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. 

Which is the world’s most segregated city?

The city where segregation increased the most among the 13 studied was Madrid, not due to an influx of property speculators, but because rather a lack of affordable housing.
Segregation has shot up in Madrid – due less to property speculation than a lack of affordable housing. Photograph: Alamy

“Reclaim your community,” declared the posters. “Hipsters beware.” Pinned around London’s East End last month, they announced Fuck Parade, an anti-gentrification demonstration that culminated in an attack on a café selling bowls of cereal. Long the first port of call for cash-strapped new arrivals in the city – Irish, Jews, Bangladeshis and many others – the East End was changing, said Fuck Parade’s organisers. They explained that they were protesting against increasing economic segregation: the construction of “luxury flats that no one can afford” instead of “genuinely affordable housing”.

London certainly is a very inequitable city. The richest 10% of its residents own 60% of the city’s assets. The top 10th of London earners take home around 4.5 times as much as the bottom 10th.

However, according to new research, and unlike many European cities, between 2001 and 2011, London did not actually become more economically segregated … largely because the city was so divided to start with.

“In the central parts of London, housing is extremely expensive and segregation is already high,” says Maarten van Ham, professor of urban renewal at Delft University of Technology and the University of St Andrews. Van Ham co-authored the study, which measured a range of variables associated with segregation: income, occupational status, education and more.

Peabody housing estate just off Poplar high street in East London. Canary Wharf is in the background.
Peabody housing estate just off Poplar high street in East London. Canary Wharf is in the background. Photograph: Photofusion/Rex Shutterstock

The research found that, in the decade from 2001, segregation increased in 11 of 13 major European cities (the other exception, along with London, was Amsterdam.)

In Scandinavia, for example, the traditional Nordic model seems to be fraying at the edges. In Stockholm, social housing is being sold into the private sector; even in famously equal Oslo, rich and poor are increasingly living parallel lives in different parts of the city.

Across the Baltic Sea, Vilnius and Tallinn have gone from Soviet cities with limited private ownership of housing to hyper-capitalist ones in just 25 years.

Throughout Europe, inequality is on the rise. Our cities are looking and feeling very different, as middle-class professionals flock to central neighbourhoods while immigrants increasingly congregate together, often in suburban enclaves. “Without inequality, there wouldn’t be any segregation by income,” says Van Ham. “If inequality increases in a city, you expect segregation to rise, too.”

For example, the city where segregation increased the most among the 13 studied was Madrid – not due to an influx of property speculators, but rather a lack of affordable housing, which, for example, forced young people to stay living with their parents. In Vienna, the number of professionals has doubled in the past decade, squeezing out poorer residents.

In 2005, riots broke out across the Parisian banlieues. The insurrection was, in part, a protest against inequality, and yet segregation has increased in the years since.

Over the past three decades, it has increased in most US cities, too. The most extreme economic examples are concentrated in college towns – in part because the vertiginous cost of American university education attracts only the wealthiest. But it affects larger cities, too: New York, Philadelphia and Chicago are segregated along economic lines and are getting worse.

North of the border, in Winnipeg, a “great divide” has opened up between the 80,000-strong indigenous population and the rest of the city’s residents. Most of Winnipeg’s First Nations community live in the inner city and the North End, two of the poorest postcodes in Canada. On a whole host of indices, from access to housing to exposure to violent crime, aboriginals fare worse.

Research shows that Detroit is the most racially unequal metropolis in the US.
Research shows that Detroit is the most racially unequal metropolis in the US. Photograph: Rebecca Cook/Reuters/Corbis

But for the starkest examples of segregation, we have to look beyond Europe and North America. In Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, hundreds of thousands of erstwhile nomads live in felt-covered “ger” tents on scrubland on the outskirts of the city, while downtown, the nouveau riche shop in expensive designer stores. And in Johannesburg, walls – often topped with broken glass and surveillance cameras – separate the wealthy from the hoi polloi. The South African city, once strictly segregated along racial lines, is now divided by income.

