In trying to make sense of the worst disturbances in Northern Ireland for years, there are two symmetrical pitfalls to be avoided. One is to present the recent violence as a simple reflex of Brexit, drawing a straight line between Boris Johnson’s campaign bus and a burning bus on the Shankill Road, while ignoring the local factors at work. The other is to overlook the many ways in which choices made at the highest levels of the British state have unsettled the region and added to the stock of combustible material.
The death of a notable figure is often a time for selective amnesia. Michael Gove is the Conservative politician with the keenest interest in Northern Irish affairs – a dubious blessing for the people of the region. After John Hume died on 3 August, Gove paid tribute to the Derry politician as ‘a man of great integrity and wisdom who stood against violence and for peace with courage and steadfastness’. You get a very different impression from Gove’s 2000 pamphlet denouncing the Good Friday Agreement, the principal fruit of Hume’s political labours. Gove compared the British government’s policy of engagement with Sinn Féin to the appeasement of Nazi Germany, and accused Hume of undermining confidence in the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
In the late 1990s, Catholics made up roughly 40 per cent of the population of Northern Ireland, but fewer than 10 per cent of RUC members. The rubber bullets that US police officers have been firing so freely were initially designed for use by the British security forces in Northern Ireland, where they killed 17 people. RUC patrols carried weapons, wore flak jackets and drove around in armour-plated vehicles, foreshadowing the militarisation of US policing.
On Sunday, 10 June, around midday, women gathered at the Titanic slipways in Belfast, a ‘regenerated’ area of former docks, to take part in the Processions, a march to celebrate 100 years of women’s suffrage, which was taking place in several cities across the UK. At the front of the procession, women walked quietly. At the back, there were banners, some men and loud chanting. Two weeks after the Republic of Ireland voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, women were demanding abortion rights in Northern Ireland. In the morning I had travelled from Dublin to Belfast on a bus full of women who had canvassed before the referendum.
About fifteen years ago I walked into a printing shop in Belfast with a pale pink T-shirt I had bought in Topman. I wanted a word printed on it in inch-high red flock. The young man at the counter baulked when I showed him it. ‘I don’t think we can print that,’ he said. ‘That’s the worst word.’ His manager came out from the back office. He looked at the word. He shrugged: on your own head – or chest – be it. The word was TOUT.
I moved to Belfast from the south of England a little more than a year ago. In conversations about politics I’m a well-meaning dunce, teetering on the line between not quite grasping the complexities of the situation and misunderstanding it so flagrantly that everyone’s embarrassed. I need to have things explained to me slowly and carefully.
Martin McGuinness stepped down yesterday as Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister. His resignation letter rapped the Democratic Unionist Party for backing austerity and blocking women’s and LGBT rights, and attacked the first minister, Arlene Foster, for refusing to stand down temporarily while an independent inquiry is conducted into a botched renewable energy scheme. The scandal, known as ‘cash for ash’, began in 2013 when a whistleblower pointed out what was happening as a result of Renewable Heat Incentive subsidies not being capped. Farms and businesses that signed up to the scheme before it was shut down last year get £1.60 from the government for every pound spent on non-fossil fuels, without limit. The more wood they burn, the more money they make. One farmer is set to net a million quid over twenty years by heating an empty shed.
The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service logged 123 calls between 9 p.m. last Monday and 1 a.m. on Tuesday, of which 42 were related to the annual Eleventh Night bonfires. The fire engines were ready and waiting when a pyre of wooden crates about seven storeys high was set alight in a cordoned off car park in Sandy Row at midnight. There were loud cheers as the flames engulfed a large Irish tricolour with ‘KAT’ (‘Kill All Taigs’) scrawled in pen across the flag’s white third. (A Taig is a derogatory term for a Catholic. The white is meant symbolise peace between the Protestant Orange and the Catholic Green.) The heat was so intense I found myself squinting. Beyond the car park railings, firemen hosed down windows to cool the glass, but it wasn’t enough. A Bangladeshi family in a flat overlooking the bonfire watched on as their window shattered.
Carál Ní Chuilín, the Northern Ireland minister of culture arts and leisure, was interviewed on Radio Ulster’s Arts Show last Thursday. Asked what she thought was important about the arts here, the minister replied: ‘That people don’t see it as another whinge.’
I have recently had occasion to reread a piece I wrote in November 2007 following the beating to death of Paul Quinn in a shed on the southern side of the Irish border by – local people said – the Provisional IRA. I mentioned Gerry Adams’s categorical denial of IRA involvement, I noted that the British and Irish governments were reassured by his call for those involved to be brought to justice, and referenced the further calls, from the Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Féin’s partner in the (then new) power-sharing executive to wait to see if there was evidence of ‘corporate’ IRA responsibility, a phrase whose ‘Blairite banality’, I suggested, masked ‘a volte-face to rival Orwell’s “four legs good, two legs better”’. Substitute the name Kevin McGuigan for Paul Quinn and the piece might have been written yesterday.
Saturday was one of those days in Belfast, if you didn’t have to be in two places at once then at least you had to get from one place to another pretty sharpish. (If you live in the east, as I do, you had to move pretty nimbly too, to avoid the Orange parades: marching season is already well begun.) The biggest event was a rally in support of marriage equality, organised by Amnesty International, the Rainbow Project and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. Following the Yes vote in the 23 May referendum in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland is now the only part of this island – and of the United Kingdom – where same-sex marriage is neither performed nor recognised. As many as 20,000 people took part and stood in good humour and good order (and sunshine) while speaker after speaker told them love stories and asked a simple question of our politicians: why can’t I be married too?
For the first time in longer than I can remember I agreed with Gerry Adams. It was political of course – calculated as well as choreographed – but that much photographed and much commented-on handshake with Prince Charles was a human, even – to unload the word – disarming moment.
I woke yesterday morning to the news that the vice chancellor’s office at Queen’s University in Belfast had cancelled a symposium, due to take place in June at the Institute for Collaborative Research in the Humanities, on contemporary citizenship after Charlie Hebdo. ‘Incomplete risk assessment’ was the reason given. All day yesterday I kept schtum. Too busy working. At least I convinced myself that was the reason. When I woke in the early hours of this morning I wondered if I hadn’t actually been carrying out a bit of risk assessment of my own.
God knows, you don’t have to go too far out of your way to find reasons to be ashamed of this place. Last week served up several more, culminating in the spectacle of our one ethnic-minority member of the Legislative Assembly, Anna Lo, fighting back tears as she spoke of the racist abuse she has suffered on the streets of Belfast.
Sometimes the right play, or novel, or poem, comes along at exactly the right moment. Michael Longley’s ‘Ceasefire’, published within days of the IRA’s 1994 ‘complete cessation of military operations’, springs to mind: ‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done/And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’ Quietly by Owen McCafferty, which has been playing for the past week in the Abbey Theatre, ahead of a month at London’s Soho Theatre, is a revival (it was first performed in Edinburgh in 2010), but it had never until last month been staged in McCafferty’s native Belfast, where it was received by audiences almost as a new play.
When John McCallister resigned from the Ulster Unionist Party on 14 February he accused the party leader, Mike Nesbitt, of ‘forcing Northern Ireland politics back into the sectarian trenches’. Hours earlier, the UUP, the Democratic Unionists and the anti-St Andrews Agreement Traditional Unionist Voice had announced that a Unionist unity candidate, Nigel Lutton, would stand in tomorrow’s Mid-Ulster by-election. Martin McGuinness resigned the seat at the end of last year; the Sinn Féin candidate to replace him is the deputy speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Francie Molloy. In 2007, the DUP MP David Simpson, speaking under Parliamentary privilege, claimed that Molloy was involved in the IRA murder of Lutton’s father in 1979. Molloy denies the allegations. The Unionist candidate’s uncle, Joey Lutton, was jailed for his part in a 1976 Ulster Volunteer Force murder.
Apparently there were 43 illegal roadblocks in Belfast on Monday night. In a bar with Christmas lights on the ceiling, a hundred yards from a City Hall not flying the Union Jack, most drinkers were glued to their smart phones. The man beside me was scrolling through the #flegs hashtag on Twitter. (So was I.) His friend was trying to work out if his bus was running. In the end they decided to share a taxi home.
That night, in East Belfast, a firebomb was thrown at a police car outside the constituency office of the local MP. Naomi Long is the deputy leader of the Alliance Party, which came up with the compromise solution to the problem of the Union Jack on Belfast City Hall: the flag will now fly on 15 designated days a year, not continuously as it did until last week.
The European Coal and Steel Community and the other elements from which the EU springs were explicitly intended to make war between France and Germany ‘not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible’. That aim has been achieved, though America and Nato also played their part. But what contribution has the EU made to peacemaking elsewhere? I restrict my thoughts here to three conflicts in which I have been personally involved as a diplomat: Palestine, Cyprus and Northern Ireland.
In 1971, a parliamentary Working Group criticised the speed with which walls, gates and fences were being put up to separate Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland. The ‘peace lines’, constructed mainly by the British army, were creating an ‘atmosphere of abnormality’, the Peace Walls Working Group warned. But they did ‘not expect any insurmountable difficulty in bringing together well-meaning people from both sides’, and believed that before long, the barricades would come down; ‘normality’ would return.
Never let it be said that Irish republicans are slow to jump onto a passing bandwagon. As the Occupy protests spread from city to city, the Real IRA issued a statement claiming credit for two bomb attacks on Northern Irish banks. Santander branches in Newry and Derry City were targeted over the summer. According to the group’s leadership, 'such attacks are an integral part of our strategy of targeting the financial infrastructure that supports the British government’s capitalist colonial system in Ireland,' and would 'send out the message that while the Irish national and class struggles are distinct, they are not separate.'
The Chilcot Inquiry is providing further evidence that Tony Blair misled the British public in the run up to the war in Iraq in 2003. Five years earlier he less famously deceived the people of Northern Ireland into believing that paramilitary prisoners wouldn’t be released and Sinn Fein wouldn’t be able to enter government until the IRA had decommissioned its arms. On the basis of this deception, Northern Ireland’s Catholics and a bare majority of Protestants ‘consented’ to the Good Friday Agreement.