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. 

In Belfast

Apparently there were 43 illegal roadblocks in Belfast on Monday night. In a bar with Christmas lights on the ceiling, a hundred yards from a City Hall not flying the Union Jack, most drinkers were glued to their smart phones. The man beside me was scrolling through the #flegs hashtag on Twitter. (So was I.) His friend was trying to work out if his bus was running. In the end they decided to share a taxi home.

That night, in East Belfast, a firebomb was thrown at a police car outside the constituency office of the local MP. Naomi Long is the deputy leader of the Alliance Party, which came up with the compromise solution to the problem of the Union Jack on Belfast City Hall: the flag will now fly on 15 designated days a year, not continuously as it did until last week.

Sinn Fein’s support for a British flag having any presence at all on a government building on the island of Ireland could have been interpreted as yet another co-option of republicans into a state they spent decades trying to violently overthrow. But many unionists didn’t see it that way. As councillors were voting in City Hall on 3 December, angry loyalists gathered outside. They have been on the streets ever since.

Earlier this week a protest timetable was circulated online. It seems to be genuine: on Tuesday, an hour after a demonstration was scheduled to begin at Mount Vernon, a loyalist estate in North Belfast, I was forced to make a U-turn on the nearby Shore Road, an arterial route into Belfast, which was blocked by around 25 protesters with Union Jack scarves tied across their faces. Behind them, a row of battered white PSNI Saracens kept a safe distance.

Billy Hutchinson, the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, which is aligned with the Ulster Volunteer Force, has called the unrest ‘a revolution with a small r’. The PUP and, to a lesser extent, the Ulster Political Research Group, the public face of the Ulster Defence Association, have been on the streets. But many of the demonstrators seem to be recent online recruits, organised by a new group calling itself United Protestant Voice, which sounds like a throwback to the 1960s or 1970s.

After a protracted text message conversation, one of the leaders of the protest at Belfast City Hall on 3 December agreed to be interviewed by email. The council’s decision to remove the flag was, he said, ‘like someone stabbing you through the heart’. The 32-year-old, who lives on the outskirts of Belfast and asked to remain anonymous, is a member of the Orange Order and the Democratic Unionist Party. In the weeks leading up to the vote, he set up a Facebook page called ‘Save Our Union Jack (City Hall)’. More than 1500 people signed up.

Most of the protesters are young men from Protestant areas, where educational attainment is low and employment scarce. The perception that their culture is being eroded is pervasive:

We had the UDR, that British Army Regiment was Disbanded, We had the RUC changed to the PSNI, The Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast was Changed to the Royal Hospital but even that isn’t welcomed they want the Hospital renamed again. The Royal Mail they want changed to the Northern Ireland Postal Service, Anything British they want removed.

Unionist leaders aren’t exactly trying to allay such fears. A statement released by the Ulster Unionist Party this week claimed that there ‘is a fundamental issue regarding the chipping away of people’s identity as British citizens’. Basil McCrea, a liberal UUP MLA, has lost his party’s whip for his ‘lack of self-discipline and teamwork’ after he suggested that taking the flag dispute to Stormont was a ‘stupid idea’.

The loyalist angst seems misplaced. The 2011 census results, released on Tuesday, show that only a quarter of Northern Ireland’s resident population define themselves as Irish; 40 per cent self-identify as British. A recent Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey found that 52 per cent of Catholics wanted to keep the Union and only 35 per cent wanted Irish unification.

The Union may be safe for the time being, but loyalists’ grip on the past is looking less secure. The Pat Finucane Review – which found ‘shocking’ evidence of state collusion in the murder of the Belfast solicitor – raises more questions than it answers: why was Finucane not told about threats to his life? Was the killing authorised by the RUC or MI5? How was it possible that, in 1985, 85 per cent of UDA intelligence came from the British security forces? Meanwhile, the PSNI Historical Enquiries Team is investigating a number of Troubles deaths linked to loyalist paramilitaries.

On the streets of Northern Ireland, the protests look set to continue. There’ll be another rally in Belfast tomorrow; demonstrations are also planned on the mainland at council offices in Margate, Glasgow, Fife and Livingston. ‘We will not Surrender to Republicans within this county,’ my loyalist contact wrote. ‘Our flag will fly again 365 days a year over Belfast City Hall.’ A seasoned Northern Irish political analyst who has worked with the Progressive Unionist Party predicted that the unrest would last until Christmas. ‘What happens in the New Year is the big question.’

