War by other Means

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece originally appeared in Politico Europe.

Austerity fight threatens Northern Ireland stability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Age of austerity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Little to gain

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

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

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

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

Neil Jarman, Institute for Conflict Research [Peter Geoghegen]

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

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

Wanting to move on

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

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

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

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

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

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Is Northern Ireland’s peace on the rocks?

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The volcano will erupt’

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

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

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

Jonny Byrne, University of Ulster

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

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

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

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

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

Paying a peace divident?

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

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

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

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

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

Ghosts of the past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera English.

Back to the future in Northern Ireland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This piece originally appeared on the new crowdfunded journalism site Contributoria

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Ulster Unionism’s on defensive over Scotland – but threats won’t win argument

On September 18, Scotland will hold a referendum on independence. A ‘Yes’ vote would bring to an end the 1707 Union, leaving behind a rump United Kingdom, comprising England, Wales and a Northern Ireland constitutionally marooned from its nearest – both geographically and emotionally – UK neighbour.

Clearly, Northern Ireland has a lot at stake in September’s plebiscite. Nationalists and unionists alike wonder if Scottish independence could have a domino effect, propelling the “break-up of Britain” foreshadowed by Scottish nationalist writer Tom Nairn more than three decades ago leading, eventually, to a United Ireland.

But the response from both sides of the Northern Irish divide to this prospect has been markedly different.

Nationalists have had surprisingly little – at least in public – to say on the subject of Scottish independence. Of course, most would welcome any loosening of the ties that bind the United Kingdom, but they are aware, too, of the politically toxic nature of sectarianism in Scotland.

saltireAn overt intervention from Sinn Fein would be political poison for Alex Salmond and the Scottish National Party. So they stand on the sidelines, issue the odd murmur and cross their fingers for a ‘Yes’ on September 18.

Unionists, on the other hand, seem to be growing restive. Wary of their kin across the Irish Sea flying the constitutional nest, unionists have become increasingly vocal – which is a problem, because their voice is often shrill, their message shallow.

Take Ian Paisley Jnr‘s comments this week. A ‘Yes’ vote in Scotland would, the North Antrim MP said, be a spur for dissident republican violence, destabilising Northern Ireland and unravelling the gains of the Good Friday Agreement.

It is unclear how a democratic referendum in another part of the United Kingdom could give succour to gunmen who have minimal support even within their own communities.

If anything, the SNP’s success proves beyond a reasonable doubt the supremacy of constitutional means. Regardless of the result in September, Alex Salmond and his party have shown that it is the ballot box – not the Armalite – that works.

Paisley said his comments were designed to awaken supporters of the Union from a complacent stupor arising from the ‘No’ side’s commanding poll lead in Scotland. But his reductio ad absurdum is likely to have the opposite effect, marginalising unionists still further from the heart of the Scottish debate.

In fairness, Paisley is not the only unionist who has tried – and failed – to engage with the question of Scottish independence. In 2012, the Orange Order’s Dr David Hume said people of Ulster Scots descent in Northern Ireland should have a vote in September’s referendum.

Speaking to a Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland event in Glasgow, Dr Hume said: “We are stakeholders, as well. Surely a decision such as this should not ignore our input?”

But nobody is denying unionists’ “input” into the Scottish debate. Extending the franchise to people of Scottish descent in Northern Ireland is completely unworkable – by the same token, what about those in Canada? Australia? England? – but unionists are free to make their case for the Union, to appeal to their Scottish brethren’s hearts and heads.

Instead, unionists have pleaded for a vote, or issued thinly-veiled warnings about a return to the Troubles if Scotland decides to go it alone.

Such aggressive tactics are unlikely to prove popular with the Scottish electorate, but, more importantly, they reveal the depth of the existential crisis at the heart of unionism, both in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom.

