Tag Archives: Northern Ireland

The future is open. A farewell to the United Kingdom.

It was a strange defence of the Union. Over-scripted and wooden, Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, chastised Scotland’s nationalists for “playing politics with the future of our country.” Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, had just announced plans for a fresh independence referendum. London was apparently caught off-guard. But if the best that May can muster is that “politics is not a game”, then Scotland will soon be the world’s newest sovereign state.

Across the North Channel, talks are underway to form a new government in Northern Ireland. They are unlikely to be fruitful. The previous executive collapsed amid a major financial scandal, at one time lauded for being the result of ‘normal’ politics. Even before actual voting in the March 2nd election, politics had returned to tribal normality. Yet, in a shock result, Unionism lost its majority status in Northern Ireland for the first time.

Scotland and Northern Ireland share a deep cultural heritage. Ulster-Scots identity has forged much of what is recognisably ‘Northern Irish’. These bonds were cemented by Union. But the most prescient bond at present, that they are the two nations of the United Kingdom which voted to remain in the European Union, may mean the end of the Union.

Brexit has upended political calculations. Unionists and Brexiteers bat away any talk of danger for the Union. But they ignore three issues driving change.

First is the arrogance of a nativist nationalism which is condescending in its smugness. Second, negative divides abound: whether between people with different viewpoints or between regions, difference is framed in how bad the ‘other’ is. Third, and perhaps the most potent long-term force, is that young people want to live in an open, plural, outward looking society. The UK is no longer that.

In British terms, Melanie Philips gave the most recent example of national arrogance. She is but one in a long line of national chauvinists from Farage to Fox to Foster. Populist nationalists are now household names across Europe. Their success is built upon stressing a national strength which revels in turning away Syrian child refugees and ignores the irony of free trade as the answer to closing borders. It is an inhuman approach that puts greater value on native lives than human lives.

This world view, complimented by the left’s obsession with identity politics, is driving people further apart. People increasingly see the nationality or the ideology, not the person. Civil debate barely exists. As the Economist points out, Owen Jones’s decision to leave social media because of the abuse received is a depressing symptom of our inability to agree to disagree.

Furthermore, regionalism has driven a wedge into a British identity. Scotland is different from Lincolnshire, which is different from London. Past unity is no indicator of future prosperity. Without a positive vision for what the UK is, division will become ever more normal.

Which brings us to the ultimate divide of our times: that of open versus closed societies. Perhaps the greatest driver for the changes which are happening in Scotland and Northern Ireland is that, in the main, people under 40 want to live in places where people don’t care about skin colour or with whom you sleep.

Two decades ago it was easy to identify the UK as an open and progressive place. In a Northern Irish context, the Union worked. Irish society was defined by a national claustrophobia. That has changed fundamentally. Two years ago Irish people voted overwhelmingly to support same sex marriage. Thousands of people under the age of 40 returned home just to vote in an uncoordinated and hugely emotional expression of making sure that Ireland was on the right side of history. The cathartic impact of this cannot be properly expressed. And what was simply a moment in time has, with hindsight, become one of the defining moments of Ireland as a socially progressive, creative, and open society.

Scotland’s desire to remain part of the EU speaks to the embrace of being part of a bigger whole. The results of the Dutch elections, with a massive rise in support for liberal parties amongst educated millennial voters, is further evidence that the issue goes beyond the UK’s borders. But, it also highlights the divides between people who want to embrace the world and those who want to shut borders.

Chris Deering, writing before Sturgeon’s announcement, concluded in the Financial Times that “The UK may not see out the decade”. Writing about Northern Ireland’s election results, Fintan O’Toole declared in the Guardian that “a wide crack has opened in the foundations of the UK.” To survive, the Union needs a radical but realistically positive vision. People in Scotland and Northern Ireland need to have an emotional attachment to it. Otherwise, the crack won’t be papered over.

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Ruth Davidson and the power of change

Ruth Davidson doesn’t shy away from a fight. In 2011, at just 32, she became leader of the Scottish Conservative Party. For almost two decades the Tories have been an afterthought in Scottish politics. They’ve had one MP since 2001 and averaged the middle teens in numbers of seats in the Scottish Parliament until earlier this year. In May the party won 31 seats. Much of the credit lies with Davidson. It is only fitting that her party’s electoral performance has made her Leader of the Opposition in Scotland.

