The grievances of Northern Ireland are flaring up again. This time Protestant fears are at the heart of itby David McKittrick / December 12, 2013 / Leave a comment
Loyalist protesters attack police lines on the Albertbridge Road in Belfast during an Orange Order parade on 12th July © Andrew Chittock/Demotix/Corbis
Much of the world assumes that Northern Ireland is a triumphant example of a conflict successfully resolved. Tony Blair, and British diplomats more generally, have certainly been happy to accept the plaudits for bringing an apparent end to decades of violence which had left more than 3,700 dead and marred Britain’s standing as a modern liberal democracy. It was a shock then, in July this year, when a Protestant loyalist who had climbed onto a police van during a tumultuous street protest, was seen being blasted off his feet by water cannon, flying spread-eagled through the air above the heads of the crowd. The image was broadcast around the world.
Over the past year, Belfast has witnessed many scenes like this—petrol bombs, attacks on police which have left hundreds of officers injured, dozens of men and youths arrested and imprisoned. Everyone thought it was all over—isn’t it? The answer is no, not entirely. True, this is not a return to the Troubles of the 1970s; the weapons have been bricks, not car bombs and bullets. We are a long way from the heyday of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which dreamed of forcing Britain out of the north by a campaign of violence in its quest for a united Ireland. The few remaining republican men of violence who favour such tactics have little public support now, and less impact. But the province is increasingly troubled, and now it is Protestant “loyalists” or “unionists” (“loyal” to the United Kingdom and fiercely committed to keeping Northern Ireland part of that union) who are provoking most of the unrest.
Alarm at the rising tension has grown to such an extent that Protestant and Catholic politicians have called in Richard Haass, a senior American diplomat who was once US special envoy for Northern Ireland. Haass, who began his work in November, reports that Americans are surprised to learn of his task, assuming that the situation in Northern Ireland has been resolved. “The news of the violence over the last six to nine months comes as a surprise, to be honest,” he says. “An unwelcome surprise at that.”
Haass’s task is to persuade working-class Protestants that there are better places to air their grievances than on the streets. But more than that, he needs to answer the fears of Protestants, once the commanding majority in the province, about what will happen if—or when—there is a Catholic majority.
Northern Ireland is still a place where whether you are Protestant or Catholic matters, more than almost any other characteristic. Most Protestants regard themselves as British, while most Catholics think of themselves as Irish, and nationalist or republican. However, Northern Ireland recently slid past a crucial milestone: in 2012, Protestants ceased to be a majority and now form just 48 per cent of the population. The demographic tide is moving against them. They worry that Catholics will increasingly hold the levers of power. Their nightmare is that a Catholic majority might one day opt out of the UK and forge a united Ireland.
No one disputes that Northern Ireland has been transformed since the Troubles. In 1972 alone, there were over 10,000 shooting incidents involving the IRA, extreme Protestant loyalists and the British Army, which then had more than 30,000 soldiers in the province. Belfast, a small city lying in a picturesque bowl of hills with a population of just 275,000, used to be described as one of the most dangerous places on Earth. It experienced almost half of all the killings that took place between 1969, when troops were first deployed on the streets of Northern Ireland, and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 that brought the Troubles to an end.
That agreement, engineered by Tony Blair, and overwhelmingly approved in referendums in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, was a historic turning point, and is now cited around the world as a model for ending conflict. It returned devolved government to Northern Ireland (after years of “direct rule” from Westminster) under a power-sharing agreement between Catholic nationalist and Protestant unionist parties. It also made provision for the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons and, controversially, included a scheme for the early release from prison of hundreds of convicted Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries.
Since then, scenes long regarded as unthinkable have become ordinary. In May 2007, the Reverend Ian Paisley, the firebrand preacher and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), became First Minister in the new devolved government alongside Sinn Fein, which he once denounced as a political front for the IRA. His senior partner in government was Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, who had admitted to being a former commander of the IRA. To general amazement, the pair became not only colleagues but friends. Last year, McGuiness even shook hands with the Queen when she visited Belfast—an event justifiably greeted as historic.
Now McGuinness and Peter Robinson, who succeeded Paisley both as leader of the DUP and First Minister, regularly visit the United States to see potential investors. Sinn Fein and the DUP dominate a five-party coalition which has held together since 2007. The rate of partisan killing has dropped dramatically, too. Eighteen people have been murdered in the past six years apparently for partisan causes. In the worst of times, more people often died in a single day.
But if these are not the worst of times, they are not the best either. For example, the recent suggestion by Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin QC that no more inquests or inquiries should be opened into deaths before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement brought a flood of protest from affronted campaigners. And Robinson and McGuinness were moved to call in Richard Haass because of the growing scale of the riots, the increased bitterness of community relations and threats to the fledgling political system.
Compared to the 1970s, unrest on the Catholic side is at a low ebb. Both Sinn Fein and more moderate nationalists have their concerns. And violent “dissident” republican splinter groups, which give themselves flattering names such as the “Real or “Continuity” IRA, still lurk in some Catholic areas, occasionally shooting and bombing and trying to kill police. But public support for them is minimal. Almost everyone agrees with MI5 chief Andrew Parker’s description of them as “ragged remnants of a bygone age.”
