Troubled times in Northern Ireland

The Belfast agreement was signed 14 years ago, but century-old resentments remain

Troubled times

Charles McQuillan/Pacemaker

A hundred years ago this week, half a million men and women in Belfast filed into City Hall to sign the Ulster Covenant: an official petition against “Home Rule”—a move toward a self-governing Northern Ireland, independent of Mother England. Enraged loyalists—convinced that Home Rule “would be disastrous”—gathered to defend their “cherished position” in his gracious majesty’s United Kingdom.

This Saturday, thousands of modern-day loyalists will take to Belfast’s crumbling main streets, to commemorate a battle won. Their republican neighbours—who would have rather seen Home Rule carried through a century ago—are already steeling themselves. The capital city is quiet now, but this past summer it hosted a string of ugly demonstrations that saw bricks, bombs and bullets exchanged across sectarian lines—and young riot officers turn water cannons against civilian crowds. With the memory of Northern Ireland’s bloody “Troubles” still fresh, Belfast residents are counting down to the big anniversary with practised wariness.

“There will be trouble. Oh, there’ll be trouble,” said John O’Neill, a sprightly taxi driver, on a recent drive through central Belfast. “There’s no killing here, no bones anymore. But when you scratch the surface, this place is a sectarian home. And it always will be.”

That notion—that the country’s Troubles have not quite passed—is hard to get away from here. Though almost 15 years have passed since the last ceasefire agreements were signed, Northern Ireland’s peace remains an uneasy one. Geographically, Belfast is even more segregated than it was in the 1960s. Woven through the city’s patchwork of religious enclaves are almost 100 “peace walls”: hulking stone barriers that separate Protestant and Catholic neighbourhoods. Over 90 per cent of public housing is segregated, and the vast majority of Northern Irish children are educated in segregated schools, leading some academics to speak of a self-imposed national “apartheid.” As Northern Ireland sinks deep into recession, its government spends over $2 billion annually on duplicate social services—one system for Protestants, one for Catholics.

The concern now is that Sept. 29 will be a flashpoint, with partisan history and religious folklore pushing existing divisions to the brink. But whether Saturday’s events come to violence or not, this tense preparation begs for a re-evaluation of the celebrated 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which, according to the prevailing narrative, brought peace to stormy Northern Ireland.

In the late 1960s, violence broke out in Northern Ireland, pitting loyalists (mostly Protestants) against republicans (mostly Catholics), who wanted independence. Each side armed itself with political parties and appendage paramilitary forces, and the killings began. By the 1970s, Belfast was barricaded and urban bombings were quotidian.

Fighting continued for three decades until finally, in 1998, the Belfast Agreement (or, Good Friday Agreement) was signed. Northern Ireland would remain part of the U.K., but with a restored parliament drawing from both loyalist and republican parties. Good Friday was hailed as a diplomatic grand slam: a gold star on then U.S. president Bill Clinton’s foreign policy record.

But recent events suggest that the aftermath is more of a fragile calm than a bona fide peace. On July 12, at the annual protest of the Orange Order—a Masonic-style Protestant fraternity named after William of Orange—a loyalist band played a sectarian tune while walking by St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. The Famine Song—set to the tune of Sloop John B, but with lyrics poking fun at the 1840s Irish famine—outraged Catholics, who demonstrated in the northern Ardoyne district. Brawls followed—severe enough to draw police in flame-retardant suits and riot shields. Rioters reportedly hijacked cars and tossed Molotov cocktails. Officers fired back with plastic bullets. In a capital city. In peacetime.

There were more disturbances in August, and three successive nights of trouble earlier this month, which saw about 60 police officers injured. Even on the extreme scale of Northern Irish violence, “it’s pretty serious stuff,” says professor Dominic Bryan, of the Irish studies department at Queen’s University Belfast.

The Protestant Orange Order has promised not to play sectarian tunes next time around. But the group refuses to meet with Ardoyne’s Catholic residents, who are planning to protest the Protestant parade. And Conor Maskey, of the republican Sinn Fein, told Maclean’s that his party won’t stand down until that meeting happens.

Maskey, a 34-year-old city councillor with a baby face and blue jeans, is still hoping the two sides will come to an agreement. “But if a deal isn’t reached, I will of course worry,” he said recently. “[Northern Ireland’s] peace has been built for over 18 years, and you have people who want to use the 29th to throw a spanner in the works.”

Riots aside, today’s Belfast is a new beast. Gone are the barbed-wire fences and guarded security checkpoints that gave the place the air of a military base in the 1980s. The working-class city is crowded with budget grocery stores, wee restaurants offering cheap sausage frys and crusty bacon baps, cute-enough cafés and colossal pubs. In between commercial and residential districts are great stretches of drab urban nothingness.

Still, Belfast bears a constant, relentless homage to its recent past. Along the central drags, graffiti scribblings and three-storey murals with slogans like “My Ulster blood is my most priceless heritage” make clear which group reigns (demographically). In Catholic neighbourhoods, Irish tricolour flags flutter over doorsteps. In Protestant areas, Union Jacks stream out from storefront windows.