What is the positive case for the Union? This is not a flippant question. Just this week, former Labour Scottish first minister Henry McLeish, writing in The Scotsman, asked why “there is still no sense of urgency about making a positive and modern case for the Union, no sense of grasping the seriousness of the ‘Yes’ campaign and the impact it is making and no sense of the public disillusionment with Westminster politics?”

That is not to say there is no positive case that unionists can make. Historically, the United Kingdom proved so successful precisely because it is so flexible and capable of reinvention, as Linda Colley reminds us in her new book, Acts of Union and Disunion.

But contemporary unionists seem to be lacking invention. Since the Second World War, unionism has struggled to forge a creative sense of shared identity across these islands.

Meanwhile, the constitutional settlement has come under renewed pressure. Regardless of the result in September, power will continue to seep from Westminster to Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast and even, perhaps, a separate English parliament.

The year 2014 is the centenary of another, oft-forgotten constitutional upheaval: the Government of Ireland Act. Even if the First World War had not intervened, unionist resistance might have put paid to Home Rule.

But, 100 years on, unionists now need to develop a compelling, non-coercive case for maintaining the Union. If their attempts to join the Scottish independence debate are anything to go by, they have a long way to go.

This column originally appeared in the Belfast Telegraph, 10 January 2014.

Northern Ireland talks seek calm in festive season

As party talks reconvened in Northern Ireland this week to resolve old disputes over religious and national differences, a small business in Belfast is using mutual respect to bridge the gaps in this split society.

Loyalist protesters demonstrate against restrictions on flying Britain's union flag from Belfast City Hall in central Belfast January 5, 2013 (Photo: REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton)Restrictions on flying the union flag in Belfast has become a bone of contention

Last Christmas, protests over the removal of the Union flag from Belfast City Hall almost brought the city to a standstill. Hoping to reach a “meaningful agreement” before Christmas, senior United States diplomat Richard Haass is leading discussions with the five parties in the Northern Ireland Executive, in Belfast.

The talks are taking place against an increasingly restive backdrop: On Monday (16.12.2013), a firebomb ignited inside a Belfast city store.

Republican dissident group Óglaigh na hÉireann earlier claimed responsibility for a bomb that partially exploded in the city on Friday night. The blast followed a bomb scare in Belfast last week, and two separate attacks on Northern Ireland police officers in the city earlier this month.

Calm Christmas sought

Candles at Christmas in IrelandNegotiators are aiming for a calm Christmas

Haass, a former US special envoy for Northern Ireland, is expected to produce a series of recommendations for the Northern Ireland parliament to consider. These could include a framework for helping victims of the 30-year-long conflict, which has cost more than 3,000 lives.

Differences between Irish Catholics and Protestants with roots in Britain living inn Northern Ireland continue to simmer after decades of outright violence starting in the late 1960s, known as “The Troubles.”

Last month, Northern Ireland’s attorney general, John Larkin, suggested ending prosecutions over Troubles-related killings that took place before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The Historical Enquiries Team has until now dealt with such cases, delivering only a handful of successful convictions.

But the past is not the only issue on the table this week – parades remain an annual source of tension. A protest camp of loyalists, or those wanting to strengthen ties to Britain, has been in place at Twaddell Avenue in North Belfast since July, after a decision to restrict an Orange Order parade. It’s estimated that policing the camp costs 50,000 British pounds (60,000 euros) a day.

Many in Northern Ireland are hopeful that an agreement can be reached on parading, with abolition of the current Parades Commission and creation of a new parades body being the most likely outcome. However, the issue of flags could prove far more difficult to solve.

Flag dispute reflects rift

Women draped in Union flags walk past a burning car after loyalist protesters attacked the police with bricks and bottles as they waited for a republican parade to make its way through Belfast City Centre August 9, 2013 (Photo: REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton)Violence during parades, like the aftermath of a riot pictured here, is an issue at talks

Last December, Belfast City Council voted to change its policy on flying the union flag, which represents support for the bond with Britain. Since then the standard has been flown at City Hall on designated days, rather than year-round as was previously the case. The move brought Belfast in line with most councils in Northern Ireland, including a number of unionist-dominated administrations.

