People in Belfast like to be blasé about riots, as if they aren’t a big deal. Our gallows humour spawns #flegmovies memes on Twitter. But it’s OK to be frightened by riots. People in London are frightened by riots. People in Cape Town, where they are a more frequent occurrence than they are here, are frightened by riots. Riots are frightening because of their sheer unpredictability. The latest outbreak of Loyalist street violence is essentially leaderless, the DUP and paramilitaries long having since lost control. It is utterly unpredictable. It also fearsome in its capacity for violence, as the attack on police outside Naomi Long’s office demonstrated.
I am not only frightened but angry at the minute. This was not what I was promised from the new Northern Ireland. In that at least, both the middle-aged woman with her placard and I agree. I don’t think anyone expected it to be perfect. But we all expected a lot better than this. The problem is that we were all sold different interpretations of what the new dispensation meant. We are all learning that reality is not quite as advertised. On the political fringes, the disappointment is acute.
The blunt reality is that the political settlement was sold by Sinn Féin on the basis of lies, and sold by the DUP on the basis of lies. Sinn Féin pretended to its supporters that there was a simple and rapid route to reunification because a Catholic majority was inevitable and coming quickly. The DUP spent two years pretending it hadn’t done a deal with Sinn Féin, and then three years pretending that it only had after winning on all substantial issues.
In particular, both main parties deluded both themselves and their supporters about the realities of demographics. The DUP pretended that a region with rapidly changing demographics would not continue to experience deep cultural change. Sinn Féin pretended than an impending Catholic plurality over Unionists would lead to a United Ireland within two decades.
Today’s Census exposes those politically convenient lies. The DUP were absolutely right to say that they had copperfastened Northern Ireland’s position within the Union. Attitudes to national identity are changing rapidly on the culturally Catholic side. One in five people now identifies only as ‘Northern Irish’. They are disproportionately on the Catholic side of the community. Some of them, perhaps many of them, will vote for a United Ireland in a border poll, but it is assured that not all of them will. There are few experiences more bizarre than sitting in the bar of the Maseru Sun Casino in Lesotho, surrounded by Chinese trinket exporters, watching Rory McIlroy tell the world he was from Holywood, Northern Ireland and he was British.
But the DUP wilfully failed its community by misleading it that rapid demographic change would not drive cultural change. The Alliance Party will soon hold the balance of power across Northern Ireland as it already does in Belfast. Many rural areas are deeply greened, doubtless fuelling the rage apparent in Armagh and Cookstown. The DUP secured the Union. It did not secure how national identity in Northern Ireland would be expressed, only a vague commitment to respect both main traditions, and nor can they seek to predetermine that in a free democracy where their views may not always hold majority sway.
Both governments colluded in the lying, and that right from the start of the negotiations process. Perhaps decommissioning was an unresolvable issue in 1998, but the fact remains that the UUP and Sinn Féin were allowed to walk out of the negotiations with fundamentally different understandings of what the Agreement required. At St. Andrew’s, further issues were ‘parked’ by allowing the DUP and Sinn Féin to live with fundamentally different understandings of the undertakings they had entered into, or at least to pretend to their supporters that they had different understandings.
The negotiations of 1997-2007 were primarily led by the administrations of Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair, neither exactly known for their robust approach to matters of truth, although they were in their own odd and characteristically deceitful ways genuinely appreciative of both major communities here. Lies and deliberate self-deceptions are all over this deal.
There is now natural disappointment on the fringes, and not just among Loyalists, as reality bites hard. I am considerably less blasé about the potential of dissident Republicans to expand gradually than I was six months ago. The lies are no longer sellable and this place is getting pretty fractious. We are not back to the bad old days but some problems that were put to one side because they were too difficult to deal with are coming back to haunt us. Cultural issues were parked. They need to be unparked. They are going to undo us if we do not speak about them honestly. Loyalists deserve to have their sense that their identity is slowly being suppressed listened to by the rest of us, but they have to listen to the rest of us about the deeply provocative sectarianism that accompanies some of their public displays.
As neither main party can deliver on some of the guarantees each made to its core, each is picking at cultural scabs to satisfy the base. They need to stop. The McCreesh playpark was as spectacular an own goal for Sinn Féin as it was for the SDLP. Whether the DUP’s high-risk flags strategy to win back East Belfast pays off remains to be seen, but it caused enormous damage to Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin needs to stop accepting that it’s OK to impose its version of history as official state doctrine – and the SDLP needs to stop acquiescing in the obliteration of its own civil rights legacy from Northern Nationalism’s cultural memory by Sinn Féin. Unionists and the Orders need to accept that there is a sectarian element around some parades and displays which embarrasses Protestantism as a faith and shames the flag they love so deeply.
We should have known this was coming. There were plenty of warnings. The incessant sectarian vandalism – on churches, Orange Halls, GAA facilities – is spiralling, especially in rural areas. That it is so rarely punished fuels quite legitimate senses of grievance across this community. It is where the flag-waving Loyalist woman, the angry Ardoyne teenage rioter and the sneering latté-sipping liberal all meet. People get away with bigotry and bad behaviour all the time, and those on the fringes inevitably ask why they shouldn’t respond in kind. That creates anger and facilitates the recreational rioting element now deeply embedded into the culture of poorer working-class communities. We need accept that violence will always bubble up until we take a zero tolerance approach to issues like property damage and incitement to public disorder. We also need better leadership – let me say no more about the DUP’s recent performance.
The Census today was a wake up call for everyone. There is, despite what the sectarian song doing the rounds on YouTube says, no Fenian Wonderland and there is no British Protestant Ulster any more either. The blurring or outright rejection of both traditional identities will only grow, especially among the younger and more middle-class. Nobody is in a majority any more. Northern Ireland is not leaving the UK any time soon. Real leadership, especially from the two major parties, would involve telling the population, honestly, that these are realities. I live in hope but am not holding my breath.
Here’s a modest proposal – we all accept that the status quo is not going to change on the difficult issues of public national identity for 10 years, until we get this ‘Decade of Centenaries’ over us. Clyde Valley and the Easter Rising have too many resonances for the young and hot-headed just at the moment. So, until this is over us, why don’t we park the balance of power, while we unpark the difficult cultural conversations. No less parades, no more parades. Where they get through, they get through and where they’re rerouted, they’re rerouted. No less Irish language, no more Irish language. Controversial renamings of council facilities end.
Let worried Unionists and Loyalists get used to a Northern Ireland that is only 48% British. That statistic, on one level, only encapsulates what has happened over the last 20 years and yet it also rewrites all conventional understandings of what this place is. It will not kill any of us if the Belfast flag decision was the last such dramatic change for a decade. Let the younger and less tribalised to come to a decision on these matters in the fullness of time.
Perhaps we should have a quick border poll. It could be what’s needed to clear the air, as both sides will have to be on their best behaviour. And then we, collectively, stop picking at scabs.
Maybe then we could do something about two issues which are really crucifying poor PUL communities. Why does the best primary school system in Europe degenerate into such a catastrophe for the poor, especially the Protestant poor, after 11? And why don’t we have a subsidised childcare system that allows young single mothers with no family support to actually be able to take the relatively poorly paid employment that is often, realistically, the only short-term option available to them? Deal with both of those problems and, I guarantee, we’ll have less riots.
And if we need to unpick one thorny marching problem, I suggest we put a bit of hard work into Clifton Street. We can’t have Orangefest where the route from Belfast Orange Hall into town is a demilitarised zone and, much as liberals and Republicans liked to sneer back in the day, if we don’t have Orangefest, we’re basically screwed. Loyalist parading and band culture is not going to disappear and the smart people in both the Bands and the Orders know the ugly side keeps quite a few Loyalists away from both. It’s in everybody’s interest to sort this out.
Let’s back off on the Culture Wars and, just for a change, have a bit of honesty.