Is Northern Ireland Spiralling out of Control?

There has never been so much consensus in Northern Ireland. There has never been so much discord.

The guy who cuts our trees thinks we’re Catholic, as we send our kids to the local Catholic school. We’re not (we’re Lundies). We think he’s Protestant, because of his name and the fact that we live in majority Protestant area. Last week, I was surprised to hear my husband drop a ‘Londonderry’ into the conversation – I assume to make the tree guy comfortable. And the tree guy comes back with a sentence containing five ‘Derrys’ – quite an achievement – to signal back that all is well.

This is Northern Ireland to me. The gentle, intricate and generous negotiation of difference. Using language, humour, silence – or whatever we need – to navigate the situation. Most of us do this on a daily basis. We’re pretty good at it.

But yet it’s been a long, damp summer of foul-temper in the north. To be expected perhaps, with the chaotic unknown of Brexit circling, and a local political vacuum.

It often feels like we’re on the verge of something leery. Settled parades are becoming contentious. Flags are tripling in size (where do you even get those?). Dissidents are stirring. The PSNI are struggling to police. Politicians are lobbing around loose lipped barbs and audibly sighing in frustration at each other’s points of pain.

On Facebook, Twitter and the Nolan show, there’s been little kindness or mutual respect. Being the school holidays, I’ve been making a lot of slime and lego models, and have found it impossible to keep up with the outrage du jour. But there’s a feeling of high anxiety in the air.

There are many reasons to hope that a return to violence is not the case. But it’s also not something to be dismissed when some of our most astute security correspondents are sounding concerned.

Allison is usually right. She’s typically a calm player-down of tension, able to put things in context. It’s deeply worrying that this is what she’s picking up on the ground.

Ben Kelly captures the mood well in his article “Northern Ireland is already spiralling out of control but no one is paying attention.” He points out the string of security incidents over recent weeks and the complete lack of wider British interest. He is also spot on about the sicky feeling in many of our stomachs.

Meanwhile, however, there’s another story happening in Northern Ireland. A quiet stacking up of things that there’s a lot of agreement about.

In no particular order:

Identities are becoming more flexible. 50% people now see themselves as “neither” unionist or nationalist (NILTS 2018). Although people may ultimately have a constitutional preference, people are conveying an unprecedented political openness. This already being reflected in voting patterns, as demonstrated in the 2019 local and European elections with the rise of non-traditional parties.

The idea of two ‘tribes’ or ‘communities’ in Northern Ireland has always been pretty contrived, due to mixing and, you know, nuance. But if we are to persist in using these terms, surely the Others and neithers are now a third tribe. All of which overlap, and all of which contain newcomers who wouldn’t know Carson from Collins.

Young people are quite relaxed about traditional identifications and constitutional issues. In Naomi O’Leary’s words, the “swingiest swingy voters on Brexit and the constitutional status of Northern Ireland are the young… These are the real ‘you can’t eat a flag’ pragmatists.”

Naomi was referring to LucidTalk’s December 2018 tracker poll which asked people what their constitutional preference would be if there was a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Amongst 18-24 year olds, 37% said they were certain that they would prefer to stay in the UK if there was no deal, while 55% were certain they would prefer to join a united Ireland in this scenario. But if Brexit weren’t to happen, 72% of 18-24s said they were certain they’d prefer to stay in the union, and only 20% were certain about unity. These are massive swings, telling us just how politically flexible young people are.

In short, the future is bright. But it’s not necessarily orange, or green. Presuming we can find some jobs for these people to stick around, and don’t drive them away with our bitterness.

The last few years have also seen a significant debate on constitutional options for Northern Ireland open up. It’s not been easy, but conversations about how we imagine the future are now taking place. These are often practical discussions, with a focus on the economy, health, the accommodation of difference. And they are light-years away from the orange and green trenches of old.

We also mostly agree that London is making a dog’s dinner out of Brexit – 82.6% of us according to LucidTalk’s poll of August 2019. Even 60% of DUP supporters and 82% of UUP supporters think so. There is a long held view, amongst nationalists, others and many unionists that England does not understand the people or politics of Northern Ireland. And we certainly all agree that Karen Bradley could not organise a piss up at a garden party. We nearly all still want a peaceful open border on the island of Ireland, although clearly differ in our analyses of what this means in practice.

Importantly, there is a huge consensus that active paramilitary gangs are not wanted. 2019 has seen ordinary people stand up to dissident republicans in Derry, and the UVF in East Belfast, at considerable personal risk. While paramilitaries are certainly agitating at the moment, Sinn Féin are attempting to keep the dissidents in check, while community workers, the PUP and ex-combatant groups are attempting to do the same for loyalists. Albeit, in both cases, with mixed success.