Loyalists responded to the flag’s removal with a wave of protests. Although the demonstrations have abated – an anniversary protest last month attracted just 1,500 people – the flag remains a live issue. Recently, unionist councillors on Belfast City Council sent back official Christmas cards after they featured the image of a flagless City Hall.

So far, prospects for a deal appear shaky. Democratic Unionist Party leader and Northern Ireland first minister Peter Robinson said that there would be “steam coming out of my ears” in response to the idea that the draft document produced by Haass could represent the final agreement.

However, he added that he believed agreement was still possible. “Nobody is throwing the towel in at this stage,” Robinson said.

Politicians in the UK parliament warned that issues in Northern Ireland’s past would never be resolved if politicians fail to reach agreement.

“If we get it wrong we may never get another opportunity to address these issues,” Naomi Long – a member of the UK parliament for the centrist Alliance Party – told BBC. Long is also participating in negotiations at the Haass talks.

Breaking down the divide

The peace wall separating Catholic and Protestant communities on Cupar Way in Belfast (Photo: Peter Geoghegan)A “peace wall” separates Catholic and Protestant communities on Cupar Way in Belfast

Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society, despite the cessation of large-scale armed violence. In many working-class parts of Belfast, Catholic and Protestant communities remain separated by walls, fences and gates, known euphemistically as “peace walls.”

At Cupar Way in West Belfast, a peace wall has separated Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods since 1969. Both areas have among the highest rates of unemployment in Northern Ireland. But there are attempts to create new opportunities across the peace wall.

In 2011, women from both sides of the sectarian divide at Cupar Way came together to form the Belfast Cleaning Company. The business already has six staff members and 10 cleaning contracts. The key to its success is respect, founding member Alice McLarnon told DW.

“We respect each other’s culture,” McLarnon said. While she sees herself as Irish, her co-worker would see herself as British, but this doesn’t matter to either. “She sees me as a co-worker,” McLarnon said.

Alice McLarnon of the Belfast Cleaning Company (Photo: Peter Geoghegan)Alice McLarnon of the Belfast Cleaning Company (Photo: Peter Geoghegan)

The cleaning company is run as a cooperative: Every member has an equal say and an equal share. Although co-ops are not commonplace in Northern Ireland, their popularity is growing. Earlier this month, a cooperative taxi firm started in West Belfast with around 50 drivers.

For the Belfast Cleaning Company, the aim is simple – to grow the business, and build relationships across the peace wall.

“The goal is to create better employment along the interface, to have a better living way for the women,” McLarnon said. “When you create employment across the divide, you actually break down the divide,” says Alice McLarnon.

This piece originally appeared on Deutsche Welle.

Tensions ratcheting up in Northern Ireland

Belfast, Northern Ireland – The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 brought Northern Ireland’s bloody conflict to a close, but signs of division remain 15 years later.

In the capital Belfast, Catholic and Protestant communities are separated by euphemistic “peace walls”, most children attend segregated schools, and major questions around the past and future remain unresolved.

A bomb exploded in Belfast’s city centre last Friday night, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of Christmas revellers. The blast, for which republican dissident group Oglaigh na hEireann claimed responsibility, follows a bomb scare in the capital earlier in the week, and two separate attacks recently on Police Service of Northern Ireland officers.

There has been disquiet among some loyalists, too. A protest camp has been in place since July on north Belfast’s Twaddell Avenue, after an Orange Order parade was prevented from passing through a nearby Catholic area. “Respect Our Culture,” reads a large poster overlooking the encampment.

Questions of culture and identity impinge on business in Belfast City Hall, too. Unionists on the city council recently refused to take official Christmas cards. The reason: A picture of Belfast City Hall used in the festive greetings did not feature a British flag.

Discussions of the past have come to represent the failure of healing in society. The past is functioning as a symbol of how little progress has been made in society despite the progress made in politics.

