John O’Farrell has the cover story in the New Statesman this week. In he describes the hard wired sectarianism in Northern Ireland behind graffiti like KAT (Kill All Taigs) and KAH (Kill All Huns) that still can be found on the streets in Belfast eleven years after the ceasefire. But he argues, whilst the British government has been carefully looking after the sectional interests of Unionism (DUP) and Nationalism (SF), no one has been watching the economic bottom line. Sectarianism, he argues is a mutual disability:
One day recently in south Belfast a Catholic priest told a room full of Protestants that they were “like the Nazis”. At about the same time in north Belfast a group of loyalists picketing a service at a cemetery threatened Catholic mourners that they would “dig up your graves”. Sectarianism, the force that fuelled more than three decades of bloodshed in Northern Ireland, hasn’t vanished with the coming of peace.
And little in the government’s strategy has addressed the problem directly:
The state’s role is to be what the local disability activist Michael Morgan calls “the sectarian balancer” across the range of public action: just as the DUP “gets” one commissioner and nationalists “get” the other, so Sinn Fein “gets” official support for the Irish language and loyalists “get” similar backing for the long-neglected Ulster Scots dialect. And so on. Increasingly, the fate of 1.7 million UK citizens is in the hands of two parties that hardly bother to compete with or relate to one another, but seek above all to ensure dominance of their own communities. And the state merely acts as their facilitator.
But he asks, what has been the return on the enormous monetary investment ploughed into the peace process:
For years everyone investing in Northern Ireland, be it the UK government, the EU, US agencies or any one of myriad commercial and phil-anthropic organisations, has aimed to combine reconciliation with reconstruction. Untold millions, in other words, have been ploughed into building cross-community trust. What good has all that money done?
He asks Tom Kelly, a Belfast businessman:
“Compared to the North, the republic got roughly one-third of EU funds made available, but they built a real economy, creating jobs and opportunity. We preferred the less travelled road of building an inter-community infrastructure around what is not there. Despite spending hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money on community relations, we have ended up more polarised than ever before.”
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty