitten by the bug and soon enrolled in an intensive course at an Irish centre in a nearby nationalist area.

Since then, Ervine has been travelling across Northern Ireland giving presentations and talks about the history of Protestantism and the Irish language. “We discovered that in the 1901 and 1911 census, people listed themselves as having Irish here in East Belfast,” she said.

Ervine is not the first figure from a loyalist background to shine a light on the Irish aspect of Ulster Protestant identity.

In the early 1990s, not far from where the Turas Centre sits today, the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force – responsible for hundreds of killings during the 30-year-long “Troubles – painted a mural on Newtownards Road celebrating the Irish mythological hero Cuchulainn as a defender of Ulster. The Red Hand Commando, a splinter group of the Ulster Volunteer Force, had “Lamh Dearg Abu” (Victory to the Red Hand) as its motto.

Mind your language 

But many unionists have not been sympathetic to Ervine’s efforts to encourage Protestants to embrace Irish.

At a meeting of Down District Council in March, three Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) councillors walked out just minutes before she was due to give a presentation. UUP councillor Walter Lyons said the party “had to make a stand” because the Irish language was being “forced upon” unionists and “used against us”.

Earlier this year, George Chittick, Belfast County Grand Master of the Orange Order, an influential Protestant organisation, issued a “word of warning to Protestants who go learn Irish”. He later said his remarks were aimed at Protestants seeking funding for Irish-language projects – a thinly veiled attack on the Turas Centre.

The Orange Order’s criticism was “very sad”, said Ervine.

“I was invited to speak to the Orange Order shortly after that, and I would just call it a bullying session. There were three men and myself. They accused me of diluting Ulster Protestantism. I said, ‘Well, it depends what your definition of Ulster Protestantism is’.”

Irish has official recognition in Northern Ireland under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The peace deal also recognised Ulster Scots, a distinctive dialect spoken by some Protestants. But the Democratic Unionist Party, who share power in a devolved government at Stormont, in Belfast, have blocked subsequent attempts to enact an Irish-language act.

In January, the Council of Europe criticised what it called Stormont’s “hostile” attitude towards Irish. Earlier this month, Irish language speakers marched in Belfast in protest over what they described as Stormont’s “failure” to protect the language.

“The ongoing failure to protect and promote the language in the courts, in public signage and in the education sector continues to unravel the promises made in the Good Friday Agreement,” said Conradh na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League) in a statement.

In spite of government policy, people all over Ireland are choosing Irish medium education. In Belfast, we are seeing a critical mass of kids coming out with Irish.

– Eimear Ní Mhathúna, director of the Cultúrlann centre

Critical mass

Despite government gridlock, Irish is thriving on the ground, said Eimear Ni Mhathuna, director of the Culturlann centre on the Falls Road in West Belfast.

“As we speak, a group from the Shankill [a nearby majority Protestant area] are doing an Irish-language course upstairs,” she told Al Jazeera.

Irish took off in West Belfast in the late 1960s, when a group of Irish-speaking families set up an urban Gaeltacht, the name given to an Irish-speaking area. In 1971, a school called Bunscoil Phobal Feirste began with nine children. Now there are 12 Irish-language primary schools in Belfast.

Colaiste Feirste, a nearby secondary school, has nearly 600 pupils, and St Mary’s College provides teacher training in Irish. Two of Belfast’s last three Lord Mayors – including the incumbent Mairtin O Muilleoir – have been associated with the West Belfast Gaeltacht.

“In spite of government policy, people all over Ireland are choosing Irish medium education,” said Ni Mhathuna. “In Belfast, we are seeing a critical mass of kids coming out with Irish.”

Back in East Belfast, Ervine argued that Northern Ireland’s rich linguistic diversity should be cherished as an opportunity to bring people together, not push them apart.

“As people in Northern Ireland, when we open our mouths we speak beautiful constructions of English, Scots, Scots Gaelic and Irish Gaelic. We are using all those words, all that syntax, because we as a people bring all that together,” Ervine said.

“I am trying to show people that you can’t divide people into these boxes. You can’t say just because someone is Catholic they should speak Gaelic, or because they are a Protestant they should speak Ulster Scots. It just doesn’t work like that.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera English.

Back to the future in Northern Ireland

Picture: Detail from a similar mural taken in 2007 by PPCC Antifa on Flickr

A new mural in Belfast is hardly a major news story, but last November a painting appeared in the city that made headlines across Northern Ireland. Rendered on the gable end of a terrace house in East Belfast were two men, rifles in hand, standing beside the insignia of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a notorious Protestant paramilitary outfit responsible for over 480 killings during ‘the Troubles’.

Paramilitary murals are supposed to be a thing of the past in Northern Ireland. So, too, are the armed groups that they are painted in support of. But in recent months both have been gaining a foothold in areas such as East Belfast, among red brick streets where Union flags fly from lamp posts and dissatisfaction with the peace settlement is running at an all-time high.

Around the same time that the finishing touches were being put to the UVF mural in East Belfast, senior US peace envoy Richard Haass was trying to hammer out a peace deal between the parties that share power in the devolved assembly in Stormont.

