Peace in Northern Ireland has got to mean something more than ‘business as usual’
Last Sunday hundreds joined a peace vigil at the Belfast City Hall calling for an end to the violence engineered in response to the city council’s decision to fly the Union flag on designated days only.
Now, I’ve been on a lot of peace demonstrations in my time but I couldn’t be arsed going to this one. These days Northern Ireland politics bores and exasperates me in equal measures, and the row over the Union flag and the response of the peace demonstrators are perfect examples of why this is the case.
The whole flags dispute looks to me to have been manufactured for sectarian advantage. After all, designated flag days have been uncontroversial with regards to other public buildings: why not Belfast?
What would have been wrong with unionists accepting the Alliance Party’s compromise of flying the flags on designated days? They are happy enough with this arrangement elsewhere. Come to think of it, why did nationalists propose taking the Union flag down altogether in the first place?
In truth, flags is the sort of issue that Northern Ireland’s political mafia of the mediocre can confidently apply themselves to, because they’re fuck all use when it comes to the big social and economic issues.
Political correspondents can offer whatever complex, smart-arse analysis of the situation gets them paid by their newspaper or broadcaster, but the simple truth is that sectarian parties, produce sectarian politics, produces sectarian conflict sometime or other. It’s not fucking rocket science.
No doubt the unionist leaflet distributed in Belfast that singled out the Alliance Party for special attention is part of the DUP campaign to regain the east Belfast seat it lost to Naomi Long at the last Westminster election. But events have quickly spiraled out of mainstream unionism’s control, an indication perhaps of just how out of touch the two main parties are with grassroots loyalism.
But I wonder how ‘in-touch’ any of Northern Ireland’s governing coalition are with people on the ground anymore, and in particular their working class constituents. They’ve been asking many of them to survive on optimistic forecasts of a better Northern Ireland to come for a long time now. But the peace dividend that our political class once confidently pointed to as a reward for good behaviour has gone. It evaporated in the face of a capitalist inspired economic calamity. Now communities are confronted with crushing austerity: an issue to which none of the parties speak with any integrity or authority.
Many of the young loyalists on the streets and being arrested won’t remember the ‘troubles’. They don’t know what fire they’re playing with when they engage in violent protest. But equally important is the fact that they belong to a generation emerging into a world of shit jobs, low pay, cuts in education, welfare and health care. True, none of them have ever thrown a stone in anger at the dismantling of Britain’s greatest institution, the NHS, but who has?
In Belfast the politics and language of class is under-used and less understood. But what people do have recourse to in that city is sectarianism as a long-standing way to voice and demonstrate their frustrations and alienation.
If this was London or Manchester or Liverpool, and working class youths were involved in such public disorder, you can be sure that there would be some commentators highlighting issues of joblessness, poverty and the lack of opportunity. Of course, they may have had to struggle to be heard over the predictable chorus of condemnation that is routine when the state is confronted with trouble on the streets. Nevertheless someone in the media would be taking seriously questions about social, political and economic exclusion. But because this is Northern Ireland the debate is confined to one about bigotry. And that in itself just reproduces the centrality of sectarian discourses in Northern Ireland political life.
Bigotry is without question a problem. I’d go as far to say that some of the behaviour has been fascistic. And at one demonstration in Ballyclare, a prominent banner read: ‘Democracy isn’t working’, which suggests that some loyalists protestors are happy to propose an Arab Spring in reverse.
But it is not just loyalist demonstrators that are despairing of democracy. The Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce (BCTC) has expressed its disappointment that the vote on the flying of the Union flag was taken so close to Christmas, a time of the year eagerly awaited by retailers. The predictable disruption in the city is eating into profits, they say. Couldn’t the vote on the Union flag been postponed to a more opportune time? Damn that pesky democratic process and the trouble that arises out it. It’s just so commercially inconvenient. At least Greece and Italy have set a fine example of how to deal with democracy when it just isn’t working for the markets – suspend it.
Meanwhile, there are now more Union flags flying in Northern Ireland than at anytime since the Twelfth and unionists want to open a debate up about the flying of the flag over Stormont, an issue that we all thought was settled a decade ago. Mike Nesbitt, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, points out that the Union flag tends to be raised on days associated with royal occasions, such as royal birthdays. And he worries that with the death of a few royals the number of designated days has dropped and so Northern Ireland looks and feels a little less British. Relax, Mike. The hereditary principle means that no matter how many royals expire, there’ll be more coming along behind them. Why, the Duchess of Cornwall is pregnant at the moment and there is speculation that it might be twins. Hurrah, two Union flags flown together above Stormont on at least one new designated day!
Now the main unionist parties are proposing a Unionist forum where loyal Ulster folk can talk about and progress their attachment to immaterial symbols of Britishness. It’s so easy to mock this initiative (I’ll resist the temptation here) but what of nationalists? How are their plans to remove symbols of British influence from Northern Ireland working out?
There are more Union flags, massive disruption, more political controversy over the issue, commerce moaning because its beloved Northern Ireland ‘brand’ has been sullied and unionism has at last found an issue around which it can unite. Well done, lads. Fucking ace strategy.
Which brings me to the peace demonstrators in Belfast on Sunday.
Look, I hate to sound tired and cynical, but they’re just not helping. For a start, what the fuck do they want? Everybody wants peace. Ask the most belligerent bigot and he or she will tell you that they want to live in peace. But peace cannot be founded on the mere absence of physical conflict. That might be a start but it’s not a sustainable end in Northern Ireland. Peace has to have a quality. It has to be a particular type of peace.
The anger and resentment in working class loyalist areas has to be addressed. Their disenfranchisement needs to be taken seriously, no matter how ugly its articulation. And least we forget that republicans have their own dissidents.
In the face of these challenges, calling for peace in the name of ‘business as usual’ is just futile. Worse than that its a dereliction of democratic and political responsibility.
The problems in contemporary Northern Ireland are not new. In 1998 most of us voted for peace but there was never an honest debate about the quality of that peace. And that’s a debate that isn’t just about how we get Prods and Taigs to love each other a little. It’s a debate that has to be about class and redistribution as well as communal recognition. It has to be about gender, race and sexuality. That’s the debate that we need to have now before it’s too late.