– John Brewer, Queen’s University Belfast

 

The flag has been a live issue in Northern Ireland since last December, when the Belfast city council voted to change its policy on flying the Union flag from all-year round to a select number of designated days. Loyalists responded to the flag’s removal with a wave of protests that almost brought Belfast to a standstill at one stage.

New talks

In an effort to resolve the disputes about flags, parading, and the past, talks have been reconvened in Northern Ireland. Senior US diplomat Richard Haass, previously a special envoy for Northern Ireland under the presidency of George W Bush, and Harvard professor Meghan O’Sullivan are leading the talks.

Haass, who has already held three rounds of negotiations this year with the five main parties in the Northern Ireland Executive, said he hopes to reach a “meaningful agreement” before Christmas.

Haass is expected to deliver a series of recommendations to the devolved government at Stormont, which is dominated by the Irish nationalists Sinn Fein and the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party. These could include a framework for dealing with the thorny issue of what happened during theTroubles and its victims on both sides of the decades-old ethno-religious conflict.

Recent months have seen a glut of revelations about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which left more than 3,000 dead and many times that number wounded. Earlier this month, the Smithwick Tribunal across the border in Dublin found evidence that Irish police colluded with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the murder of two senior Northern Ireland police officers in 1989.

Anne Cadwallader’s recent book Lethal Allies detailed extensive contact between British security forces and loyalists who killed more than 120 people in Tyrone and Armagh in the 1970s. Meanwhile, the role of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams in the disappearance of Belfast housewife Jean McConville in the 1970s has been the subject of renewed attention. McConville’s body was found on a beach in county Louth in 2003.

Shared vision?

Women walk past a Loyalist paramilitary mural [Reuters]

 

The Good Friday Agreement was a historic compromise between nationalists and unionists, but it left unresolved issues such as how to build a pluralist Northern Irish society and how to deal with the past. Fifteen years on, the violence has ended but a shared vision of the future, and the past, remains elusive.

“Discussions of the past have come to represent the failure of healing in society. The past is functioning as a symbol of how little progress has been made in society despite the progress made in politics,” says John Brewer, professor of post-conflict studies at Queen’s University in Belfast.

But there are signs that Northern Irish leaders are starting to think more seriously about how to address the past. Last month, Northern Ireland’s attorney general, John Larkin, suggested ending any prosecutions over Troubles-related killings that took place before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Currently such cases are dealt with by the Historical Enquiries Team, which has delivered only a handful of successful convictions and is expected to cost £190m ($310m) over the next five years.

The parties at the Haass talks are considering a number of possible models for setting aside Troubles-era offences. These include: a stay on prosecutions, as suggested by Larkin; a truth commission with an amnesty broadly based on the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission; compelling witnesses to give evidence in exchange for immunity; and leaving witnesses open to the threat of prosecution.

Sinn Fein favours a truth commission. The Democratic Unionist Party has said it will oppose any amnesty but has softened its position on conditional immunity, which was used in attempts to obtain information on the recovery of the bodies of IRA victims buried in unmarked graves in the 1970s.

“We need to look at what [Haass is] saying by way of immunity – is that immunity for all time over those actions, or is it a limited immunity, such as we have for instance with the decommissioning legislation?” first minister Peter Robinson said recently. “I think we’ll look at what the proposition is and judge it when we see the detail.”

Tell the truth

Northern Irish politicians need to be more honest with Troubles’ victims, says MLA John McCallister, deputy leader of the newly formed party NI21.

“We can’t provide victims with justice. We are unlikely to be able to provide them with the truth,” says McCallister. “What we can do is offer victims support. Instead of spending £190m ($310m) policing the past, why don’t we use that for victims’ services?”

Duncan Morrow, a former chairman of the Community Relations Council in Belfast, says those who committed crimes need to be included in any reconciliation process. “The fundamental issue in the past is how you resolve the dilemma of wanting to include the perpetrators in the resolution and doing justice to the victims,” he says.