The Haass talks eventually ended in failure, on New Year’s Eve. The five parties – Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) on the nationalist side, the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionists, and the Alliance party, which draws support from Catholics and Protestants –could not agree on what to do about the past, flags and emblems and parades. With local and European elections in May, the prospect of reaching a settlement is fast receding.

The Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, brought to end three decades of violence that left 3,700 dead. There is no immediate prospect of a return to ‘the Troubles’ – despite the intermittent threat posed by anti-agreement Irish republicans and restive loyalists – but increasingly a new form of confrontation is breaking out in Northern Ireland, one fought not with guns and bombs but with culture and tradition.

Symbols of identity provide the battleground in this new conflict. Murals have been part of the landscape for over a century, but the Union flag has been a major issue in Northern Ireland since December 2012, when Belfast city council voted to change its policy on flying the standard from all-year round to a select number of designated days. Loyalists responded to the flag’s removal with a wave of protests that almost brought Belfast to a standstill at one stage.

Parades by the Orange Order, a Protestant organisation, have also provided a number of flashpoints. At Twaddell Avenue, in North Belfast, a protest camp has been in place since July after a loyalist parade was prevented from passing through a nearby Catholic area.

‘Respect Our Culture’, reads a large poster overlooking the encampment, which is estimated to cost £50,000 to police.

There is ‘a boiling resentment within loyalism’, says Mike Nesbitt, leader of the Ulster Unionists, once the dominant party in Northern Ireland.

“The loyalist/unionist community were promised in ‘98 that nationalists and republicans accepted the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as part of the UK. Republicans are now saying, ‘Northern Ireland may be part of the UK on paper, but we are going to do everything we can to make it not look like part of the UK. We are going to take down the Union flag where we can, we are going to take down flags where we can, we are going to take down symbols where we can,’” Nesbitt told me in a recent telephone conversation.

It’s a constant chipping at the manifestations of Britishness that is not something that anyone signed up for in 1998.

Dr Dominic Bryan, director of the Institute for Irish Studies at Queen’s University, Belfast and an expert on the Orange Order, is not surprised that symbols are taking on such potency in Northern Ireland. “When the peace process started we immediately ended up with much higher profile disputes about the symbolic landscape,” he says.

The problem in Northern Ireland – where the electorate still votes overwhelmingly along sectarian lines – is that there is little or no impetus for politicians to compromise on identity. Unionist leaders, for example, can only lose votes by being seen to oppose Orange parades or the flying of the Union flag.

This situation is compounded by the reality that, more than a decade and half since the end of the armed conflict, society remains deeply polarized. The number of ‘peacelines’, defensive barriers separating Catholic and Protestant communities, has actually increased, particularly in Belfast. Education remains deeply segregated, with only about 5 per cent of students attending mixed, or ‘integrated’, schools.

“We have had a political agreement, a democratic process and a reduction in violence but we haven’t had any process that suggested that the communities were less divided,” says Bryan.

Increasingly, it is Protestants who feel like they are losing out in the ‘new’ Northern Ireland – educational attainment is lower in many working-class loyalist areas, and the erosion of traditional heavy industry such has shipbuilding has fuelled a sense of grievance.

“The same problems – deprivation, inequality, industrial decline – you will find in Cardiff, Liverpool, Glasgow. But (in Protestant communities in Belfast) de-industrialization has coincided with the peace process and the peace process gets blamed for de-industrialization,” says John Brewer, professor of post-conflict studies in Queen’s University, Belfast.

“Loyalists perceive the (Good Friday) Agreement as an anti-Protestant process, in which they have received little or nothing,’ says Brewer. Meanwhile, the Protestant middle-class ‘does not try in the slightest to understand loyalism’.”

In some respects, the existential crisis facing loyalism is surprising. The union seems safer than it has been in generations: a poll last year showed that more than half of Catholics support the constitutional status quo. While deprivation is an issue in some working class Protestant neighbourhoods, 16 of Belfast’s 20 most deprived wards have Catholic majorities.

The public sphere is still overwhelmingly unionist, too, says Dr Dominic Bryan.

It’s an utter irony for unionists to be holding barriers saying that there is a ‘cultural apartheid in North Belfast’ when they have had 32 parades down a particular road in one year. I don’t believe unionism or unionist culture is under threat, it isn’t.

Many loyalists, however, disagree. Jamie Bryson, an anti-Agreement loyalist who emerged on the Northern Irish political scene on the back of the flag protests outside Belfast City Hall, says that compromise with Irish republicanism has led to a ‘dilution’ of the culture of what has become known as the Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist (PUL) community.

“There is a ‘culture war’ against our community. I don’t believe our community can give up any more of our identity, to do so would leave us feeling even more oppressed than we already do,” Bryson told me in Belfast just before Christmas, when the Haass peace talks were taking place.

“Would Richard Haass go to America and tell the Americans to take down the stars and stripes because it offends al-Qaeda?”

This piece originally appeared on the new crowdfunded journalism site Contributoria

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