Davidson was in Belfast recently to deliver the annual Amnesty International Pride Lecture. Displaying undoubted charisma on stage, that intangible quality that politicians crave, she swept her audience along with her. They were an audience largely receptive to her message. But the qualities that have made Davidson talked about as a potential national figure for the Conservatives were all too apparent.

For some people, changing minds and attitudes is about believing they are right and the other side is just wrong. The problem, of course, is that the other side believes the same thing. The result is predictable. Davidson’s speech struck a chord for offering an alternative way to change minds: make it personal, be positive, and stop beating people over the head.

Her message has particular resonance in Northern Ireland. For a variety of reasons, the region’s civic conversations become stuck in issues relating to the past. While coffee shops and rooftop bars have replaced bombs and bullets, some things change more slowly. Belfast’s politics are still shaped by religion and by the conflicts of 800-years. Abortion is still illegal, bars still close at 1am, gay people still cannot marry.

A former broadcast journalist, Davidson knows the importance of language and imagery. Speaking about the campaign for same-sex marriage, she talked about herself, her faith, her family, and her identity. She made the abstract personal. It was a masterclass in securing social change. In a place obsessed by labels and identity, Davidson spoke of being a “practicing Christian…a protestant…a Unionist…engaged to a Catholic Irishwoman”. She positively spoke about how equal marriage doesn’t divide communities but is simply “about the people of Northern Ireland being afforded the same rights as everybody else”.

Much of the opposition to equal marriage in Northern Ireland comes from protestant churches and Unionists, those who favour being part of the UK. Davidson deployed her own faith and identity as a protestant, Presbyterian and Unionist to say that “Unionists and Presbyterians should feel they have moral permission to back equal marriage. Not just because it’s no threat to traditional marriage or freedom of religion, but also because we know that it has backing from all parts of society”.

But underlying everything Davidson spoke about was a confidence that change happens when the time is right. The first challenge for those who want change is to make the time right. For those who want it, change doesn’t come quickly enough, while for those opposed it often happens all too fast. Demographic change around the world has made equal marriage seem like a foregone conclusion. In Northern Ireland 70% of people are in favour; amongst 16-34 year olds that figure is 85%, dropping to 47% in favour amongst over 65s. It is a pattern borne out across the West, but it does not mean simply waiting for the fait accompli.

That Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK or Ireland where gay people cannot marry is a quirk of local politics. It is a victim of legislative chicanery rather than sweeping public opposition: petitions of concern, whereby cross-community majorities are needed, have been deployed in the local assembly on five occasions. A simple majority of assembly members voted in favour of equal marriage in November 2015 but only four Unionists voted for the measure. The Bill failed.

Making the time right means engaging with people who think differently. Some people will always fear change, even if time is not on their side. For some in Northern Ireland, equal marriage is a change which their fundamental beliefs cannot accommodate. For others, their opposition is about fearing that their world will be changed irrevocably. Breaking down that fear is the responsibility of anyone who wants to secure social change of any kind. It is about a reality where both sides respect their right to disagree but accept their responsibilities to wider society.

Ruth Davidson highlighted the example of Trevor Lunn. An assembly member who previously voted against equal marriage, Lunn changed his vote last November after listening to constituents. Lunn happened to be in the audience for her lecture. When asked afterwards if he was happy to be there, he replied simply, “yes, I’m comfortable here”. That’s what change sounds like.  

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Bye-bye NI21: a party’s death might help to bring about real reform in Northern Ireland

When the world’s political scientists are casting about for a case study in the failure of a political party, they need look no further than Northern Ireland’s NI21. This case has it all: alleged sexual impropriety, high-level resignations, petty squabbles, and unprofessional behaviour. Few writers could dream up this tale.