Morrow says he believes that while all the parties claim to want justice for victims, the wider question of political responsibility for violence during the Troubles is not being addressed. “Neither nationalism nor unionism want to have the real conversation about the political legitimacy for the killings,” Morrow says. “A politically permissive environment for killing was created in this place, and that’s what they don’t want to touch.”

There is a bit more optimism than there was … But the proof will be in the substance, whether there is something generated that would provide a basis to go forward from here.

– Duncan Morrow, Community Relations Council in Belfast

 

Troublesome parades

The past is not the only issue on the table this week. Loyalist parades remain an annual source of tension, particularly during the July marching season. Many in Northern Ireland are hopeful that an agreement can be reached on parading, with the abolition of the current Parades Commission and the creation of a new parades body being the most likely outcome.

Loyalists, however, have vowed to reject any compromise, especially on the sensitive issue of flags.

“Unionism has given up enough. We don’t have any more to give,” Jamie Bryson, one of the leaders of the flags protests, told Al Jazeera in Belfast. “Any deal would only fan the flames of loyalist resistance.”

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

Despite the obstacles in the way of a deal, there is a growing expectation that some form of agreement can be reached by Haass’ self-imposed deadline of the end of this week.

“There is a bit more optimism than there was that they will do something that would allow Haass to claim some success,” says Morrow. “But the proof will be in the substance, whether there is something generated that would provide a basis to go forward from here.”

This piece originally appeared on Al-Jazeera

‘Peace Dividend’ for Northern Ireland Economy?

On 15 August 1998, a car filled with a 500 pounds of fertiliser explosive was left outside S.D. Kells’ clothes shop in Lower Market Street in Omagh. At ten past three on a busy Saturday the bomb detonated. Around 220 people were injured and 29 killed in the blast, the heaviest death toll of any single terrorist atrocity during the Troubles.

Fifteen years on from the Omagh bomb, Northern Ireland looks like a very different place. Republicans and loyalists now share power in a devolved government at Stormont. The violence and terror that characterised life in the North for 30 years prior to the Omagh bomb has largely disappeared.

But as Northern Ireland edges towards normality, how has its economy changed? Is business in Northern Ireland in 2013 in better shape than it was in August 1998?

The answer is not as clearcut as Belfast’s glass-and-steel skyline might suggest.

Titanic-Belfast-Operator-2Back in 1998 the unemployment rate in the North stood at 5.1 per cent. During the boom years of the early 2000s it went as low as 3.1 per cent. But according to figures released this week, joblessness in Northern Ireland is currently 7.5 per cent.

‘To an extent not much has changed economically in Northern Ireland,’ says Paul McFlynn, an economic specialist at the Nevin Economic Institute. However, while the dole queues have lengthened, the number of jobs and people in work has grown significantly too.

The numbers of economically inactive in Northern Ireland has fallen from 34.4 per cent in 1998 to around 30 per not. Nevertheless, Northern Ireland still has higher levels of benefits claimants than other regions of the UK. Youth unemployment remains a serious problem, with around one in five young people not in education, employment or training (NEET). Real hourly earnings are today back to their 2003 level.

Like in the rest of Ireland, the north’s housing market witnessed a huge boom and bust in the years following 1998. Between 1997 and 2007, average house prices in Northern Ireland grew by 250 per cent. Since then house prices have fallen by 53 per cent, far outstripping the average 18 per cent drop recorded across the rest of the UK.

Economists at PwC in Belfast warn that it could take a decade for house prices in Northern Ireland to return to their 2007 peak. ‘While some types of property in popular areas of Northern Ireland are demonstrating real recovery, average property prices have some way to go before they are clearly on the turn,’ says PwC Northern Ireland chief economist Dr Esmond Birnie

‘That means real recovery in the property market will be long, difficult and wholly dependent on factors ranging from reduced household debt to more liberal lending policies’.

Dr Birnie, however, does see reasons to be cheerful. Northern Ireland’s manufacturing and construction sectors are reporting increased demand and orders and exports have risen. The latest Northern Ireland Economic Outlook, published by PwC this week, forecasts economic growth of around 0.5 per cent in 2013, possibly rising to 1.5 per cent in 2014, assuming continued steady recovery in the UK and Republic of Ireland.

However, in terms of job creation, exports and forecast economic growth, Northern Ireland is demonstrating the slowest recovery amongst the 12 UK regions, well behind London and the South East, which are expected to grow in 2013 by 1.2% and 1.5%, respectively.

Tourism is one area that has improved considerably since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Back in 1998, 1.4 million people visited Northern Ireland, spending £217m. In 2012, almost 4 million people spent a night in Northern Ireland, contributing an estimated £683 m to the local economy. Titanic Belfast, which opened last year, had 800,000 visitors in its first twelve months.

Business leaders are hopeful than events such as this summer’s G8 meeting at Lough Erne will encourage investment in Northern Ireland. However, many remain sceptical about this prospect, especially given escalating unrest on the ground, first over the flying of the Union flag over Belfast city hall and, more recently, parading routes.

Northern Ireland remains a very testing retail environment, with around one in four units in Belfast empty, the highest rate in the UK.

‘Fifteen years ago everyone was talking about the ‘peace dividend’, that really hasn’t emerged in any great form,’ says economist Paul McFlynn.

The challenge now, as the block grant from Westminster is reduced annually amid spending cuts in London, is to find a political and economic solution that will work for all of Northern Ireland. ‘You have a situation where you have a political settlement reached in the good times. Now it’s coming into its more mature phase and the money has dried up and you are seeing every crack and fissure starting to emerge,’ McFlynn said.

‘What we need now is a genuine attempt to have some kind of local ownership of the direction of Northern Ireland’s economy.’

A Co-operative Alternative

Despite the successes of the last fifteen years, Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society. As recent unrest attested, sectarianism is still a major problem, especially in and around the ‘peace walls’ that separate nationalist and unionists communities. These interface areas are characterised by social problems, high unemployment and low levels of economic activity.

An imposing, 800-metre long multi-level corrugated iron barrier divides the loyalist Shankill road and the republican Falls road at Cupar Way, in West Belfast. Tensions often run high, particularly during the summer marching season, but a new initiative is attempting to promote reconciliation and economic growth on both sides of the interface.

Three years ago, Trademark, the anti-sectarian unit of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, helped to establish the Belfast Cleaning Society, a worker’s co-operative based on the interface at Cuper Way. The co-operative has grown steadily. It won the contract for this month’s Tennent’s Vital concerts in Belfast. Not having an owner taking a profit has allowed the business to undercut competitors while also paying a fair wage. Union Taxis, a cross-community co-operative taxi company, based on the interface is due to open later this year.

The Belfast Cleaning Company is owned and run by eight women who live on both sides of the interface. Cross-community enterprises have proven difficult to sustain but a co-operative is well-placed to manage workplace challenges posed by external political events such as the recent clashes over parading.

‘There have been tensions in the co-op as we have workers from republican and loyalist backgrounds. But the co-op is different because the relationships are vital to its success, and because you don’t want them to break down you have to face up and talk about problems,’ says Stephen Nolan, co-director of Trademark.

‘In most workplaces in Northern Ireland people are taught not to talk about these things.’ A study conducted by Trademark last year found that 44 per cent of private sector employees had experienced sectarian harassment.

The Maze and dealing with the past in Northern Ireland

If ever a country was defined by a punctuation mark, it’s Northern Ireland and the forward-slash. A history of conflict has produced some awkward semantic contortions: Catholic/Protestant, Nationalist/Unionist, and, of course, Derry/Londonderry, that waggish ‘Stroke City’. Less celebrated, but no less contentious, is another double take, the Maze/Long Kesh.