Cities, of course, are not just divided by money. Belfast, too, has walls – in this case iron “peace walls”, some almost 20ft high, built to separate nationalists and unionists. In the Indian state of Gujarat, scene of vicious anti-Muslim riots in 2002, many Hindus and Muslims live in separate, sprawling ghettos. Parts of the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh, are split along gender lines, with women-only shopping centres and restaurants, and even a dedicated women’s day at the local zoo.

Indices of dissimilarity – which measure the evenness of two groups (such as ethnic or occupational) in any given area – can be used to chart segregation. According to one study, Detroit is the most racially unequal metropolis in the US, with a dissimilarity score of almost 80: a largely black inner city, with whites living predominantly in the surrounding suburbs.

Belfast’s “peace walls” are almost 20ft high, built to separate nationalists and unionists.
Belfast’s “peace walls” are almost 20ft high, built to separate nationalists and unionists. Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the Observer

And yet, racial segregation may not be inevitable in large multi-ethnic cities. In Los Angeles, for example, segregation has actually decreased, according to new research. In 2000, 40% of LA’s population lived in strongly segregated neighbourhoods; by 2010, it was one-third. The biggest fall has been in the number of heterogeneous white areas. “Diversity and heterogeneity is the new structure of urban society,” the authors conclude.

In Europe, however, cities are likely to become more divided as the impact of the 2008 financial crisis really starts to bite. “The crisis has probably caused inequality to rise in Europe,” says Van Ham. “But there is a serious time lag – five to 10 years – between rising inequality and when it affects cities.”

Compared with other cities around the world, however, Europe’s capitals are still relatively mixed. The oil-rich Angolan capital of Luanda has been, in some measures, the world’s most expensive city for each of the last three years. The super-rich live in gated, high-rise apartments; hotel rooms cost upwards of £250 a night for the most rudimentary. Poorer residents, meanwhile, struggle to survive in makeshift housing, unable to afford the eye-watering prices for basic staples such as milk and tomatoes.

This piece originally appeared in the Guardian.

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.

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.

How would an indyref Yes affect Northern Ireland?

Would Northern Ireland “end up like West Pakistan” if Scotland says “yes” in September? Could Scottish independence presage a return to the Troubles? These are just some of the concerns being voiced by Unionist leaders in Northern Ireland ahead of the upcoming referendum.

Protestants in Ulster have long celebrated their links with Scotland, so the prospect of Scotland leaving the Union has provoked a bout of soul-searching for some across the Irish Sea.

Earlier this month, Ian Paisley junior, Democratic Unionist MP for North Antrim, said that Scottish independence would embolden dissident Irish republicans, leading to violence on the streets of Northern Ireland.

Previously, former Ulster Unionist Party leader, Reg Empey, had said that if Scotland voted for independence, Northern Ireland would “end up like West Pakistan”, with “a foreign country on one side of us and a foreign country on the other side of us”.

In 2012, Tom Elliot, Lord Empey’s successor as party leader, described the SNP as “a greater threat to the Union than the violence of the IRA”.

Although the Good Friday Agreement guarantees that Northern Ireland’s constitutional status can only be changed by a majority vote in the province, some Unionists are deeply concerned that the success of Scottish nationalism could see a clamour for a “border poll” on Irish unification.

The union flag flying at Belfast City HallMike Nesbitt, current leader of the Ulster Unionist party, told The Sunday Herald: “For unionism having seen off Irish republicanism after half a century there is a fear of being undone by Scottish nationalism in the 21st century.”

Nesbitt rejects the suggestion that Scottish independence could lead to a return to violence in Northern Ireland, but says that September’s referendum, regardless of the result, will “politically recalibrate the United Kingdom”. He added: “Even if Scotland says no to independence there is bound to be this push towards devo max and that will obviously have implications for Northern Ireland. Even Unionists whose political inclination is parity recognise that there economic arguments for breaking parity in areas such as corporation tax and air passenger duty.”

But many Unionists are wary of any change to the status quo. The Democratic Unionist Party is the largest party in the devolved Stormont administration, but a significant minority of Protestants remains deeply opposed to power-sharing with Sinn Fein republicans.

