Northern Ireland in the age of Brexit

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I have long written about how disastrous the Brexit referendum was for the region where I grew up. The future of the Good Friday Agreement, turning 20 this year, and the practicalities of the Northern Irish question – power-sharing, effacement of the border, and co-authority from Dublin and London – have fallen by the wayside in mainstream commentary. Few remember that the “UK” is in fact the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, that our specific history carries specific responsibilities, the least of which preserving political stability, or the appearance thereof, to keep violence at bay.

With the referendum result came fears no one had truly buried in the nine counties of Ulster, the first one being identity. Identity drives everything, from places of residence to political representation and legal positions. This is a region where people would endanger their neighbour’s lives and safety over a flag, where the colour of the passport really does matter. With European membership, those elements were allowed to take on a different dimension. It never saved Northern Ireland from its sectarian self, but it provided the Good Friday generation with freedom of movement, Peace programs’ funding, and the legal protection of legacy adjudication. For children like me, it became a way out, a ticket to the great unknown: the continent. The story that remains true for the rest of the 27 applies with outstanding relevance to Northern Ireland which future depends more on EU membership than any other conflict-ridden area in the European Union.

What sets Northern Ireland as a priority is the endless shades of green that cross it horizontally east of Co. Donegal: the Border, a fault line that my phone still capitalizes even though colleagues have already documented that it has anything but disappeared physically. There are commuter trains that link Belfast to Dublin on an express, regular basis; cash machines dispense both sterling pound and euro currencies; the region voted to Remain in the European Union, because 20 years is hardly enough to forget the wounds, still occurring, still dangerous, of a conflict over the territory that EU membership in 1973 blew in the open outside of the former “British Isles”.

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I grew up Irish. In my area in Belfast, that has been Gerry Adams’ consistuency since the year I was born, this was no question. We were “Irish, of the Northern kind”, as one of my followers recently described in her Twitter bio. Being Irish is different from being Northern Irish; being British is nothing like being Northern Irish. What the Good Friday Agreement brought about is the possibility of a third identity emerging out of the cards that had been dealt, a way out of the political endgame and the constant DUP / Sinn Fein battle for leadership. Brexit threw a wrench in the machine, and forced a reckoning. Laura Coyle lives in Co. Donegal, in Ireland, but works in Derry, in the North. Directly affected by the referendum, as her livelihood and the legacy of the conflict, a commuter worker, she speaks:

Speaking from personal experience living in and around NI having discussions with NI friends and family, that after the vote, the feeling was one of palpable anger. That once again the people of NI’s existence seemed to matter very little.  Regardless of where they stood politically, the majority of NI voted to remain, and it seemed at least at first, that those who didn’t hold an Irish Passport before but wished for one post-vote viewed it as a ‘ backup’ rather than an stand with any kind of Irish identity. Which to be honest, I found perplexing. People who would have before,  harshly corrected those who described them as Irish – instead preferring Northern Irish, or indeed British, were all of a sudden fine with holding an Irish Passport when it allowed them the freedoms their own government were keen to take away. A shift yes, but one of convenience.

So how do we approach the legitimacy of this shift? Are those passports petitioners less worthy of EU membership and EU identity than those who have fought for reunification their whole lives? This is the dilemma that divides and devours Northern Ireland. Suddenly, republicans are validated and vindicated in their quest of absorption within Ireland, loyalists sold out to the highest bidder as Brexit threatens the power-sharing agreement and exposes London’s lack of concern for Ulster. As of this week, it’s been 13 months since Northern Ireland did not have a sitting Assembly, with ongoing threats that the region’s budget would be directly voted in from Westminster. Following the resignation and death of deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, the lack of leadership in Northern Ireland is another thorn in Brexit’s side. Coyle continues:

I think the ‘balance’ of power in NI is still as delicate as it has always been. The hope is that the new year would bring further steps to an agreement of power sharing amongst the current parties, for the sake of the people, hoping to, for all intents and purposes, to just keep things on an even keel. However, failing that I think there is a fear that any push from Britain in favour of a particular party over others may kick start events we have long hoped to have left behind.