The party was founded in June 2013 by two disgruntled former Ulster Unionists, Basil McCrea and John McCallister. NI21 appeared to capture the zeitgeist. It emerged amidst recognition that Northern Ireland’s political system is stagnant and unresponsive. It was launched amid a blaze of publicity, and it galvanised many in the middle-ground who felt that their voice was unheard. McCrea became leader, McCallister his deputy.

Whilst favouring the link with the United Kingdom, NI21 focuses on a common Northern Irish identity and on socially progressive issues. Its premise is ‘fresh politics’ rather than fixating on the constitutional question. This ensured broad support amongst a generation who see Northern Ireland’s conflict as history.

The details of the party’s implosion appear to centre on a battle of wills between McCrea and McCallister. McCrea is accused of sexually inappropriate behaviour towards a young female party worker (which he denies). But this only emerged after McCallister gave an explosive interview to a local newspaper. He called the party “crazy” and “dysfunctional.” All of this happened less than 48 hours before European and local elections. In the aftermath, the party’s European candidate has resigned as Party Chairman and announced her departure from politics.

NI21’s future is unclear. What is even more unclear is what now happens to the reform agenda in Northern Ireland. NI21’s membership and support base hails largely from previously apathetic centrists. Many had never previously been involved in politics of any sort. There is a real danger that many of these people will walk away from politics like the Party’s ex-Chairman. Disillusionment is already high in Northern Ireland.

The region’s civic sensibilities are not particularly mature. People are expectant and cynical. Tribal identity is codified in law; this was part of the reason for the implosion of NI21 after it decided to ‘redesignate’ as Other instead of Unionist in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Three issues need addressed to ensure that a reform agenda is delivered. First, the political impetus needs to be truly ‘fresh’. McCrea repeatedly referred to NI21 as a “movement.” In this he was wrong. NI21 was not a citizens’ revolt but an opportunistic hijacking of an embryonic mood by two unhappy party hacks. Rather than leading change, people abdicated their responsibilities. They put their faith in what was little more than a vehicle for McCrea’s ego. For a movement to effect lasting change in Northern Ireland it will require a bottom-up approach, led by people who currently have little or nothing to do with politics. All the better if they have had nothing to do with party politics.

Secondly, reformers need to focus on policy. From the outset NI21 felt to be more style than substance: the glitzy launch, the lack of policies, the vacuous talk of a ‘movement’. The opportunism was ignored by many of the party’s supporters as their hunger for something new outweighed any critical evaluation of party policies. And yet, Northern Ireland is in dire need of a shake-up. Growth in 2014 is expected to be 1.1%, compared with 1.8% across the UK. The public sector makes up 65% of the economy. Politically, the four largest parties, which took over ¾ of the vote in Thursday’s local elections, are divided on religious and tribal differences rather than on meaningful policy differences. All four, along with the cross-community Alliance Party, form a compulsory coalition. Between them they control 103 of the 108 seats in the NI Assembly.

Third, reformers need to be ambitious. Development proposals in Belfast regularly become the subject of political horse-trading between the tribal blocs. This is particularly the case in deprived areas where identity politics is strongest. The Alliance Party’s current raison d’être is a ‘shared future’ for all. This is meaningless against a sputtering economy in which 27% of working age adults are economically inactive. Quite what it means besides providing shared spaces for Catholics and Protestants to come together is unknown. It is certainly not a rallying call for people who believe that the region’s past should not define its future.

The election of Johnny McCarthy as NI21’s sole representative, despite the events of the past few days, suggests that there is an appetite for change. The behaviour of the party’s leaders means that the true scale of the appetite remains unknown. Worse, the momentum for reform may have slowed. But if those who want to see change can rally together, the likely disappearance of McCrea, McCallister and NI21 might actually provide a more promising time ahead.

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Culture Night Belfast: What is culture and what is regeneration?

His quiff curled skyward. The white snakeskin boots, matching his white suit and white collar, reinforced the supposedly oily nature of the Southern preacher man. We had gathered on a street corner to witness democracy’s funeral, listening to a tirade against fracking and vested interests. The preacher’s quiff bounced insistently as he admonished us through a loudspeaker that only half-heartedly worked.