Protestants are no longer an absolute majority in Northern Ireland, according to census figures released at the end of 2012. The flag protests that broke out over the removal of the Union flag from City Hall around the same time, and ongoing disturbances around Orange Order parades, have contributed to a siege mentality in loyalist communities and an existential crisis within Unionism itself.

“Unionists don’t know who the hell they are and it’s part of their ongoing dilemma,” says Alex Kane, a columnist for the Belfast Telegraph and a leading unionist commentator in the city.

Former Northern Irish first minister and the architect of the Good Friday deal, Lord David Trimble, believes that Scottish independence could re-open the constitutional question in Northern Ireland. “If there was a Yes vote a lot of people would have to sit up and think and that opens up something,” Trimble told the Sunday Herald.

“(Irish) republicans would get excited and say, ‘It can be done’. Then there is a question, does their getting excited cause a problem? ‘Probably’ is the answer to that.”

Trimble says, however, that the vast majority of Unionists in Northern Ireland are confident that there will be a ‘no’ vote in Scotland.

“Alex Salmond’s main hope for success has always been to rile the English; to get the English riled and to use that to say to the Scots, ‘Look, they hate you, they want rid of you’. It’s a deeply cynical ploy but it has been obvious,” the former Ulster Unionist Party leader said.

Wary of negative headlines in Scotland and the religious dynamic, Irish republicans have been reticent on the question of September’s referendum. But former Sinn Fein director of publicity, Danny Morrison, says independence would have “a psychological effect” on Ulster Unionists.

“The majority Protestant community in the north is Presbyterian, not Anglican, and they identify their roots with dissenters from Scotland,” he says. “Their forebears would be leaving the Union that they hold so dear in the north of Ireland.”

But Morrison does not believe Scottish independence would be a game-changer in Northern Ireland. “Obviously, as an Irish republican I do express a little bit of schadenfreude at them all being upset at the old Union being broken up but does it bring Irish unity closer? No it doesn’t.”

Kane agrees, but for very different reasons, saying: “Sinn Fein have tried to play this bogeyman. ‘When the Scots go, you’re next’, but they don’t understand that a lot of nationalists – with a soft ‘n’ – are going to say, we don’t want (unification), that’s only going to cause far more problems than it’s worth.”

Although ahead in the polls, the No camp in Scotland has been accused of failing to articulate a positive vision of Unionism. Nesbitt says that the independence referendum should be seen as opportunity to “redefine in a more modern way what the union means”.

“We have to redefine ourselves. Look at the 2012 Olympics, where you have a guy born in Somalia, whose religion is Muslim, whose forename is Mohamed, who very joyfully wraps himself in the Union flag,” says Nesbitt. “That’s a very different thing from what we called Britishness in 1914.”

But James Mitchell, professor of politics at Edinburgh university, warns that attempts to create a pan-UK Unionist identity are fraught with danger. “Unionisms [across the UK] are very different,” he says. “There are clearly common parts to these Unionisms but there are also differences. Any attempt to forge a common Unionism across the UK will fail, it can’t happen.”

He rejects the idea that independence would lead to a significant change in the relationship between Scotland and Northern Ireland, with which it has had strong cultural links for hundreds of years. “The key relationships are personal, social, family – and I don’t think these need be disrupted at all,” Mitchell says. There is a referendum on the horizon that Northern Irish leaders should be worried about, he says, but it is not the one in Scotland.

“The European aspect is far more important than the Scottish referendum. If Scotland voted for independence and stayed in the EU and the rest of the UK was then to vote to withdraw from Europe that would put Northern Ireland in a very difficult position,” he says.

“You’d have the south [of Ireland] within the EU and Scotland within the EU. That is the most frightening thing from Northern Ireland’s point of view.”

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Herald, February 2, 2014.


A Model for Belfast Regeneration?

The amount of vacant land in Belfast city centre is equivalent to the size of 265 football pitches, according to the Forum for Alternative Belfast. If this space was used efficiently, at least 50,000 more people could live within 20 minutes walk of central Belfast without the need for high-rise buildings or the destruction of green spaces.

undera12northqueenstNext week, Forum for Alternative Belfast (Fab), a not-for-profit organisation run by a group of architects and planners, will launch the first ever architect’s scale model of Belfast in an effort to change how people – and politicians – think about regeneration in the North’s capital.