That push is real: the fear of direct interference – direct rule – would be the spark to reignite the fire of violence that was never that far behind. In many ways, the convenience of which Coyle speaks is an understandable one: if being Irish means no longer being subjected to London’s destructive whims and condescending approach to the peace process, then being Irish is the identity that can save the region as a whole, and not be the divisive affiliation that has underpinned the conflict for several decades. Being Irish is not just about claiming attachment to Dublin, it is being part of a broader, larger, more inclusive entity – the European Union. In a way, it is an avoidance, a way to escape what is perceived as English ineptitude towards the maintenance of Northern Irish institutions and devolved structures. The preservation of the power-sharing agreement, described in the press as a “Good Friday Agreement failure”, is in fact worth fighting for in Northern Ireland. It is disheartening that, a couple of months’ shy of the peace treaty’s twentieth anniversary, it is such dismissive behaviour and speech that characterizes English approach to conflict transition. Kathryn Beirne, a social and care worker in Belfast, explains: 

Some people are having to face the darkness of the dismissiveness of the UK government. When the assembly is running local politicians are the focus and they are usually responsive (positively or negatively they usually aren’t backwards about coming forwards). The UK government has been far less so, no real voted in NI after all. They either treat the particular issues around the border or the Good Friday Agreement as no big deal….or as something someone should have told them about earlier (clearly people did but were ignored). This, I believe is causing some people to think about how much a part of the UK they really are. 
 
The media coverage from rest of UK is often equally disheartening. Brexit really has played out as an English referendum so the media focus is primarily on English parties, English cities, English needs. When it is pointed out that NI (and Scotland) voted to remain, it is quickly said that it was a UK vote so everyone else can go whistle. Even things specific to NI are framed in ‘rest of UK terms’…Even by Remainers. When the rest of UK learned that NI folk would retain the option of EU citizenship through the option of Irish citizenship hit the fan. Remainers cried discrimination and Leavers cried ‘Brexit means Brexit’. No one was for listening that the whole Irish citizenship for Northern Irish folk is nothing new.

It was only this week, before this piece was brought to light, that the ignorance of Northern Irish issues became more of a devastating, crushing blow. It came first with a Guardian editorial describing the Stormont stalemate over the Irish Language Act as a deliberate Irish republican attempt to undermine the peace process and stability, that can, according to the Guardian editorial board, only be found in British identity; and this British identity would apparently be incompatible with the existence of other languages on the island. The de-politicization of the Irish language in Ulster is indeed a sensitive topic, that the EU has attempted to defuse by recognizing Irish as a language of the European Union; to be part of a cultural heritage landscape, a historical reckoning, one that was part of identity not so much as a political symbol but as an individual choice of legacy the way other minority languages are preserved across the continent. This week also saw the opportune and timely Mother Language Day at UNESCO, highlighting that the absorption of minority languages in larger transnational identities for the purpose of convenience did not mean that those languages did not have a cultural significance in the preservation of plurality of identity in the world.

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Because Northern Ireland has characterized and illustrated its Irish identity with the practice of the Irish language, the very fact that it could be open in Northern Irish schools is “weaponized”, to use a term we thought obsolete but was revived in the Guardian editorial, against unionism, against its otherwise predominant symbols in the region, as an instrument of pro-reunification ideology. It must be said: we are not anywhere close the possibility of reunification with the Republic of Ireland, but what we see is a considerable fluidity that is solely attributable to English isolationism from devolved regions. The reality in the North is that learning Irish is no longer a feature of political grandstanding. In East Belfast, an area with a large, historic, predominant Unionist (with a capital U) population, classes have been offered and have found their audience. The possibility that Unionists could still wish to attach their identity to the Crown whilst recognizing they could also be Irish is no longer mutually exclusive. In the words of writer Malachi O’Doherty, who self-describes as a “unionist with a lower case u”, being Irish is not necessarily an issue. One can be Irish and not seek reunification. This end of a dual vision for the future of Northern Ireland, the suppression of a strictly either/or affiliation, appeared threatening, and it started with the Irish Language Act. The DUP, a party that can only be described as an extreme, has spearheaded the rejection of Irish believing that the whole of Ulster would suddenly be absorbed in the Irish identity curriculum and administrative support – including bilingual road signs, god forbid – present in Ireland. It is worth noting the DUP is alone in holding that view.