Last week it was revealed that the European Union had, in December, approved a £18m funding package to establish a ‘peace-building and conflict resolution centre’ at the Maze, where the notorious H-Blocks once stood. What to do with the 360-acre site on the outskirts of Lisburn, about ten miles from Belfast, has been a recurrent source of political discord since the prison, built on the former RAF Long Kesh base, was closed in September 2000.

In 2002, the Maze Regeneration Unit was created within the devolved Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Three years later, after a lengthy, torturous consultation process, A New Future for the Maze/Long Kesh was published. The Maze/Long Kesh: Masterplan and Implementation Strategyreleased in May 2006, consolidated the main proposals for the site, chiefly the construction of a sports stadium and an International Centre for Conflict Transformation.

The stadium – a 40,000-seat affair to be shared by Northern Ireland’s three main sports, football, rugby and Gaelic Games – was shelved in the face of significant unionist opposition. Comprehensive plans for the site have yet to be released on foot of last week’s news, but are now expected to include a more palatable, at least to unionists, scheme to rehouse the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society at the Maze, alongside the conflict resolution centre and a residential development.

In October, following a testy exchange in the House, the Stormont Assembly passed a motion recognising ‘the potential social and economic benefits which the utilisation of former security sites, such as the site of the Maze prison, can bring to Northern Ireland’. The motion called on First Minister Peter Robinson to progress development at the Maze, including a conflict resolution centre on the site where ten republican hunger strikers died in 1981, a move previously opposed by Robinson’s Democratic Unionist Party.

Last week, Jeffrey Donaldson, erstwhile anti-Belfast Agreement Ulster Unionist and now DUP MP for Lagan Valley, gave the planned centre a surprisingly hearty endorsement. ‘Far from it being seen as a shrine, it is about looking to the future. The peace building centre can help us look and focus towards the future,’ he said. However, many unionists, including the Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott, are opposed to the proposal, which Traditional Unionist Voice’s sole MLA Jim Allister dubbed ‘a Provo victory’.

The Maze conflict resolution centre, as Laura McAtackney has written, is an attempt to replace the site’s ‘negative associations’ with a ‘physical expression of the ongoing transformation from conflict to peace’. In that respect, the recent fracas over the centre reflects the incomplete nature of Northern Ireland’s own post-Troubles transformation. Almost a decade and a half after the signing of the Belfast Agreement, Stormont still has no functioning anti-sectarian strategy, despite the country’s well-published, sclerotic divisions. Meanwhile, the threat of prosecution from the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Historical Enquiries Team has stymied any prospect of an authoritative account of what took place during the Troubles, as researchers at Boston College recently found out to their peril.

How, or even if, the Northern Ireland’s fractious past is to be acknowledged and commemorated is not just a question for historians and archivists. This year marks the start of a succession of distinctly live centenaries: the Ulster Covenant, signed in 1912; the Battle of the Somme; the Easter Rising; the Civil War; and, finally, the partition of Ireland. As Hegel famously observed, ‘the one thing we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.’

40 years of the British Army in Northern Ireland

Feature from latest Sunday Business Post

August 15, 1969. Even those with the most cursory of interests in Northern Irish history will recognise the date of the British Army’s first deployment in Belfast. But for almost 40 years no photographic record of the soldiers’ arrival on the city’s streets existed, until an octogenarian with a photo box wandered into a gallery in the northern capital recently.

bombayoneGerry Collins, now 86, was the first photographer on the scene after a weekend of sustained and orchestrated attacks by loyalist mobs left most of Bombay Street, off the Falls road in west Belfast, ablaze. A keen lens man, he had brought his camera with him as he went to check on his elderly aunt in the area that fateful Sunday morning.

The pictures he took of wide-eyed, young soldiers cautiously walking down burned-out, rubble-strewn streets could have made Collins famous, but instead they lay filed away in his attic as the Troubles raged. Only a chance encounter with the social documentary-style photographs of Frankie Quinn, proprietor of the Red Barn Galley in Belfast city centre, persuaded the long-retired photographer to dust off his old Ilford prints.

‘Gerry came into the gallery,’ recalled Quinn, whose own work on the peace walls that divide Belfast won many plaudits. ‘He said he knew about my work, and that he had photographs that had never been seen before. I thought nothing of it until he came back a few days later, and brought with him these amazing photographs.’

Families loading belongings onto milk trucks, a priest from nearby Clonard Monastery addressing an anxious crowd, a man and boy surveying the rubble of what was once their house – the photos, collected in an exhibition entitled ‘Taken From The Ashes’, reveal the painful, intimate stories behind the Bombay Street riots.

bombaytwo‘This is the only record of that morning.’ Quinn explained, standing beside the old street sign for Bombay Street mounted alongside Collins’ stunning black and white images on the gallery’s whitewashed walls. ‘When he arrived on the street there were no other photographers there. He says he remembered one other guy coming in on the back of a British Army Landrover, jumping off, taking a picture and the jumping back into the jeep and away,’

Speaking about the images 40 years on, Collins said: ‘The firemen are still there dousing the fires, there are people moving their furniture, there are nuns giving people tea. The images were alive. You didn’t have to look for the pictures, they were just there in front of you, asking to be taken.’

And that’s exactly what Collins did. While countless colour shots of the area were taken in the days and weeks following the riots, his pictures shed a new, more humane light on the events of that traumatic weekend. Between the men skilfully manoeuvring a bed frame out of a second storey window and the harsh-faced women in beehive haircuts sitting intransigent in front of the makeshift barricades, a quiet, stoical suffering can be observed in almost every shot.

In one particularly memorable image tin-hatted members of the Queen’s Own Regiment, rifles half-cocked, wander the narrow red-brick terraces of Bombay Street, Clonard Gardens and Kashmir Street, quizzical looks etched on their faces. Elsewhere, photographs of soldiers sleeping on the ground and sipping tea with locals serve as poignant reminders of the warm welcome the army initially received in Republican areas across the north.

‘Originally the arrival of the troops was very well received by the Catholic population on the grounds that it was a sign that Westminster was willing to intervene,’ said Adrian Guelke, professor of comparative politics at Queen’s University Belfast. ‘The reception they got on the streets was very favourable.’

Such was their popularity that the inchoate Provisional IRA explicitly did not target soldiers in the early years of the Troubles. But this was soon to change. ‘The initial honeymoon period was followed by a rough period in which the army killed a lot of civilians and that turned opinion against them,’ remarked prof Guelke.

In February 1971, the first British Army lost its first soldier in what became known as Operation Banner. The following year it suffered over 100 fatalities. ‘Army casualties in this period were very high. From 1976 on the army took a back seat in Northern Ireland,’ continued prof Guelke.

All told the army lost 765 servicemen in Northern Ireland since 1969, including two Sappers killed by the Real IRA in Antrim in February.

While the legacy of the British Army in the north streets still contentious, were it not for the soldiers’ arrival the loss of life on Bombay Street, August 15, 1969 would certainly have been much greater.

Frankie Quinn agreed. ‘If it hadn’t been for the intervention of the British Army there’s no doubt it would have been a massacre. There would have been a lot more destruction and a lot more death, no doubt about it.’ As it was on Saturday August 14 there were 65 occupied houses on Bombay Street, by Sunday night that figure was down to 20.

In the immediate aftermath most residents left the area, many never to return. Within weeks the impromptu barricades dividing the protestant Shankill from the catholic Falls had been replaced by corrugated iron peace walls. At the time Sir Ian Freeland, the British Army General in charge of operations, remarked that these barriers would be ‘a temporary affair’. 40 years on they have proved far more durable than that – in fact, the number of peace walls in Greater Belfast have increased from 26 to 80 since 1994.

For more info on the Red Barn Gallery, Bombay Street from the Ashes and Frankie Quinn’s amazing photography check out www.rbgbelfast.com