‘Belfast needs an integrated approach to housing and to stitching the city back together,’ Mark Hackett, an award-winning architect and the Forum’s co-director, told the Sunday Business Post.

‘The city centre is the part of the city that anyone would want to live in but (in Belfast) it is actually the most dysfunctional part of the city.’

‘Belfast: A Method’ is a 1:1500 scale model of the city centre, highlighting all the buildings, streets, and also the vacant space. Constructed out of plywood in the University of Ulster’s digital fabrication facility, the model will be open to the public from May 2, in Belfast’s Golden Thread Gallery.

The idea for a Belfast model arose from the Forum’s involvement at the British pavilion at last year’s Venice Biennale. Similar city models were successfully used in Berlin in the early 1990s, in Dublin’s Temple Bar and, more recently, in Boston.

‘These kind of models are very important. People can look at drawings all day long but they cannot get the same assessment of scale, mass, topography that you get in three dimensions,’ said Martin Barrett, an architect and proprietor of Oscar and Oscar, a design and reclamation business based in Belfast.

Four years ago the Forum for Alternative Belfast produced Missing City, a map that identified and plotted all the unused land in the city centre. Now, as Belfast city council prepares for the return of formerly centralised planning powers, the hope is that the scale model will stimulate debate about the need for regeneration in the city.

‘A lot of the reports and plans we’ve had over the last fifteen years don’t get to the heart of the problem,’ Mark Hackett said. ‘There are parts of the city that don’t work.’

Over the last 35 years the population of Belfast has decreased by 35 per cent. This decline in population is particularly evident in inner and central city areas that have been decimated by the impacts of roadinfrastructure, low-density housing redevelopment and the proliferation of car parks. Many parts of the city, particularly the East, West and North, feel disconnected from the city centre.

‘Most good cities have a sense of themselves, a sense of the civic,’ said Mark Hackett. ‘Belfast kind of lacks that, it has developed into sectors that are not really connected, not just because of the Troubles but also because of the development of its infrastructure.’

Earlier this month, planning permission was granted for the redevelopment of the former Maze prison site, near Lisburn, on the outskirts of Belfast. Most of the H blocks architecture, which formerly housed paramilitary prisoners during the Troubles, was demolished following the prison’s closure in October 2003.

The new Maze development will include an £18m peace centre designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, and funded by a European Union grant, and an agricultural centre. The project is expected to create several thousand jobs but there are fears that it could exacerbate Belfast’s on-going suburbanization.

As well as vast tracts of vacant space, Belfast city centre is scarred by a large number of low-quality developments. Permissive planning has, said Fab’s Mark Hackett, led to a focus on development for its own sake.

‘Politicians aren’t brave enough to say, “Ok we want development but we don’t want development at any cost”.

This piece appeared in the Sunday Business Post 28 April, 2013.

Belfast Businesses Count Cost of Unrest

The weeks leading up to Christmas are normally a bumper time for the Mourne Seafood Bar in Belfast. One of the most popular restaurants in the city, empty tables at the Mourne are usually a collector’s item at weekends during the festive period. But not last Saturday. As protestors with Union Jack scarves across their faces stalked the streets of Belfast, many guests called to cancel their bookings.

‘We probably lost between £7000 and £8000 in our two Belfast restaurants,’ Bob McCoubrey joint owner of the Mourne Seafood Bar and its sister restaurant in Belfast, Home, as well as another premises in Dundrum, County Down, told the Sunday Business Post. McCoubrey estimated there were 50 to 60 cancellations on Saturday alone.

flagsdisorder_18122012‘The cancellations were mainly people worried about public transport, about getting home after dinner,’ he said. ‘The general public are not afraid but it is the hassle factor – they fear about how they will get home and are worried about being stuck in town.’

The Mourne Seafood Bar is one of hundreds, if not thousands, of businesses in Belfast, and across Northern Ireland, effected by the on-goings loyalist protests. Belfast City Council’s recent ruling that the Union Jack will fly continuously from City Hall on fifteen designated days, rather than all year round sparked the demonstrations. The decision was the result of a compromise agreement between the Alliance Party, who hold the balance of power on the council, and Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

The loyalist protests are estimated to have cost Belfast businesses £3 million in lost revenue on Saturday. The true figure for losses could rise much higher, said Glyn Roberts, Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIRTA). ‘This is the most important trading time of the year. Our members are hoping for a good end to what has been a difficult year for many and now they are finding that they have lost trade and are being forced to close,’ he said.

Last Saturday should have been one of the busiest trading days in the year for HMV in Donegall Arcade, in the centre of Belfast. Instead footfall was down 40 per cent, said manager James Rider. In all, the number of customers passing through the store has declined a quarter since the protests began.

‘This is roughly in line with that is happening across the city centre. I know of seven or eight other shops that would have seen similar falls in footfall in the last week,’ Rider said.

As protests have spread beyond Belfast to other towns and centres across Northern Ireland, many business people are concerned about how long the disruption will continue. ‘If it lasts through December it’s frightening to think what could happen to businesses,’ said Rider.

‘There is a fear that this could drag on until Christmas,’ said NIRTA’s Glyn Roberts said. ‘The blunt reality is that for some businesses unless they have a good Christmas they not be here in the New Year.’

Speaking in the wake of the fire bombing of a police patrol car outside the constituency office of East Belfast Alliance MP Naomi Long on Monday night, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers said that protestors were, ‘doing untold damage to hard-pressed traders in the run-up to Christmas.’

‘And they undermine those who are working tirelessly to promote Northern Ireland to bring about investment, jobs and prosperity,’ Ms Villiers said.

Many are worried that images of burning flags and rioters on the streets, so redolent of the dark days of the Troubles, could do lasting damage to the North’s hard won reputation as a tourist destination. ‘Probably the biggest cost is the whole impact of what’s happening on Belfast as a destination,’ Bob McCoubrey, proprietor of the Mourne Seafood Bar, said.

Having invested heavily in an international campaign entitled ‘Our Time, Our Place’ for 2012, the wave of protests are the last thing Northern Ireland Tourist Board, or the local economy, needs. ‘A lot of people south of the border have never come to Northern Ireland. This won’t help to encourage them to come,’ said Mr McCoubrey.

Questions have been raised about the decision to vote on the controversial issue of the flag on Belfast City Hall at such an important time of the business years. In HMV, manager James Rider was ‘concerned’ that councillors did not decide to postpone the vote until the New Year given its potential effect during the busiest trading period of the year. ‘Given the current economic climate in Northern Ireland, I just can’t see why someone would not have gone, ‘hang on, let’s push this decision back’. There was obviously going to be some sort of political fall out to it.’

Others believe that, regardless of the timing, Northern Irish leaders need to focus on the economic issues, not national symbols. ‘The number one priority should be ‘what impact will this have on the economy?’ They (the politicians) talk about tourism and the economy all year round but when they get a chance to take a cheap shot at the other side, this is both sides, they cannot resist it,’ Mr McCoubrey said. ‘The rest of the world has moved on. And the business community is stuck in the middle.’

Northern Ireland is certainly facing challenging economic times. Most of the protesters hail from working class Protestant communities scarred by de-industralisation and with some of the lowest levels of educational attainment anywhere in the UK. Meanwhile, unemployment continues to rise in Northern Ireland, even as it is falling elsewhere in the UK.

Earlier this week, the latest Labour Force Survey showed that the number of people claiming unemployment benefits in Northern Ireland is up almost one per cent on last year, at 7.8 per cent.  The number of people claiming unemployment related benefits stood at 64,700 in November 2012 – an increase of 500 on the previous month. 54.6 per cent of those unemployed in Northern Ireland have been unemployed for one year or more. This figure is up 16.2 per cent on last year.

Even before this week’s unrest, businesses in Northern Ireland faced a tough trading environment. One in five shops in Northern Ireland are now vacant, according to a recent survey by the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium (NIRC). This figure, the highest shop vacancy rate in the UK, is nearly twice the national average.

‘Belfast already has 1 in 4 shops vacant and the overall trend is moving toward a quarter of all shops being vacant by the middle of 2013,’ said Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association chief executive Glyn Roberts. The protests, he said, could lead to increases in vacancy. Many shop owners are also afraid of attacks on their property.