Another sign of this new Belfast? The existence of thousands of sectarian parades that go off every year week, the vast majority peaceful. Queen’s University’s professor Bryan estimates that there are over 3,500 parades each year, some drawing upwards of 6,000 participants, with thousands more on the sidelines. Annually, less than 150 prove “contentious.”

Parades are an important part of Protestant culture, insists Henry Reilly, chairman of the small U.K. Independence Party and a 30-year member of the Orange Order. “But it’s a very misunderstood culture.” Most parades are not political hotbeds, he says, but rather, elaborate band competitions. Marching bands compete for medals, doled out for best performance or even “the most well-pressed uniform.” Generally, parade days in Belfast are less like 1990s Sarajevo, and more like 2000’s cheerleader-themed blockbuster Bring It On, substituting teenage girls with pompoms for big-bellied Irishmen with flutes, drumsticks and decorative sashes. To the outside observer, it is perhaps most surprising that, week in and week out, these great spectacles of sectarian spirit happen at all.

Despite this perpetual parade, individual events can quickly turn political, particularly when they involve Protestant bands marching in Catholic areas. Hence the Parades Commission, a quasi-judicial, independent body set up in 1998 to oversee parades and mediate disputes. Today’s commission has a tough job. There is a belief among Catholics, expressed recently by a large residents’ group, that Protestants “use culture as an excuse to mask and impose their outdated and obsolete triumphalism upon our community.” At the same time, there is a growing perception among Protestants that authorities crack down hardest on their parades.

On a recent Thursday, Conservative member of parliament party representative Trevor Ringland, a former Rugby World Cup winger, sat in his downtown Belfast office, quietly discussing the failure of his country, since 1998, to buy into “the idea of genuinely sharing our society.” The sturdily built unionist believes that there is still no “identity of Northern Irishness”; there are only exclusive notions of Protestant Britishness and Catholic Irishness.

Schooling is a clear case in point. According to Noreen Campbell, CEO of the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education, only seven per cent of the country’s children are educated in officially integrated schools, with Catholics attending Church-owned Catholic schools, and Protestants attending state schools which, by exclusion, are majority Protestant.

The same holds true for housing. During the Troubles, segregation was expected; residents fled to where they felt safest, amongst their own. According to Belfast’s city council website, however, “polarization is rising, with an increasing number of people living in segregated areas.”

In Belfast, those unfittingly titled “peace walls,” built strong and many metres high, have actually increased since 2006. Alistair Cheyne, a former stonemason who now operates a small tour company, says he helped build five of them—though he now thinks they should be torn down. They attract tourists, scoffs Cheyne; people come from far and wide to gape at “the walls, the murals, the slums.”

But the dividing lines are deepest outside the city centre in the imposing castle that houses Northern Ireland’s Parliament. The country runs as a diarchy, with two top ministers: one elected by unionists and the other by republicans. There are some non-aligned parties, known officially as “Others,” but they have no say in electing the top two ministers. The system is self-sustaining.

Chris Lyttle is a member of Parliament from one of the “Other” parties: the Alliance Party. The savvy thirty-something who studied public policy at Harvard University says it isn’t easy working outside the unionist-republican framework. Lyttle sat on a working group aimed at devising a national “cohesion, sharing and integration strategy.” But his party pulled out of the raucous discussions because the main parties, he says, “were not serious about producing a strategy that would produce fundamental change in Northern Ireland around the issue of these divisions.”

Amidst all this, some have given up on politics. “Fifteen years ago,” jeered the taxi driver John O’Neill, turning down a main street, “our ministers were the leaders of paramilitaries. People think that because they put a suit on, things have changed. This country is a joke.” O’Neill says he stopped voting long ago.

Recently, official delegations were sent to Belfast from two famously divided lands: Colombia and Basque Country. Northern Ireland conceivably has lessons to offer—on how to overcome historical rupture—and Colombian and Basque officials are eager pupils. “The thing that struck me” about the visits, says Lyttle, “is that despite all the parties being willing and eager to meet the foreign delegations, we have yet to properly reflect on what lessons we have learned here in Northern Ireland.”

What seems clear is that this recent flurry around Protestant parades—the marching and chanting, the accusations of “triumphalism,” the petrol bombs and water cannons—is not about parading at all. “These disputes,” says professor Dominic Bryan, “become a real microcosm of the larger conflict.” Catholics say their community is being intimidated. Protestants say their culture is under attack. Bryan is skeptical. “The unionists say, ‘We’re having our culture restricted.’ But anyone from the outside would look at how many parades they do and go, ‘holy f–k!’ ”

Nevertheless, Sept. 29 looms large.

The Conservatives’ Trevor Ringland is pretty sure the situation will be smoothed over by Saturday, but still he worries. “If someone is killed in those riots, it could rekindle old flames . . . I would call this the dirty, rotten, stinking, morally bereft peace process,” he sighs. Then adds, with just an iota of pride: “But it’s our peace process.”