Language, in fact, should be celebrated as a welcoming, inclusive, expansive and pluralistic approach to identity. Gareth Woods, a translator currently based in Dublin, explains what the learning of minority languages means and how it could in fact play a significant part in the peace process in Northern Ireland:

It is a widely accepted fact that minority languages are in danger of extinction unless given the required care and attention in the form of comprehensive and cooperative language legislation. Following the recent recommendation from the Council of Europe on 7 February 2918, that the UK should introduce legislation to protect the Irish language and the rights of Irish speakers, as well as being listed as “definitely endangered” by UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, it comes as no surprise that the Irish language is one that is dangerously heading toward extinction unless local governments stand up and act on behalf of all citizens. Given that Foras na Gaeilge (FnaG), a cross-border body that promotes the use of the Irish language, is set to bestow Belfast in Co. Antrim and Carntogher in Co. Derry as official “Irish language network” communities as well as strong support from south of the border, it is clear which side is putting more effort into making sure the Irish language isn’t lost forever and which side needs to put bias aside to ensure representation for all communities in the North of Ireland.

But it is not only the ILA. The Good Friday Agreement itself has been under fire after Kate Bradley, the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, reported on the failure of power-sharing talks in the Commons. Suddenly, the peace treaty was attacked for being a failure, and for implementing too many roadblocks between the necessities of Brexit and Northern Ireland’s legal obligations under EU and international law. This criticism did not only come from DUP representatives present in the House. They also came from Labour MP Kate Hoey, in quite virulent terms; from alternative-reality Brexiteer and Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan; outside of the political spectrum, such dangerous views were espoused by academics finding room in the Telegraph. For most of Northern Ireland, which voted in favour of the peace treaty at 71.1% in 1998, this was a direct attack on their newfound way of life, their desire to see a different future for their children. In April, a brand new generation would have come of age under the Good Friday Agreement and never known what life was before John Hume. While the conflict is certainly not over and violence continues to interrupt daily life, it is in no way as intense as it used to be, and the more time Ulster spends away from it, the more accustomed it becomes to sharing civil, political, legal, and educational space. It is completely unfathomable to ask parents to tell their children they might see their stability, however relative, revoked because of the self-defeating attempt of leaving the European Union, a decision Northern Ireland, once again, did not approve.

For Lyra McKee, a freelance journalist based in Belfast and who has extensively reported on legacy cases and victims of the conflict, Brexit has harmed Northern Ireland:

I’ve never felt as furious with Westminster as I did as the day of the results. Northern Ireland did not vote for this – our democratic will is being completely and totally ignored. Our needs, the position it puts us in – all of it was completely ignored by the Tories. For the first time in my life, I was wondering what a United Ireland looked like. A friend of mine, another Catholic, once said to me, “You’ll prise my free healthcare away from my cold dead hands” and I’d agreed with him but the UK looks like a sinking ship right now and I’m afraid we’re going down with it – and we didn’t even vote for Brexit!
Being however tied to Ireland as the only other option is not yet something to contemplate in 2018, and comes with very practical, straightforward issues that Dublin has not addressed and is unlikely to in the coming years:
I feel Nationalist desire for a United Ireland has, until now, been completely oversold by Republicans and completely misread by Unionists. It’s not that they were against one but they were completely apathetic on it. If a United Ireland is Unionism’s worse nightmare, well, Nationalism’s worse nightmare has already happened – a United Kingdom – and the sky has not fallen in on us. We’ve been through the worst – The Troubles (the Unionist community obviously suffered hugely through that too) – but we came out the other end of it. And until recently, we had a decent healthcare system which was free and a welfare system which wasn’t great but a damn sight better than what it is now. (…) Then we have an Executive that continually topples or is on the verge of toppling and the “crocodile” rhetoric from the likes of Arlene Foster – that was the biggest own goal of the decade. All that did was rally the Nationalist vote. Collectively, it all ends up fatiguing both of the main two communities, to the point where they’ve lost faith in the institutions.
Has the Good Friday Agreement failed Northern Ireland, or has it failed to provide the leeway that Brexit needs to circumvent the impact on devolved region? It is undoubtedly the latter. The Good Friday Agreement does and should supersede the political insanity and legal overhaul that Brexit requires; the obligations pending upon London were reviewed before the referendum, and were the topic of research conducted by the Human Rights Commissioner for the Council of Europe. The preservation of the rights and funds afforded to Northern Ireland so the region finds its footing away from an endless cycle of violence remains present as ever, whilst simultaneously continuing to be politically manipulated to achieve ends that have little to do with the region itself. For Northern Ireland, it’s more than just a political bargain: it’s survival.

