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.


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.