A peace process with no peace
The ‘Troubles’ may be over but Northern Ireland’s sectarian divides are deepening.
The recent tragic death of Lyra McKee in the Creggan area of Derry City has raised fears that the peace in Northern Ireland is now under threat. Dissident republicans, calling themselves the ‘New IRA’ have admitted to causing her death while attacking the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).
McKee came to prominence in 2015 when her blog went viral. It was a letter to her 14-year-old self who was suffering with the fact of being gay in Northern Ireland. It was later made into a short film. Her much-anticipated book, The Lost Boys, is an exploration of eight young men and boys who disappeared during the ‘Troubles’.
The sprawling Creggan Estate on the outskirts of Derry is one of the poorest working-class estates in the UK. Crime, vandalism, carjacking, joyriding, drugs, punishment shootings and heavily armed police raids against dissidents are commonplace. Because of this, the estate has become something of an attraction for journalists and filmmakers. Former BBC presenter Reggie Yates was in the area on the day McKee was shot, making a documentary for MTV about extreme and unusual places. Sinead O’Shea’s 2018 documentary A Mother Brings Her Son to Be Shot is set in the Creggan. It follows the life of the O’Donnell family after the mother voluntarily brings her son for a punishment shooting because he was dealing drugs.
Depictions of the Creggan paint a depressing picture of a community left behind by the peace dividend that was supposed to follow the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA). Commenting on police raids around this time last year, local independent councillor Gary Donnelly told Derry Now that the PSNI are ‘unreformed from the Royal Ulster Constabulary’ – the police force that was officially disbanded in 2001 as part of the peace process. ‘Their role remains the same, as they enforce British rule in Ireland’, he said. The fact that operations are ‘carried out by heavily armed officers, backed up by armoured vehicles and air support, bears testimony to this’. ‘The PSNI clearly mark themselves out in working-class republican areas as an oppressive occupying force far removed from the smiles and PR spin of their hollow “community neighbourhood policing” facade’, he added.
What, then, will the future hold for working-class nationalist communities like the Creggan, which were once a bedrock of support in the struggle for a united Ireland? Do those who are condemning the New IRA as ‘robbers and murderers who draw strength from a revolution the Irish refuse to let lie’ understand the residual tensions in Northern Ireland? Did the communities there endure all the repression and privation of the war years only to be abandoned by their own political leaders?
It was the New IRA who pulled the trigger on the PSNI and McKee. But Sinn Féin, the once-republican party, is to blame for much of the current mess and chaos in the Creggan. It sold the people a lie that the peace process would achieve a united Ireland. In truth, the GFA was nothing more than a coded ratification of the republican movement’s defeat. While there is still significant support for Sinn Féin in those communities, bitterness and disillusionment are increasingly apparent.
The dissidents of the New IRA are a symptom of Sinn Féin’s failure on many fronts. The party has also failed to address the social and economic deprivation that blights places like the Creggan, preferring to highlight issues like the Irish language, gay rights and abortion rights. It doesn’t focus on these issues just to goad Unionists. Sinn Féin believes that by concentrating on identity politics, its politicians can leave their nationalist/republican pasts behind and become ‘respectable’ political players.
Sinn Féin’s references to a united Ireland are increasingly muted, mentioned mostly at election time to retain their support in working-class communities – but only ever as a dream for a far-off future. In fact, the party might be about to take a step that would be unprecedented for an Irish republican party. Speaking at the recent Easter Rising commemoration in Belfast, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said that in the continued absence of a power-sharing administration, ‘a new British-Irish partnership, a joint authority’, was needed in Northern Ireland.
In other words, Sinn Féin are openly willing to participate directly with the British government in maintaining the status quo in Northern Ireland. This can only further contribute to the bitterness felt in working-class nationalist communities, inspiring further support for dissident republicans like the New IRA. But the dissidents’ campaign is futile. There is no appetite for a renewed fight for Irish independence in the wider nationalist community. Their activity can only invite more repression for their communities and certain imprisonment for the young men who join them.
Responding to Lyra Mckee’s killing in a joint statement, party leaders said: ‘It was a pointless and futile act to destroy the progress made over the last 20 years, which has the overwhelming support of people everywhere.’
But what does this 20 years of progress amount to? A digital mapping project by Dr Matthew Doherty published in 2017, using government census data between 1971 and 2011, reveals that the geographical split between Catholics and Protestants remains pretty much as it was in 1971. There is little or no cross-community integration that might indicate any softening of identities. In the supposedly vital arena of education, it is evident that the integrated-schools movement has lost momentum, enrolling under seven per cent of students in 2017. Outside Belfast City Hall, tour guides and buses wait to take the tourists to see the famous Peace Walls – or ‘interface barriers’, as they are euphemistically called – which crisscross many working-class areas of the city. In 2014, the government set a target of 10 years for the removal of all barriers – there are still 60 across Northern Ireland. There has actually been an increase in wall-building since the GFA in 1998. This suggests that relations between the two communities, notwithstanding the fact that the war is long over, are deteriorating. Any optimism about the future is in short supply.