So what is next for Northern Ireland? From the testimonies provided above it appears that many are seeking an outlet for their voice, the complexity of their individual and collective stories as well as an opportunity to see what the next twenty years may hold under the Good Friday Agreement. The resentment created by a Brexit no one truly wanted and the lack of political representation at home and in Westminster is a textbook breeding ground for instability that the region knows too well. The imagination and creativity of the pro-Brexit crowd with regards to the border and to the Good Friday Agreement – drone patrols, a custom-made customs union, a new treaty – would all require the support of Ireland, but most importantly the consent of the Northern Irish people. In all this rattle and hum about the will of the people, we never hear about what Northern Ireland wants, let alone needs.

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It’s been a really trying year

I saw the date approach in my calendar with a nostalgic reminder of the sense of loss I felt then. A year ago, I had landed back at Heathrow in a rush in the hours before the polls opened all across the then-united Kingdom, queuing with other European citizens in the European passports line, a little uncomfortable with the referendum being held in the first place, but otherwise confident. I walked passed several magazine and newspaper stands on my way out, glanced at issues celebrating an upcoming victory for the far-right: an “independence day”, according to Nigel Farage, “freedom” from an institution few understood as anything else but a regulatory body, and most of all, “control”.

Back in New York, expats and Americans alike kept asking for predictions. Of course, 2016 was the year I was constantly proven wrong: I was firmly convinced Donald Trump, for instance, would never win the Republican nomination. I knew Europe always journeyed through cyclical bursts of far-right approval. I wanted to be receptive to criticism of EU institutions – a pet peeve of mine are references to “the EU”, just like “the UN”, neither being homogenous entities – that I often emitted myself. I had been tested, like many Europhiles, by the Commission’s reaction to the refugee crisis. I had been in opposition to a secretive and adversarial EU Council, that Ian Dunt qualified as “shady”. But it was so painfully obvious to me, from the continent, that the Leave camp as lying, over and over again, that I felt confident the British public knew better. We had spent enough time correcting statements that a Brexit vote would mean a withdrawal from the ECHR for it to be understood.
Of all the things I hate (people calling Bushwick “East Williamsburg”, forgetting the h at the end of my first name, anything written by Alan Dershowitz): being wrong. Needless to say, June 23rd was not a good day.

I work in Strasbourg. It’s not Brussels, but close enough thanks to being another seat of the EU Parliament, that the shockwaves radiated all the way to the Rhine. My colleagues and I were at the office early that day, snacking, nervously drinking coffee and checking our phones. It’s not necessarily a strange scene for people working in counter-terrorism. But this vote was about something else. It was about dismantling something we all believed in, although with different degrees of devotion. We were, are, all Cold War kids, children of Mitterrand and Kohl, great-grandchildren of Verdun, Eurostar frequent passengers, some of us coming of age with the Good Friday Agreement, Erasmus-educated, border-hopping staffers. My reaction to Brexit continues to be bipolar. On one hand, I react to it as a lawyer, interpreting article 50, issuing concerns about the Northern Irish border, attacking the arrogance of a bespoke agreement with Europol. On the other hand, it feels deeply personal. It’s a betrayal of my identity, of one growing up thanks and through the European Project – an idea separate from the European Union, with the end goal being that the two should reconcile through democratic, progressive values, pro-immigration, pro-human rights, pro-workers’ rights, an evolution a political finger to De Gaulle and Thatcher and a legal assertion away from US exceptionalism.

I was given the opportunity to let my heart on my sleeve for the legal commentary blog Opinio Juris about Europe, the European Union, the European project, and the fears the referendum brought to light as a Northern Irish citizen. I still haven’t corrected the typos.