Part of Belfast’s fifth Culture Night, Friends of the Earth staged a wandering New Orleans style jazz funeral in honour of democracy. Behind, a restaurant staged a flash-fiction writing event. A little further down the street, Pro Westling Ulster brought what the programme described as “its hard hitting American Style Wrestling” back to Belfast’s streets.

Culture Night Belfast proudly claims to be a big tent – “a big party where everyone’s invited.” And, despite a theoretical theme of Reconstruction for 2013’s event, the result is a muddle. It is a collection of stuff. It is unwittingly, but fittingly for Northern Ireland, a celebration of consumption and alcohol.

Our Southern preacher, who was supposedly from Brooklyn, declared “Maybe we buy the kind of economy we have, the kind of culture…” His words rattled through my head as I wandered the streets of Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter.

A common lament of the arts sector, heard from Belfast to Sydney, from Athens to Vancouver, is about the lack of investment in culture. It was heard earlier in the day, at a discussion that asked if economic regeneration can be driven by the creative and cultural industries.

Dr Kate Oakley, an academic at the University of Leeds, was, in turn, pessimistic and optimistic about the possibilities for culturally driven regeneration. Her analysis was that such economic growth did not deliver good jobs, didn’t deliver enough of them, and delivered them in the wrong places. In a criticism of Richard Florida’s work on the creative class, Oakley noted that even when cultural regeneration works it disproportionately benefits the highly educated and middle class.

Sean Kelly from the Cathedral Quarter Trust, which presents Culture Night, proudly declared it was a “demonstration of how the creative industries can deliver regeneration.” That’s fine if you believe that regeneration is about providing bars, restaurants and nightclubs with patrons for a night.

But nothing about Culture Night provides commercial or financial support for the arts. The event is free. We can assume that most organisations involved survive on public sector funding. Such funding is crucial in a mature society, but perhaps not the best example of economic growth in an area that depends on the public sector.

Supporters of Culture Night point to the wonderful atmosphere on the streets. People got to experience Belfast in a different way. Yet, for many who attend Culture Night, the culture is irrelevant; consumption (of alcohol) is the only reason for their attendance. It is an excuse to wander the streets with a drink in each hand.

There is something unusual in Culture Night claiming partial credit for a regeneration that feeds consumption, rather than asking people to personally invest in the arts. We pay to enjoy an experience. And that many who attend Culture Night think nothing of spending £50 in Belfast’s bars rather than investing in the city’s artistic life says much about our skewed priorities.

It does not help that Culture Night lacks a thread to connect the various dots. Some say that you cannot organise people’s enjoyment of culture. But it can be curated. It can be presented in a way that brings meaning beyond the enjoyment of culture for culture’s sake. Appropriate signposting and thematic clustering would help. Enhancing the experience of the art and culture should take precedence over facilitating those who want background colour and noise to their bar crawl. Describing the night as a big party belittles the cultural experience.

“The event may only last for six hours but what we can build can last for so much longer,” declares this year’s programme. That is not good enough. After five years, Culture Night Belfast needs to up its game. The arts sector needs to be genuine about realising the opportunity of culturally-led regeneration. It needs leadership and ambition, and it needs to be strategic about what it does. Critically, it needs to differentiate its offering from consumption-led regeneration.

It also needs to broaden the appeal of arts and culture. The audience wandering around at Culture Night was a visibly middle-class one. Young people in deprived areas of Belfast say that nothing in the city centre is of benefit to them. An aimless alcohol fuelled party, centred on the fashionable bars of the city rather than the opportunity of cultural regeneration, is unlikely to change that impression.

As our preacher friend reminds us, “Maybe we buy the kind of culture we have.”

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Names, parties and hashtags: politics in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland got a new political party on June 6th. NI21 was born. It comes amid fevered discussion on social media of the prospects for a new style of politics in the region. A hashtag – #freshpolitics – sums up the hopes and aspirations of many.

I was underwhelmed, not at the idea of fresh politics. But because the name, NI21, is absent any vision or ambition. My first reaction on hearing it was not positive. It has the feel of something that middle-aged men, hoping to tap into the youth vote, might think is hip or modern. Instead, it seems stuck in 1997. Others have compared it to a strain of bird flu.

Names, one Twitter user pointed out, do not define everything. Those critical of the name were told to cast off the old politics. Wait for the policies, was the call.

The new party’s policies (of which there are none yet announced) will be more important than the name. But it does not inspire confidence. It smacks of a three second strategy session where, having announced that they needed something that said Northern Ireland in the 21st Century, they ended the discussion there.

Some 45% of Northern Ireland’s residents describe themselves as neither Unionist nor Nationalist, according to the latest NI Life and Times Survey. Fresh politics supporters point to the possibilities for change if these people can be engaged.

The tiny region’s politics are deplorable. A mandatory coalition holds power, the result of an agreement to settle nearly 30 years of violence. Of 108 members of the local assembly, 103 represent parties in government. Clientelism, parochialism, and tribalism are rife. Assembly members must declare a tribal allegiance upon election. Without opposition, the DUP and Sinn Fein, the two largest parties, increasingly concentrate power in their own hands.

Entire communities feel disenfranchised. Last December, Belfast City Council reduced the number of days on which the Union Flag will fly at City Hall. Working-class Protestant communities held a series of protests. Many were peaceful, but some were violent. Political parties struggled to connect with the protestors, who simply ignored the political process. They blame it for giving too much to Nationalists.

Young people feel especially alienated. The Troubles are history to them. Opportunities are lacking. A stagnant economy, dependent on the public sector, does not help. Belfast’s economy, once based on big industry, now seems based on call-centres. The answer for many is simply to leave.

NI21’s founders, Basil McCrea and John McCallister, are vocal and moderate. They tapped a reservoir of public apathy when they resigned from the Ulster Unionist Party in February. Fearing centrist voices were being undermined within the UUP their resignations came when it and the bigger, more strident Democratic Unionist Party fielded a joint Unionist candidate in a bye-election.

NI21’s roots are in seeking to challenge an unresponsive political system, not in Northern Ireland’s constitutional position. In his first speech as the new party’s leader, McCrea said, “[the current system] denies you that most fundamental of rights in any democracy: choice.” McCallister sought to lead his old party on a platform of taking it into opposition. Many had thought that they might join the centrist Alliance Party. But Alliance, the tiny opposition force in earlier Assemblies, entered government in 2010. It also undermines its liberal values through a lack of party discipline.

Supporters of fresh politics want to see a political system that is accountable, that delivers a competitive and prosperous Northern Ireland, and that treats Northern Ireland’s constitutional position as a peripheral concern. Those hoping for fresh politics may have to wait a while longer. It is intriguing that the new party’s leaders sought to define it using old politics. McCrea and McCallister have been clear that NI21 will be pro-Union in outlook.

And therein lies the difficulty for two such established politicians seeking to be changemakers. New faces were much in evidence at the launch, but the men at the top are well-known entities in Northern Ireland. A vigorous challenge to the status-quo will require more than establishing a liberal alternative and hoping and aspiring. It will require a societal demand for change, led by people who have no political baggage.

The liberal values espoused by NI21 – reformist, socially progressive and economically liberal – are much in need in Northern Ireland. An opposition force is also sorely needed. Achieving them will require intellectual rigour and political discipline.

Choosing NI21 as a name and the insipid “Aspire to Better” as a tag-line is not an inspiring start. Policies will be more critical to its success than a poor choice of name, but the lack of any policies, after four months of development, is inexplicable.

And those who support fresh politics should not confuse criticism of a lacklustre name with criticism of goals. They should realise, more simply, that messaging is king.

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Ostriches as innovators in Northern Ireland

Ostriches are wrongly famed for sticking their heads in the sand. Such behaviour has been popularly but falsely attributed to the birds since Ancient Rome. It explains the evocative metaphor for people who pretend that reality can be ignored. Even those sober economists who work in behavioural finance have adopted the term “ostrich effect” to describe when people ignore risky financial situations by pretending that they don’t exist.

Northern Ireland is a place where many people stick their heads in the sand. Not least among them is the region’s political and business elite. Its members pay lip service to the need for an innovative, knowledge based future. But they are at a loss as to what this means or how it will be achieved. More importantly, they fail to consider how the region’s political system is a very real obstacle to innovation.

The Head of Northern Ireland’s Civil Service, Dr. Malcolm McKibbin, spoke recently at a conference on innovation in Northern Ireland, organised by NESTA, a UK-wide think tank. He said politicians were urging civil servants to press forward with delivery of projects that would encourage job creation and economic growth. The basis for this pressure, he said, was because the electorate will judge politicians on said delivery. That might be the case in Stockholm or Vancouver. It is not so in Northern Ireland.

The political system is comprised of tribal blocks, both representing closed ideologies. Neither side is receptive to fresh ideas; parties balk at ideas that challenge or undermine the section of the community they represent. Speaking at the same event, a Board Member of Invest NI, the region’s economic development agency, said that innovation is based on curiosity. You would be hard pressed to find two less curious tribes than Ulster’s Unionists and Nationalists.

Northern Ireland’s political and business elite specialises in a circular conversation. Dissent is not especially welcome, and outside influences are often distrusted. There are always one and a half eyes on identity politics. Symbolism usually trumps substance. One prominent business man voiced the frustration of many when he launched a scathing attack on the dysfunction of the Northern Ireland Executive.

Politicians today announced the latest in a series of proposals to tackle division in Northern Ireland. Some estimates put the cost of duplicating services such as schools and leisure centres in neighbouring communities at £1.5bn. That is more than a tenth of Northern Ireland’s budget.

Among the proposals are work placements for 10,000 unemployed young people and a pledge to remove so-called “peace walls” by 2023. Nursery school children are to get a cross-community buddy. Gone are the days of a strategy to deal with division; all that is left are piecemeal and uncoordinated proposals.

Yet, when first mooted two weeks ago, the argument was not about the policies’ lack of ambition. It was, instead, about the ugly development process. Responding to displeased ministerial colleagues, frustrated at their exclusion, one Sinn Fein minister blurted out, “So what?”

A “shared future”, the supposed end goal of the original push to develop a strategy for reconciliation, was always woolly. In a place like Northern Ireland, it meant all things to all people. Most dangerously of all, it had become the height of ambition for the region. Other places take living together for granted and focus on more important things.

Part of the push for a comprehensive strategy was to deal effectively with the most contentious issues. Flags, parades and the legacy of the past stir up hardened opinions. No agreement has so far been possible. Hopes and expectations for a solution fall now on a working party, with a December deadline for agreement.

Few people doubt the need for economic “rebalancing” in Northern Ireland. Innovation has been identified as a way to power the growth of the region’s tiny private sector, but less than a third of companies currently undertake any R&D activity.

It is too easy to say that innovation and creativity will be economic saviours. Behind the platitudes there needs to be a robust and realistic framework for how innovation can spur economic growth. An honest debate about the obstacles to economic change in Northern Ireland is urgently needed. The political system must be top of the list.

At a time when other regions of the world are focused on how to engender economic growth, Northern Ireland is once again facing a summer of uncertainty. Unproductive navel gazing is indicative of the region’s failure to grasp that it has to work for a future that is prosperous and innovative. Events such as the NESTA roadshow, a masterclass in smug introspection, hinder rather than help.

The political system is neither mature nor sophisticated enough to deal with a sustained challenge brought about by flags, parades or the past. The ostriches might well do a better job.

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The shame of flags and the haunting of the future

Shame is personal. We are usually, as individuals, embarrassed by our shame. It is a way for us to define what we find morally acceptable or unacceptable. Indeed, so personal an emotion is shame, that we rarely publicly admit to feeling ashamed.

Societal shame is an even stranger phenomenon. A new film, “Aftermath”, by Wladyslaw Pasikowski, seeks to tell a version of the tale of how, during the Second World War, a group of Polish villagers in Jedwabne rounded up 300 of the village’s Jewish residents and burnt them alive in a barn. It is, for many Poles, an emerging trend of examining their collective past. Some people naturally find it uncomfortable. One present-day Jedwabne resident is quoted in a Financial Times article as saying “The whole thing is really unfair. A lot of other towns also killed their Jews… Now the whole world thinks that the people of Jedwabne are devils.”

