They brought death to my hometown: Northern Ireland in transition
July 17, 2013 Leave a comment
Today marks the fifth consecutive day of rioting in Belfast, following the usual patterns of endless violence and senseless displays of sectarianism marking the Twelfth of July. The last few years, bonfires and lootings had been maintained at a relative low, but on the fifteenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, things are escalating at a rapid rate, yet failing completely at capturing European or international attention. I understand Northern Irish politics are complex; I understand a ceasefire was declared and that most of you reading this blog only learn about the division a segregation in my hometown of Belfast by reading books. You have seen movies with Liam Neeson or Daniel Day-Lewis; you know Belfast or Derry residents have a heavy burden to carry, but that it belongs in the past. The Troubles, as they were so ironically named, belong to a time of turmoil and medieval beliefs carried by men wearing green jackets or orange scarves. It’s over; there are no more bombs exploding in London pubs, and a referendum conveniently confirmed that Ulster shall remain part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and, consequently, Northern Ireland. We erected a white, square building on top of a hill and made it out own Parliament, per the Homerule Act. Our money looks different, but is still tied to the sterling pound and has the Queen on it. The world moved on to other conflicts, different types of terrorism while Northern Ireland was licking its wounds and trying to walk down the legally acceptable and beaten path towards reconciliation by setting up truth inquiries. Here’s the shocker. We’re not over it and yes, you should care.
The Orange Order was founded to pay homage to William of Orange, a renowned British conquerant famous for humiliating Ireland in the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Every year, Orange lodges march on their towns, wearing uniforms, carrying flags, playing traditional music, and upholding the values of the British Empire. It could be nostalgic decorum if only they were not parading in Belfast, where a portion of the population identifies as Irish Catholic, and refuses to see the commemoration of the massacre of their ancestors. But every year, on the clock, halfway through Parade Season, Orange marches travel through notoriously catholic areas, at day, at night, leaving in their wake a trail of ashes, burnt plastic, and incredible feelings for revenge and retaliation. Hell has no fury like that felt by a teenager on the Crumlin Road. Walls have been erected, and show no signs of ever coming down. Separated by concrete, barbed wire fences and something resembling a wasteland, the area around the Peace Line, between loyalist Shankill and nationalist Falls, is a complete trap during Parade Season. There may be doors in the walls opening at various times of day, but the necessity of the Orange Order to walk through them is lost on me. Every Twelfth of July, a spark is ignited in West Belfast, and everyone is cordially invited to wait it out safely inside their homes and away from their windows. I often call people around that time of year, and every year it’s the same: “oh, we decided to leave the city for a few days, you know, wait for it to come down.” Political violence is such a regular, expected occurrence that it becomes natural to plan our lives around it. Members of local Parliament are telling you it’s all over. I personally will consider it over the day I will no longer hear ominous drum rolls coming up the street and fear sundown in the middle of July. Post-conflict society and political normalcy should not and never integrate violence in their agenda or considering it an undefeatable occurrence, a random act of God, or defying rationale in a way that democratic representation can’t fix. Northern Irish politics fail to advance because they’re plagued by cowardice.
There are efforts though, worth noticing. Creating the Parade Commission is one of them. This was finally a clear recognition that although sectarian violence is part of the northern Irish historical DNA, there are triggering factors one can no longer ignore in the name of the Shared Future agreement and its completely unrealistic expectations on togetherness and integration, to be implemented only seven years after the GFA. Peace certainly does not happen overnight; reconciliation takes generations. But the European Union – and the world – grew tired of the Northern Irish conflict. It grew tired and exasperated of hearing the same grievances over and over again, the same Curchulain / Battle of the Somme commemoration murals. Northern Ireland had exhausted its legal recourses when the European Court of Justice refused to grant the conflict the status of international armed conflict; its political salvation when Ireland shook hands with England over rendition of IRA members. Belfast was an annoyance in the face of Europe, a piece of land that can hardly be cultivated, populated by families that had been living side by side for too long to be considered natives and settlers. But memories of the Thatcherite British armed forces storming their way through Falls Road, or the persistent stench of burnt human flesh mixed with decaying plastic of IRA bombs in the city centre, collective consciousness images of the Europa Hotel being on fire – they’re all etched into the brains of a generation barely removed, seeing the faces of those they learnt to perceive as oppressors everyday. There is nothing more pernicious than a civil war; no bridge harder to build than one between extremely close riverbanks. The reality of Northern Ireland is that those 1.8 million individuals are so closely knit, entertwined with one another they don’t even know where someone’s space ends and theirs begin. Even on two sides of the same wall. There is focus on education, which may be the beacon of hope at the end of that dark, blood thirsty tunnel. Integrated education is taking time to pick-up; arguments over what to say in history class are not resolved. This is, however, where the core of reconciliation lies. Unless we agree on a common, national narrative, there will be no possibility to bring us together. Subjectivity and personal interpretation of events will prevail; opinion will take over facts. Then comes the danger of teaching past oppression to children who already inherently carry this anger within themselves. I feel the Shared Future has been forced down our throats when we were not even ready to sit down and agree on a bus line that would finally transport residents of Springfield Road where they want to go, rather than depending on the wall on Workman Ave. Children aged 0 to 15 in Belfast haven’t known the conflict like we, my parents, my grandparents and generations before them have; but they do see the inequalities, the differences, and those they can’t spot, they are raised to notice. It’s in the haircuts, the accents; it’s in details embedded in us in ways more invasives than flying a flag. Flags are just exterior signs of indoctrination. It’s those we are told that ignite the spark.
For the first time in a really long time, rioting on the Twelfth and following days is not necessarily directed against the opposite camp, but rather at the police. Over 40 members of the local police force, the PSNI – one of the more accountable police forces in the world – have been attacked with bricks and petrol bombs. Supposedly in reaction to a ban enacted against the Orange Order to prevent unlawful behavior on Crumlin Road and along the peace line, the rioting has taken over all the other parts of the city. It attacked an elected official, Nigel Dodds, and shows no sign of stopping. It’s spreading like what it is – wildfire. Just like previous anti-institutional violence over a British flag on top of the City Hall, it’s not inequality that is being questioned. Attempting to burn a Virgin Mary on a traditional bonfire was anecdotal compared to what erupted on Friday night. It’s the whole system that is being questioned, the whole executive apparatus, clearly lacking the necessary authority and direction to lead a country through the aftermath of a century-old conflict. And no doubt will any death be risen to the rank of martyr to the cause of political uncertainty and legal flexibility. Northern Ireland has been working in extremes: from Martin McGuinness to Peter Robinson as First Minister, we resort to outlandish personalities to represent a population which, in most generality, would trade the mundane of a pre-crisis Irish Daìl or the slow Labor workings of Westminster. The region is bipolar. And anchor less: as the time passes by, London relaxes its grasp on the North on account of having granted Home Rule, and Ireland itself totally dismissed the very idea of retrieving what it lost in 1921 (despite claiming sovereignty in its previous constitution). As someone told me recently, “we’re not British. We’re not Irish. We’re nobody’s child.” As the northern Irish entity emerges, it is clear that political violence will not cease in the face of rational compromise: nothing is expressed but the need to actually exist, and to exist in the name of something worth existing for. Loyalists hold onto the Union Jack because it once promised them prosperity. Nationalists clutch the tricolor in the hope it will welcome them back. Slowly but surely, in the European consciousness, Northern Ireland has been set loose, emancipated without further guidance. So we hold onto memories we have of a history once extraordinary, of myths we created and fairytales we based our identity on. But there’s nothing substantial. Throwing a brick through a window somehow seems more real than Stormont politics. Amidst these floating ideas never reaching shores, stand young elected officials, who believe in their country, feel ready to build it from the ground up, and to start from a clean base. This cannot be done without independent inquiries on past affairs of violence and trauma, or commissions such as the one on Parades that attempt a non-partisan approach to an issue that has been dividing the nation for too long, for the simple reason that even mentioning it would be cause for violence.
When Belfast-born band Snow Patrol wrote the beautiful Take Back The City, they certainly did not have violence in mind. They were not amnesiac either. Referring to “ten thousand craters where it all should be” and “every crack, every wall”, Snow Patrol explained that love for the city and for its surroundings – the breathtaking beauty of the Antrim Coast, the lakes of Enniskillen, the sunbeams on the river Foyle – should take over any fear, any primal impulse. There is beauty in Belfast; there is poetry in the streets Van Morrison sang so longingly. There is pain, strife, stigmata, distress and profound, deeply rooted disenfranchisement. By joining the European Union in 1973, Ireland hoped to lose its image as an unruly, violent and underdeveloped nation, and strived through European incentives and the common currency. Despite the European dream being brutally stopped, Northern Ireland could save itself by no longer being and feeling so painfully isolated, alienated from the rest of the world due to its seemingly obscure conflict that sees no end. Northern Ireland has a lot to teach us; and we could benefit from seeing it through a long recovery process. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Pat Finucane Center deserve more help, more funding, more staff, more attention. Elected officials need to be held accountable for their despicable partisan leanings in times of violence instead of mocked for participating into a sick and twisted circus of self-inflicted pain. Celebrating the Twelfth of July, in 2013, is an aberration. Northern Ireland has more common ground than it thinks it does, and days of nationwide celebration could help make the Twelfth an old tradition easy to debunk. Northern Ireland needs something to hold on to, that is hers, clearly hers, not belonging to the war stricken era of the Empires it sought to leave. I don’t expect the fighting to stop overnight. But the day we start thinking about the fight is the day we will first start to reconcile. Despite insistence on the existence of a Cause, on either side of the Lagan river, I’m afraid that the fighting in Northern Ireland will last for so long we will no longer know what we’re fighting for.