When the result was officially announced, my office fell quiet. Sure, the referendum was not legally binding. Sure, the margin was not significant enough to call it a political mandate. Sure, the question itself was vague enough not to give a time frame for withdrawal or how exactly the UK will divorce from the rest of us. There was barely time to grieve, really. Jean-Claude Juncker became aggressive, Donald Tusk chose the bleeding heart route, and all around me, lawyers were suddenly dragged in the spotlight, a place where we feel either really comfortable or really uncomfortable, having to respond to questions for which there was never supposed to be an answer at all. If anything, to me, the UK had entered a historic phase: as a long-time partner in the creation and construction of what would later become the European Union, a major player in its most destructive wars, and an unparalleled ally in security, seeing the island decide to float away on its own in the choppy, freezing waters in the North Sea and taking Northern Ireland with it was impossible to fathom. It wasn’t “control”. It was the sort of “freedom” that one can only achieve when they jump off a bridge, for a split second suspended outside of the laws of gravity, but inevitably about to hit the ground in free fall.

As lawyers, we then had to find a way out, a legal answer to a political question. Immediately, what came to mind was a simple truth, a statement of fact: it was not legally binding, so why do anything? But David Cameron had resigned, and “mandate” and “will of the people” became such imposing terms we outlined Article 50 for everyone else. Article 50 says nothing. It provides a time frame. I started writing a few paragraphs everyday, a mock-diary of post-referendum news coverage, that I titled “Weimar Britain”. Every morning, I would call the hour in GMT, list a few highlights of the absurd positions taken by Theresa May or Michael Gove the day before, mention if Juncker or Barnier had gone for a round of golf, and finish with the weather forecast, the last sentence being, “the UK is still in the European Union”. I did that for a few months, the ritual becoming quite popular in my circles, so convinced I was that Article 50 would never be triggered. It just was inconceivable to me. Repealing every EU provision in British common law? Alienating the country from security agreements at a time of heightened security threats? What was that constant logorrhea about a sovereignty that was never questioned nor eroded in the first place? Everything was baffling, incorrect at best, surreal most of the time. And then I was told, in December if I remember correctly, by a certain British journalist, that I was delusional if I believed Article 50 would never be triggered. A few months later, he was proven right, and I was once again proven wrong.

The otherwise excellent Remainiacs podcast, started a few weeks ago, used the term “trauma” to refer to the feeling many experienced in the aftermath of the referendum. I won’t use the term, because my field of work reserves it for a different type of experience. I will continue to say what I feel is loss: a sense of unity, that was never there in terms of EU-wide political consensus; a sense of togetherness, certainly not correct considering how many opt-outs the UK placed on many EU treaties; a sense of belonging, that never extended to many immigrants much like my parents. The European project remains an idea, but it is an idea I firmly believe can translate if we empower the Parliament to oppose the Commission more and if, really, the Council conducts its work in a less shady manner. The role of EU Courts, so often maligned by UK politicians, is paramount. Brexit will not affect the UK’s membership of the Council of Europe, and the country remains part of the ECHR, at least for now. But the days are numbered: leaving the EU was never about renegotiating trade agreements or “taking control” of agricultural regulations. It was about shutting down immigration, about refusing to implement ECJ rulings on civil liberties, about the immaturity and irresponsibility of removing one state from transnational regulations that provide for medical progress and housing safety, among other things. It was a vote not based on concern for the lack of reform in the EU: it was about misplaced and misunderstood British identity, that was placed as superior to other states, and perfectly capable of raising the flag of the Empire after centuries of outward progress.

It’s been a year. It’s been a year of we, in Belfast, Derry, Newry, Enniskillen, having to remind everyone that our region has always been fragile and precarious, that our peace process was ongoing and needed attention. It’s been a year of sharing and re-issuing reports compiled by EU officials on the dire effects of a EU withdrawal on devolved administrations. It’s been a year of my colleagues publishing paper after opinion on the impact of Brexit on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Mostly, it’s been a year of reading about the fear, anxiety, and panic at the prospect of the border being raised. Typing this, I found myself capitalizing the word – Border – out of habit. It’s not just any border; it’s a border that symbolized a civil war. It’s a fault line I had known my entire life and that I still shudder, even if it is now disembodied, whenever I ride what is now a commuter train between Dublin and Belfast. It’s a border we were told we were never going to see again, one that Theresa May apparently just found out about, one that Secretary of State James Brokenshire discusses to provide assurances of our safety but without the necessary presence or authority required by the position of neutrality the UK is supposed to hold. There is nothing neutral about Brexit and its complete lack of interest in Northern Ireland. And so, we are entering our sixth month without a government or a Speaker of the Assembly; Dublin finds itself having to be a buffer between London and Brussels while being the key player on the chessboard, without its consent, without it having a say in the referendum being carried out in the first place. Northern Ireland voted to stay, because, as I wrote at the time, it is survival for most of us. It is for many others across the Union.