According to PSNI data, in the year up until 31st March 2019 (just after the first Brexit deadline) security related incidents – bombs, shootings, killings, punishment attacks – were actually at the same level or down on previous years. There is no data yet released for the last 5 months. But it’s interesting to note that – so far – the tension on the ground here is not resulting in a spike in violence.


Source: PSNI 2018/19 Security Statistics – finalised figures to 31 March 2019, available here


Meanwhile in workplaces throughout the north, people of all tribes work pretty unproblematically side by side. Social housing is still deeply segregated. And schools are not really becoming more integrated. But Shared Education, for all its flaws, is making an impact. My kids’ Catholic school was a giant poppy fest this year, as they studied the world wars. The PSNI visited when the topic was “people who help us.” People of different backgrounds are more likely to meet each other, be friends, fall in love, than ever before.

One thing the vast majority of people seem to agree on is that it is not healthy to have no government. All political parties are calling for the restoration for Stormont, albeit on different terms. While we wait, we’re missing out on vital changes of legislation, funding and salary increases that are taking place in the rest of the UK. We are also falling far behind the pace of economic and social change in the Republic of Ireland.

A lesser talked about fact, is that most people in Northern Ireland agree that it is long past time to liberalise our laws on equal marriage, abortion and a range of other social issues. 89% of the population of Northern Ireland now agree that abortion should be decriminalised, and 71% support a women’s right to choose more generally, while only 16% do not support it (NILTS 2018). 68% agree there should be equal marriage, while only 24% disagree (NILTS 2018).

Equal marriage and abortion provision will be implemented in January 2020 and March 2020 respectively, if the Assembly is not functioning by 21st October 2019. These issues have essentially been taken out of the DUP’s hands by Westminster, thanks to Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn. Should an Irish Language Act find a similar sponsor in Westminster, all the better.

Signs of class unity are also sprouting shoots. The Harland & Wolff workers shouting ‘Save our Shipyard’ in Irish, with Acht Anois campaigners by their side, sent a powerful signal. Because we are not just dealing with the narcissism of our own minor differences in Northern Ireland. We’re in the throes of late stage capitalism. With welfare mitigations coming to an end here, and Brexit set to shake the economy, relationships between workers and unions have never been so important.

So what’s the answer then? Is Northern Ireland spiralling out of control or not?

No and yes, of course. To rob a phrase from Tyler McNally, we’re in between worlds, and monsters co-exist with advancements.

Sometimes it definitely feels like a spiral. Community relationships are under serious strain. Violence feels close to the surface. Eamon Phoenix on Talkback recently described Northern Ireland after partition as having a “sullen peace.” Today the north feels both sullen and quick to anger. Especially for those with anonymous Twitter accounts.

All the data tells us that we are a very different society to 1969 though, with huge changes in social attitudes, identities and mixing. And it doesn’t feel like there is residual support for violence amongst any section of the population.

But nor does it feel right to have a peppy conclusion. A careless, self-interested Westminster, deep structural inequalities and a small number of people snapping have set the place ablaze before. Of course it can happen again. A no deal Brexit would be sure to set off some kind of chain reaction. How bad, we don’t know.

While the PSNI data shows that security related crimes are not – yet – increasing, it shows that other crimes are. Drug offences, for example. The sexual offences chart shows a pretty similar upward line. Cruelty to children has increased. As has online harassment.

Source: PSNI Monthly update, period ending 30 June 2019 (published 25 July 2019), available here


How many people do you know that are struggling with their mental health? How many can’t get access to the healthcare they need? On 21st August the Andersonstown News tweeted that there had been 15 suicides in the previous 10 days in Belfast. And where is the outrage?

This makes me wonder if Northern Ireland is spiralling. But not in the way we might think.

Maybe the malaise we are diagnosing as tribal may be more universal to life in late stage capitalism. Maybe the only names we know for it are orange and green. Maybe continual media framing of our ‘opposing views’ amplifies one problem and ignores the others. Maybe the cuts run much deeper.

We are certainly not alone in our falling apart. Look at the world. But our old wounds open up so easily. We know just how to hurt each other when we feel angry or afraid. The words come so readily. On this day. Never forget.

But the increasing inequalities of late capitalism and coming environmental collapse will be difficult enough to cope with without a sectarian conflict layered on top. Whatever the outcome of Brexit and our constitutional future, it would be unwise to drag our green and orange chains along with us. They are slowing us down badly in a context of accelerated global change.

It’s hard to engage with the future in a political vacuum. We need to stay focussed. Continue to navigate our differences with generosity and humour. To ramp up pressure on our politicians to locate their leadership skills (although they are welcome to wait until October 22nd). We need the local media to stop amplifying sectarian tensions. We need to get our shit together before – to misquote my favourite Sunday School song – the rains come down and the floods come up, and the walls come tumbling down.


Photo by George Garrigues, licensed by Wikipedia Commons.

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