The most recent edition of the Irish Pages, a Belfast literary publication, surveyed 42 of the leading intellectuals, poets and writers on the subject of the GFA. The heading for leading literary critic Edna Longley’s contribution summed up the survey: ‘The Belfast Agreement and Other Oxymorons.’ Novelist Glen Patterson voted Yes for the GFA, but now thinks he ‘can’t overlook the fact that almost from the get-go our politicians, and therefore the electorate who voted them in, did their best to fuck the whole thing up’.
More recently, Unionist poet Jean Bleakney complained of being assailed by ‘Brexit-bashers, republicans, civic nationalists, DUP-haters, academics, rights activists, journos’, arguing that ‘more than ever, somehow, everything was the fault of the Brits’. During the 1970s and 1980s, when the war in Ireland was raging, Unionists felt that the British government and state would always be on their side – and it was. Following Brexit, many feel that their position is no longer so secure.
Historian and leading architect of the GFA Paul Bew argues that ‘the people at the top of the UK government are paralysed by imperial guilt’. This is apparent among the British intellectual and political elites, where there is a desire to escape the embarrassment of Britain’s colonial and imperial past – a past to which Unionists are wedded. This is particularly evident in the attitude of many Remain voters in the Brexit referendum. They disparage any form of British nationalism or sovereignty as racist or fascistic and prefer to look to a new European identity for salvation.
The GFA’s core principle – that all the people of Northern Ireland can by birthright identify as ‘Irish or British or both as they may so choose’ ” is now cast in a different light as Britishness (and particularly the Unionist version of it) is now considered problematic. This identity crisis, combined with the collapse of the Stormont power-sharing assembly, Brexit, and the DUP’s role in shoring up Theresa May’s government, means that Ulster Unionists and their political culture has come under a new and fearful scrutiny. Their stance on issues such as gay rights, gay marriage and abortion have been condemned, and there is a growing sense that they are an embarrassment to much of the political elite in Britain.
It’s not just the political elite who are losing interest in Unionism. A few statistics from the ongoing Future of England survey reveal that 83 per cent of Leave voters believe that the collapse of the Irish peace process is a price worth paying for Brexit. Only 25 per cent of Leave voters believe that ‘revenue raised from taxpayers in England should also be distributed to Northern Ireland to help Northern Irish public services’. The Spectator has traditionally been one of the most pro-Unionist publications in Britain, but in one of its recent podcasts, the editor Fraser Nelson discussed how the DUP’s insistence that Britain and Northern Ireland remain fully aligned had tied the British into a Soft Brexit. They chose to play out the discussion with a tune by Paul McCartney called ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’ – a song banned from UK airwaves in 1972. As the Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole worriedly pointed out, there is now a sentiment in the Tory circles which wishes that the ‘Irish (including the DUP) should bugger off and leave us to our own grand project of national liberation’.
So how is all this playing out in Unionist communities in NI? Journalist and Unionist commentator Newton Emerson summed it up when he wrote the following in the Irish Times:
‘Unionism’s largest party has consigned the UK to a zombie government, keeping Labour out of office but the Tories barely in power. The British public, having been forced to notice the DUP, has had every nationalist trope of Unionism’s awful “un-Britishness” seemingly confirmed. The same public has demonstrated its indifference, certainly at the ballot box, to the Labour leadership’s past sympathies with the IRA.’
Unionist fears are further compounded by the demographic clock. Dublin economist David McWilliams, who famously predicted the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, married into a Unionist family. His observation reveals something of the change in Northern Ireland:
‘I’ve been travelling around Ulster recently, taking in the views from rural Markethill in South Armagh to the prosperous King’s Road, Belmont and Stormont suburbs of east Belfast, and from coastal fishing villages of the Ards Peninsula to the council estates of Cookstown in Tyrone. I have seen Union Jacks and even UVF flags where I never saw them before. The anxiety of Unionism about the ticking demographic clock is captured by this “backs-to-the-wall” display of extravagant loyalist pageantry on the streets. On present trends, Catholics will be in the majority in Northern Ireland by the end of the next decade.’
Is there a future for a united Ireland? Would the Irish political class allow a referendum on it? And, more importantly, would they respect the democratic decision? Taking up his role as the spokesman for the southern Irish political elite, Fintan O’Toole thinks it will not stand: ‘The simplistic notion that a quick transition to Irish unity will solve the problem is utterly unconstitutional. The Constitution requires a profound reconciliation between diverse identities. That in turn requires people to be secure and confident in their sense of belonging.’
O’Toole is trying to put a legal cover on the reality of current political trends. The southern Irish elites did not respect the democratic decisions of their people in two referendums on EU treaties. Their British counterparts have shown the same attitude in refusing to respect the Brexit vote. Even if a border poll was demanded by the public, a united Ireland by democratic means seems an unlikely prospect.
The tide of history is turning in the United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland. Both nationalism and Unionism are now equally despised. The attempt to articulate a new political dispensation through culture and identity, which is central to the peace process, is producing not reconciliation, but a deeper and more dangerous personal enmity. Ireland needs a vision for a future that can prevent this slide into a repressed misanthropy.
Denis Russell is a former history teacher.
Picture by: Getty.