It’s been a year and I’m swimming against the tide of colleagues and friends leaving the UK to head to the continent, where their legal status is ensured, where they will not be asked for a visa and where their children can stay with their parents: I am moving to London. As I flew back to Europe a few days ago, once again from New York, but this time into Switzerland, I realized my biggest privilege wasn’t the most obvious necessarily. It wasn’t my education that the EU subsidized. It wasn’t my safety from war that the EU launched and protected. It wasn’t my health coverage that the EU ensured and funded. It is my freedom of movement. It’s the two passports – I am a citizen of nowhere – I hold, two EU citizenships, two possibilities of fast-tracking at airports, two possibilities of visa waivers. One is a Schengen nationality, the other is a Common Travel Area one. European citizens are trading this freedom at quite a cost: first the Schengen Information System (SIS II) database, and the Passenger Name Record (PNR) agreement with the US. Those will need work, reform, scrutiny, checks. We have a Parliament, we have Courts. UK citizens may lose their freedom of movement. They may be restricted, suspended, will have to re-negotiate. Education, family life, work, internships, travel, tourism, experience, all of this is dangling off the edge of a cliff.

It’s been one year. Imagine. One year, and no answer.

Eleanor Rigby: who has the “right authority” in Northern Ireland?

In its continuous and Sisyphean effort to overcome sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, the Stormont created a commission investigating parades and their importance to local cultural and social life. It appointed Theresa Villiers, Secretary of State, to not only make the decisions as to which parades – loyalist and nationalist combined – were to pass through Northern Irish streets, taking into account local sensitivities and safety concerns. Which is to say, essentially, that Theresa Villiers has been appointed to single-handedly fix the public representation of the northern Irish post-conflict divide in one fell swoop at the head of one commission. I would not want to be Theresa Villiers right now. Dominating news both local and national as a person struggling to find balance and sacrificing her personal life, people seem to forget that Villiers’ job is not an issue of public circulation. It’s an issue of deciding the future of Northern Ireland. It’s terribly unfair and frankly sad to see a woman being empowered with such a daunting and historically-loaded task, while being virtually lapidated for not being immediately successful – or worse, for even being there in the first place. A few things need to be said about Villiers and about her role.

The Parade Commission is more than necessary, no matter how many people feel threatened by its creation.

Parades are an integral part of life in Northern Ireland. They are celebrations, commemorations, anniversaries. That they are to be investigated by an executive body and perhaps halted, suspended or even cancelled is a daunting prospect for community leaders. It means effectively ridding their neighborhood of their annual or bi annual festivities, that they have held in the region for centuries. The Parade Commission is precisely attempting to find the fault line between celebration of what is essentially social identity – but also political identity. There is nothing about any individual placement in Northern Ireland within a certain community that does not hold political bearings. Because those parades are doing just that – parading, which means putting on display for all to see – those political beliefs, it is absolutely important to maintain the peace and safety not only of those parading, but also by those in the communities affected. The nature of most Northern Irish cities – a few blocks held together by zip codes and two way streets, but separated by confession and affiliation – means that the trajectory of the parade is paramount to ensuring stability.

Interface zones, however, can claim belonging to either affiliation, and refuse to be taken hostage by one or the other. And instead of staying away from interface zones, parades insist on walking down those streets and alleys – like Crumlin Road – in an act of defiance that has been characterized as a “culture war”, also known in clear language as “political provocation”. The nature of political identity in Northern Ireland is so not clearly established and left to the two domineering parties, Sinn Fein and DUP, extremes in their own rights, governing over their constituents like democracy and home rule were merely pawns to their game of legitimacy and political bullying. 15 years after the peace agreement, and 8 years after the official IRA ceasefire, this endless and violent game of chess is played during Parade season, from April to October, in a relentless display of either victimization or alleged, self-absorbed superiority. Both narratives are so ensconced in their own beliefs that the very idea of togetherness and respect of someone else’s affiliation is not a possibility; parading means existing, and essence preceded the existence, therefore parading is only the pragmatic, physical embodiment of the idea that gives community leaders a reason to get up in the morning and survey their meek kingdom safe in the fact that neither Dublin nor London will ever intervene again (… but maybe the United States will.)