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

What Happened to Northern Ireland’s Shared Future?

In 2005, Northern Ireland’s joint Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister at Stormont published ‘A Shared Future’. The policy, an unashamedly irenic blueprint for a post-conflict society, included plans for addressing contentious issues such as flags and emblems and parading. Every government department would have to create action plans to ensure A Shared Future was fully implemented.

Eight years later, A Shared Future has been largely forgotten. In 2007, when Sinn Fein and the DUP finally agreed to share power, the policy was quietly shunted aside. Both parties offered a bowdlerised version, entitled Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI), for consultation. A draft of the CSI has still to be agreed upon — almost a decade and a half on from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland has no official anti-sectarian strategy.

A shiny policy document would, of course, offer little practical protection against youths wielding bricks and petrol bombs – a dispiritingly familiar sight in East Belfast this week – but A Shared Future’s failure is a cautionary tale of the political reality of contemporary Northern Ireland.

In 1998, in the first elections after the Agreement, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists emerged as the largest parties. Last year, the DUP affirmed their political supremacy by again topping the Assembly polls. Sinn Fein finished a very clear second. The non-sectarian Alliance attracted fewer than 8 per cent of voters in 2011, up just over 1 per cent on 1998.

As their more moderate rivals wither on the vine, neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP have any real motivation for reaching out across the sectarian divide. Community relations have ossified to the point where a majority of Protestants cannot envisage a time when there are no peace walls and disenfranchised loyalists burn tricolours outside Belfast City Hall to express their angry, inchoate confusion.

Faced with a crisis they did much to create, Northern Unionists have plumped for unity over sharing. On Thursday, the new Unionist Forum set up by Democratic Unionist Party leader, and Northern Ireland first minister, Peter Robinson and his Ulster Unionist Party counterpart Mike Nesbitt met for the first time. Among the representatives in the room at Stormont, were members of the Ulster Political Research Group and the Progressive Unionist Party, the political wings of the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force respectively.

Senior UVF figures have been heavily involved in the violence in East Belfast, as Police Service of Northern Ireland chief Matt Baggott confirmed earlier this week. The UVF’s leader in the East of the city – dubbed ‘the Beast from the East’ – has orchestrated the unrest, as he did during the riots in East Belfast in 2011. Chief among their aims is that the Historical Enquires Team, which was set up to examine unsolved murders committed during the Troubles, cease its investigation of a number of high profile loyalists.

While the recent violence has won a place for loyalist paramilitaries at the table with the Northern Ireland first minister on Thursday, the Ulster People’s Forum (UPF), the new grouping that has emerged at the vanguard of the unrest, were conspicuous by their absence. Willie Frazer is a familiar face on the fringes of loyalism, but many of the UPF’s other leaders are relative novices politicised by the protests that started outside Belfast City Hall on December. Jamie Bryson, a young evangelical Christian who has been at the forefront of the new group, has said that they might join the Unionism Forum at some stage. There is a far-right presence among the protesters, too: former British National Party organiser Jim Dowson has been prominent in the regular demonstrations outside Belfast City Hall.

The bulk of the protestors are young men from working class neighbourhoods of Belfast where levels of educational attainment are as dismal as turnout at elections. They are among those worst hit by Northern Ireland’s continuing downturn. Unemployment has risen 170 per cent in the last five years. The number of youth claimants is 26 per cent higher than when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. One in four young people are out of work.

That the solution to the current unrest must be political is about the only thing the North’s political classes all agree on. Not all unionists, however, believe that unity is the answer. Liberal UUP MLA John McCallister has spent the last year trying to force through legislation that would see the Ulster Unionists form a formal Opposition at Stormont. The power-sharing set-up by the Good Friday Agreement has, he argues, created monolithic nationalist and unionist blocs that speak only to their bases and are not properly accountable. He has a point.

Almost fifteen years on from the signing of the Agreement, Stormont is arguably more divided than ever. That the political situation is replicated on the streets should be no surprise. A shared future can be built in Northern Ireland, but first the foundations have to be laid. A dedicated anti-sectarian strategy and a genuine Opposition would be a start.

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post on 13 January 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.