Few people think that everyone in Jedwabne is, or was, a devil. The actions of evil and nefarious people often cast a shadow on an entire community.

Few people, despite the history of violence that has been all too publicly identified with Northern Ireland, believe that everyone who lives there is a devil. But they must question the sanity of its residents.

The background to yet more violence is now well known. In short, under the guise of parity of esteem, Nationalist parties sought to remove the Union Flag from Belfast City Council properties. Unionists reacted angrily, and the centrist Alliance Party countered with a motion to fly the flag on the 17 nationally designated days, thereby matching the position at the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Approval of the new policy was met with violence. MPs received death threats, the homes and offices of elected representatives were attacked and ransacked, and dozens of police officers were injured in clashes with Loyalist protesters. One attack, when a petrol bomb was thrown into a police car, from which its occupants managed to escape, is being treated as attempted murder. An ongoing campaign of rolling protests continues to disrupt traffic across Northern Ireland. One would imagine that the societal shame in Northern Ireland should be significant. It is not.

Instead, the protests continue. One protestor’s shriek has been parodied to the point where she is now known simply as the ‘Belfast Bigot.’ The equivications of politicians, some of whom have attended protests, means that the protestors have continued to set the agenda. Families attending a Christmas pantomime have been intimidated.

To feel shame requires acknowledging responsibility. It is difficult to find anyone who will accept responsibility for recent events. Instead, the region’s largest party, the Democratic Unionist Party, called for more flying of the flag at Stormont. It took a week of violence to prompt Mike Nesbitt, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, to call for the protests to stop.

Unionist parties refuse to acknowledge their role in heightening tensions. They argue that a leaflet published by them, in Alliance’s trade mark yellow colouring, which stated that the party wanted to “tear down the Union Flag”, also called for any protests to be peaceful.

Meanwhile, Nationalists and Republicans are coy in their triumphalism. Having reproached Unionists for generations on their attitudes towards Catholics and Nationalists, the tables have turned. Sinn Fein, the largest Nationalist party in Northern Ireland, has been supported on the flags issue in Belfast by the smaller and more moderate SDLP, and, more pointedly, in the naming of a childrens’ play area elsewhere after an IRA hunger striker. Unionists claim that the developments are part of a campaign to “chip away” at their Britishness. Replacing one triumphalism with another does not make it a positive.

There has been talk of compromise. In Northern Ireland this means repeating the same position louder than the other lot repeat theirs, waiting for them to give in because they’re wrong. Rather, compromise means accepting and understanding other view points, reflecting on your own position, and agreeing to meet on the path between the two. It should, ideally, mean no side being happy.

Northern Ireland’s residents are fond of the absolute. Its politicians encourage an understanding of politics as a zero sum game. Political leadership consists of leading only one’s own tribe, with no recognition of a changing world. Arguments are reduced to Unionist or Nationalist points of view. ‘Normal’ politics is not possible. Those politicians who do recognise a changing world and a need for compromise get disciplined by their party leadership.

The past dominates Northern Ireland’s future. Tribal politics is institutionalised. With a tiny population, an over-reliance on the public sector, and a lack of talent based immigration, there is nothing to break the dynamic. Recent economic difficulties, and the fact that many people feel no tangible benefit from the ‘peace dividend’, have helped fuel the current situation. And for all that, the political system is stuck in a Unionist vs Nationalist time warp.

Plenty of people want to “move on”. Many of them are genuine. Many more say they want to move on, “but…”

Moving on means not living in the past. It means accepting elements of a democracy you wouldn’t choose for a utopian world. It means allowing every part of our culture to express itself legitimately and appropriately. It means accepting that the truth is whatever individuals believe it to be, not what an inquiry says it to be. It means everyone, irrespective of political persuasion, uniting to condemn violence. Northern Ireland should collectively hang its head in shame for permitting the last two weeks of violence.

A bomb scare at one of Belfast’s major shopping centres, ten days before Christmas, turned the past into the present. But there was no shame at how an argument over a flag had brought the past back. It begs the question of why any young, educated person would choose to stay in Northern Ireland? For the reality is that our past haunts our future.

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