But political legitimacy through democratic process must be restored. The Parade Commission and in extenso Theresa Villiers must find a way to speak louder than Orangemen flying Union Jacks over the separation wall in Ardoyne; louder than former IRA members commemorating bombers – and not their victims – in Castlederg. And it’s not about screaming or slamming their fists or burning a bigger fire on the Twelfth; it’s about both communities realizing that there is an authority superior to that of their quarrel, which is democratically elected representatives in Stormont. The Parade Commission is the supervising, overseeing institution that must be able to take up action when foreseeing conflict or, sadly, in the wake of a five-days long riot.

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This is not “cultural war”. This is just another expression of conflict.

The displacement of the fight over a different platform. The language is the same, the actors are the same, and the territory is also the same, isolating even further those wishing to finally transition from a conflict that will never, ever end if we give it any legitimacy superior to that of the Home Rule it took Northern Ireland so long to achieve. It’s not about mourning the complete independence Eire was never going to grant the five counties; it’s not about desperately grasping the last fine threads linking this morsel of a tiny island to the burning ashes of an empire. But the blond lead the blind, and belonging to entities that no longer exist or are out of reach is better than not belonging at all, and be nobody’s child. And we fight again, resurrecting the ghosts of the Battle of the Boyne and fondly remembering the dull sound of exploded devices in 1973. Northern Ireland is populated by one million people, and twice as many ghosts, haunting the streets and creeping through every orange banner and Gaelic declaration.

As such, the Parade Commission is more than simply regulating pathways and costumes and allowing banners and symbols. It is about deciding whether said symbols and myths are worth destroying property and infusing inhabitants with the overpowering threat of violence as soon as July is around the corner. There is more fear in what may come that what actually takes place anymore; and this threat is ever present, to the point of stopping Belfast’s Lord Mayor from visiting his own park. This generation knows that IRA or UVF threats can still be carried once called, and remembers grimly the aftermaths. So does my generation. And, perhaps, still, the generation coming next. The Parade Commission, in its ever present role, is actually one truth commission in its own right: is it safe yet to express one’s identity in Northern Ireland? From 1998 on, we are still new. We are still hesitating, in the dark, our eyes barely open. And we can only construct our identity in opposition to someone else’s. Once we run out of stones to throw at windows on Woodvale Road, we turn against Villiers, demeaning her position, calling her back from leave after the loss of a close one, and delegitimize her work. It is important for community leaders to constantly remind the population that the authority does not reside in pawns in the Stormont, that they can easily defeat, through simply interrupting Villiers’ work or even resorting to physical violence against elected officials. Parades are a display of identity. Parades are what comes first before the legion arrives as reclaim what is historically theirs to claim: Sinn Fein in its West Belfast fortress, DUP / UVF across the river after Short Strand, UDA all over Shore Road up until Carrickfergus. None expand; but all maintain position and defeat anyone daring to believe Belfast is a homogeneous entity that ought to be governed as one. Bombs are defused and dismantled at least twice a week; they don’t explode as much. But the violence that resides in belittling the democratic process is still there.

What is striking however is how alone Theresa Villiers is.

She is not backed by staff or any other MLA in Stormont. She, herself, must find a way out among the cacophony of disastrous Orange events victimizing themselves in the face of an ever so ephemeral republican menace, or facing a stern but solid IRA / Sinn Fein silence that just won’t budge. She alone is tasked to decide how Northern Ireland will exist and perform its ancient rites in the respect of the law. It is clear that it won’t happen, and it is clear she can not do it herself. Unless Theresa Villiers is backed by community mediators that will have access to community leaders and act as an effective and efficient diplomatic liaison between, say, Ardoyne and the Stormont, the political branch of armed forces will still govern and decide of the life of Belfast inhabitants, from their bus routes to where their children attend school. Home Rule was supposed to stop the cacophony of paramilitary supervision, on one side defending the “oppressed” on the other backing up the “loyalists”. The Parade Commission governs over all of Belfast, from the Black Mountains to Bangor. It governs all of Derry, from the top of the Bogside to the Foyle riverbanks. It has authority over Portadown and Ballymena the way it does Castlederg. Home Rule and a peace agreement meant that we would agree, collectively, decide that Stormont would be where cultural issues would be discussed. That was the day Northern Ireland had the opportunity to emerge as “we” as opposed to a “us vs them”. Northern Ireland is alone. Northern Ireland needs to stop tearing at itself.