‘What we need now is to focus on how to move things forward,’ Roberts said. ‘This is the responsibility of all the main political parties at Stormont. We cannot afford for these protests to continue. I would appeal to the protesters to recognise the damage they are doing to the economy and to stop.’

The article originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post 16/12/2012. 

Between the Lines

In 1971, a parliamentary Working Group criticised the speed with which walls, gates and fences were being put up to separate Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland. The ‘peace lines’, constructed mainly by the British army, were creating an ‘atmosphere of abnormality’, the Peace Walls Working Group warned. But they did ‘not expect any insurmountable difficulty in bringing together well-meaning people from both sides’, and believed that before long, the barricades would come down; ‘normality’ would return.

Gates in a 'peace line', Lanark Way, West Belfast. © Laurence Cooley 2005

Dismantling the ‘peace lines’ wasn’t a requirement of the Good Friday Agreement. Between 2000 and 2007, seven new barriers were put up and 16 old ones rebuilt or extended. Their history long predates the Troubles, too. In the mid 19th century, the route of the Dublin-Belfast railway was planned deliberately to separate Catholic Pound Loney from Protestant Sandy Row. In 1935, after weeks of sporadic violence in Belfast’s Docklands, with Loyalist snipers firing into nearby Catholic areas, the military built a large fence across Nelson Street.

The corrugated iron fence that bisects Alexandra Park in North Belfast is 120 metres long and 3.5 metres high. Its foundations were laid on 1 September 1994, the day after the army council of the Provisional IRA had announced a ‘complete cessation of military operations’. Seven months ago, a ‘peace gate’ was opened in the fence. Between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., you can walk from the Loyalist Shore Road end of the park to Republican Antrim Road without having to take a half-hour detour. The North Belfast Interface Network, a community group that spent three years canvassing local residents before the gate was opened, reports no incidents of violence in the park since September.

For civic boosters, however, this modest achievement can’t begin to compete with the centenary of the Titanic’s maiden voyage (the ship was built in Belfast). Sixty million pounds of public money was plunged into Eric Kuhne’s shimmering Titanic Belfast ‘experience’, with millions more in PFIs for the Titanic Quarter redevelopment project. Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s community sector is reeling from a succession of cuts. The North Belfast Interface Network, which employs five staff in a poky office near Solitude, the home of Cliftonville FC, is struggling to stay afloat. Last year it received £165,000 in funding. For 2012, it has so far secured only £62,000.

This piece originally appeared on the London Review of Books blog.

Sectarian Legacy of Belfast Riots

From the Irish Examiner, June 24.

Sectarian Legacy of Belfast Riots

On Tuesday evening, the newly crowned US Champion Rory McIlroy touched down at George Best airport in East Belfast. It should have been a homecoming to unite Northern Ireland, a proud moment for the country, a positive face to show the world. Instead a typically sanguine McIllroy found himself in an unusual position – fielding questions about shootings, riots and sectarian skirmishes.

Less than five miles from the damp tarmac at George Best, the detritus of the previous night’s rioting – bricks, bottles, even golf balls – lay strewn across the junction of the lower Newtownards Road and the Short Strand. McIlroy, a native of Holywood, Co. Down, spoke for the vast majority of Northern Ireland when he told reporters how ‘saddened’ he was ‘to see what’s happened over the past couple of nights’.

This week’s riots are among the most serious civil disturbances witnessed on the streets of Northern Ireland in recent years – as the sudden ubiquity of foreign reporters in Belfast attests. Loyalists and dissident republicans firing live rounds at the police, a photographer and two Protestant youths with gunshot wounds, hundred-strong crowds lobbing everything from lit fireworks to petrol bombs: this is international news. And, unlike Rory Mc’s emphatic victory in Maryland, it is a Northern Irish story the world’s media are well versed in covering.