UTV captioned this image “PSNI fatigued by public disorder”. Belfast riots, 2013

If Theresa Villiers is indeed unable to stop the IRA parade in Castlederg, despite a pretty wide-ranging call to hold the so-called festivities, maybe it is time to publicly acknowledge that the Stormont has failed to create and impose its political legitimacy upon Ulster. It has failed to raise its voice against those screaming for violence and heeding the call in the name of an oppressed ancestry. There are other ways to commemorate and remember. In the last few weeks calls for public and judicial inquiries into murders committed at the beginning of the Troubles – spanning 1973 – 1976 for now – have created the possibility of more truth and reconciliation than the simple Bloody Sunday Inquiry, which in itself was a major piece of data gathering, testimonial, witnesses hearings, with the Damocles sword of collusion heading over everyone’s head. Northern Ireland is pressing the fast forward button. If every transitional society goes through a phase of a dim, seemingly stable lull during which no conflict is exploding but no progress is made, 2013 will be the year when Ulster will rise from its judicial slumber an address the underlying issues of political identity across the board. There is a willingness, on the part of victims’ families, not to necessarily place a blame, but to at least know what happened to their loved ones, and what role they played in a war that has plagued the western European continent for centuries.

Home Rule was the promise to have a political identity that would not be color-coded, that would not have its own specific language, that would not have to be confined on either side of the Peace Line. It was supposed to be a Parliament for each and every citizen with the full weight of their civil right under domestic, european and international law. It was the idea that Northern  Ireland did not have to be ruled according to fiefdoms, exist through the mere prism of violence, and express itself in a rhetoric that would be inclusive, not divisive. As I wrote before, the Shared Future Agreement has been shoved down our throats, and it was too much, too fast, too soon. The blossoming number of inquiries in the last few months, from Kingsmills to Omagh, proves that the victims of the conflict may be ready to place their future in the hands of an institution that is not local, military-funded or geographically located, but belonging to all of those in Northern Ireland. It was finally ready not to investigate murders, disappearances and blasts through vigilantism but through judicial and lawful means. It is hope. It is the maturity we may have finally acquired.

If Parades can not be anything more than commemorating a long lost history belonging to a distant past that no longer hurts anyone, then there will be no need for a Commission, for the bullying of Theresa Villiers, or for a sterile conversation constantly hitting a wall or repeating itself like a skipped disc. There will forever be a question of tit-for-tat; if Parade A is allowed, counter-Parade B shall not be outlawed, and will not tolerate any regulation of its usual path. If Parade B is asked to step down, Parade A will gloat over its supposed supremacy and therefore “cultural” authority over Parade B. There is always a parade and a counter parade for as long as Parades have been the drum-marching band rhythm of Belfast and surrounding cities; there has always been a streak of mindless and reckless sectarian violence in its forebearance and in its wake. Paraders must either submit to the Parade Commission in its sometimes awkward attempt to guide political sensitivities, or simply accept to suspend their existence until an agreement is fully reached between community leaders.

Shining city on a hill: Stormont Castle, Belfast

Who has the “right authority” in Northern Ireland?

If the government does not – or is “not capable” – to decide what IRA former-or-not members will feel like doing on their turf, aren’t we retreating back to the pre-ceasefire days? Wasn’t the point of a peace agreement to create an entity that would supersede territorial fatalities in order to promote inclusion and equality? Nominating someone else in lieu of Theresa Villiers is meaningless; she is not the problem, she just tried to be a part of the solution. Getting rid of the Parade Commission will simply be another detour on the sharply edged road to conflict resolution. Reconciliation is nowhere near if we can not even agree on the simple fact that no political identity is more legitimate in its existence than another, and that no political entity is within its right to inflict childish provocation over another. We talk about governance while separation walls are still erected.

Either we empower Theresa Villiers and accept to submit to her decisions, while still allowing democracy to flourish through constructive criticism and peaceful submission of new ideas, or we simply accept that Home Rule has failed, and governing Northern Ireland is just as hard as trying to make an orange tree bloom on its soil.