Less cut and dried, however, is the motivation behind the unrest. The Short Strand, effectively surrounded on three sides by a corrugated iron peacewall, is a staunchly nationalist enclave of less than 1,000 people in overwhelmingly unionist inner East Belfast. Relations between the communities have long been febrile: in 1970 the grounds of St Matthew’s Church was the scene of major gun battle between the IRA and loyalist mobs, while in 2002 clashes across the peaceline were a nightly feature for months.


Now the UVF, led by a renegade commander dubbed ‘the Beast from the East’, is reasserting their dominance in the area. Last month, in a marked departure from the current vogue for bright, friendly, inclusive murals on Belfast’s streets, a dour depiction of loyalist paramilitaries holding machine guns was painted on the corner of Dee Street and the Newtownards road. Kerbstones in the neighbourhood have been treated to a fresh coat of red, white and blue paint, lampposts to new UVF flags.

This ‘Beast from the East’ has the authority – and, more worryingly, the autonomy – to attract hundreds of loyalist youths, some even bussed in from other parts of the city, onto the streets of East Belfast. This was no spontaneous eruption of violence, whatever the ex post grievances about attacks on property last weekend by republican youths averred by the UVF’s putative political wing, the badly compromised Progressive Unionist Party.

Arriving on the heels of violence at the contentious Tour of the North Orange Order parade in North Belfast last Friday, the riots around the Short Strand mark a troubling detioration in the law and order situation in working-class districts of Belfast. As the marching season kicks into gear, the potential for further trouble in flashpoint areas – particularly at the Ardoyne on July 12 – should not be underestimated.

But to attribute the riots solely to the activity of a loyalist eminence grise, nefariously orchestrating mayhem behind the scenes, or the heightened political temperature that comes with the marching season, is to ignore important underlying aspects of life in Northern Ireland today.

Jobs, or more specifically their lack, are a festering sore on the body politic. At a whopping 28%, economic inactivity is higher in the North than anywhere else in the UK – a figure that rises sharply in deprived areas such as the Short Strand and Lower Newtownards Road.

The housing market – a key driver of the post-peace process boom – has, like its southern neighbour, gone into freefall. Average house prices have tumbled from an eye-watering £250,000 to barely half that in just four years. At the same time, the heavily public sector dominated economy is feeling the pinch of Westminster-enforced austerity – this year Chancellor George Osborne loped almost £500m off Stormont’s block grant.

A dispiriting economic situation coupled with lack of employment opportunities in traditional industries such as ship building is the perfect breathing ground for sectarianism.

The continued division of Northern Irish society along sectarian lines has been one of the prevailing, if seldom commented upon, features of the post-Good Friday dispensation. Since 1994, the number of peacewalls has trebled: in the five years since the signing of the St Andrews Agreement, which heralded the restoration of power-sharing government, 11 new walls have been built between nationalist and unionist communities. In terms of housing, Belfast remains by far the most segregated city in Europe. Only 6% of Northern Irish school children attend integrated school.

The political classes at Stormont have yet to demonstrate a sincere willingness to address the legacy engendered by generations of sectarian strife. A Shared Future, a government strategy for promoting community relations drawn up at a cost of many millions to the taxpayer in the early years of the last decade, lay in abeyance before being shelved completely by the incoming Sinn Fein – DUP administration in 2006. In the absence of either A Shared Future or its decidedly lukewarm follow-up Cohesion, Sharing and Integration Northern Ireland, rather remarkably, has no formal policy on tackling sectarianism.

Slowly, noiselessly, reconciliation has slipped off the political agenda in the North. Without much maligned community workers on the ground – it was they, not Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, who effectively brokered something akin to a ceasefire around the Short Strand on Wednesday – the situation in many communities would be even more perilous. At the same time funding for vast swathes of community relations work is under threat.

Major challenges lie ahead. Economic forecasts for the North remain dire, while a raft of commemorations, including centenaries of the Larne UVF gunrunning and the Easter Rising, will pose troubling questions for a divided society.

Rory McIlroy shows every sign of bagging more majors in the years ahead. Unfortunately, if significant investment and political drive in addressing sectarianism is not forthcoming, the amiable County Down man could find that questions about riots and street violence keep coming too.

Peter Geoghegan is the author of ‘A Difficult Difference: Race, Religion and the New Northern Ireland’, out now published by the Irish Academic Press.