In contrast, it is loyalists who have taken to the streets of Belfast in large numbers. More than 600 police have been hurt in the past 12 months by bricks, bottles, paving stones, petrol bombs and other missiles. The disturbances are often made worse by the activities of what is left of loyalist paramilitarism. The east Belfast section of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) has launched gun attacks on police. (The UVF was the fiercest of the loyalist paramilitary outfits during the Troubles, killing more than 500 people, most of them Catholic civilians. In the mid-1970s, one UVF gang, known as the “Shankill Butchers” killed its victims using long knives and cleavers in attacks still remembered as some of the most gruesome seen in Belfast.)
Today, posing as “defenders of Protestant Ulster,” members of the UVF continue to paint militaristic murals depicting balaclava-clad gunmen brandishing rifles and revolvers. One of the latest of these, in east Belfast, incongruously bears a quotation from Martin Luther King: “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” But locals recognise the gulf between rhetoric and reality, and police describe this branch of the UVF as an organised crime group: “They very clearly have involvement in drug dealing, all forms of gangsterism, serious assaults, intimidation of the community.” A former unionist lord mayor has called for more police action against them: “People in east Belfast do not want this—they don’t want the grip of a paramilitary organisation around their throat.”
Beyond the paramilitary fringe, loyalists are furious because, they say, their heritage and culture are under attack—in particular, the freedom for members of the Protestant Orange Order to march through Catholic areas during the so-called “Marching Season.” Thousands of parades are staged each year, the majority of them non-contentious, but several hundred take place in contested areas where local Catholics object. Both Sinn Fein and the official Parades Commission, which regulates marching, have placed restrictions on some of their desired routes.
There was also a sizeable eruption of anger almost a year ago when a majority of Belfast’s council voted to stop flying the Union Jack on City Hall every day of the year, arguing that the building should reflect both unionist and nationalist traditions. Many in Protestant districts such as east Belfast, Sandy Row and the Shankill reacted as if scalded, hundreds spilling out on to the streets. Serious rioting ensued. On some evenings police faced more than a dozen protests in different parts of Belfast. Sometimes roads were blocked by women wielding only prams, but officers opted for containment, even if this meant closing off major roads. Central Belfast was often a ghost town in the evenings, as workers hurried home and stores and shops closed early. Last Christmas, policing cost millions of pounds, and millions more were squandered in lost business.
There are more long-term problems, too. The communities remain very separate. While working-class housing segregation, rock-hard for decades, has eased a little in some districts and many parents declare themselves in favour of religiously-mixed schooling, only a few children are actually taught together. At the current rate, it will take 499 years to integrate all schools.
Nor have many pushed for the dismantling of any of the dozens of Belfast “peacelines.” These forbidding barriers of steel and concrete, sometimes 30-feet high, criss-cross some of Belfast’s toughest areas, for example separating the Catholic Falls district from the Protestant Shankill. Erected in haste in the late 1960s, they have become permanent fixtures—and although they make outsiders wince, most of those who live beside them want them to stay. Patsy Canavan, a Catholic woman who lives in the shadow of the towering Falls-Shankill barrier, says: “As long as the peaceline stays up we’re happier. If they took it down… there could be trouble here.”
Given the scale of unionist anxiety and alienation, many fear the violence could get worse. When the IRA first declared a cessation of violence in 1994, paving the way for Sinn Fein’s eventual entry into government, the Prime Minister John Major noted that unionists were “deeply troubled” by the ceasefire. In the years since they have felt swept along by an initiative which was not of their making. They have yet to develop a full sense of ownership of the peace process. Even though the DUP is the dominant party in the Northern Ireland government, its members are given ample licence by Peter Robinson to attack Sinn Fein. For example, the DUP MP Gregory Campbell, one of the party’s eight MPs in the House of Commons (Northern Ireland sends 18 MPs in total to Westminster), defines his personal mission as “confronting and exposing Sinn Fein’s hypocrisy and combating republican deceit.” He often needles Martin McGuinness about his IRA past, challenging him to reveal the names of republican killers.
At the moment, such exchanges do not threaten the stability of the administration: unionists and republicans need each other to keep the devolved government of Northern Ireland functioning. But for many unionists, the peace process ushered in a dispensation which is becoming increasingly uncomfortable.
The police and civil service, once largely Protestant preserves, now have significant proportions of Catholics, who also hold some of the highest legal offices. It hurt many Protestants when the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which they revered, was reorganised and renamed the Police Service of Northern Ireland. And an intensive affirmative action programme has brought the percentage of Catholics in the police up to 30 per cent. The traditional over-representation of Protestants in the civil service has gone and parity has been achieved. This is a far cry from the bad old days, when Catholics complained that Protestants were given advantages in terms of housing, jobs and voting rights. Today modern Northern Ireland functions on the basis of powersharing, negotiation and compromise.
Many Protestants approve of these changes but many others, especially the hardline loyalists, do not. John Kyle, a GP in tough inner-city east Belfast, says: “Loyalists feel that they’re the losers, that they’ve had to give up something and they’ve got nothing in return. That feeds a sense of grievance.” This deeply-held belief is hardly borne out by the statistics. While there is certainly a high level of deprivation in the riot-torn Protestant districts of north and east Belfast, 16 of Belfast’s 20 most deprived wards have Catholic majorities. Catholic youth unemployment is also higher. However, a long-established pattern of educational under-achievement by working-class Protestants does persist. Of university students, 41 per cent are Catholic, 28 per cent Protestant.
A stroll along the Falls Road in west Belfast, a Catholic area which was once the epicentre of the Troubles, illustrates how this has come about. St Dominic’s Grammar School for Girls, on the Falls Road, is a centre of excellence in an unexpected location. With state of the art classrooms and labs, it is ranked in one league table as the 53rd best school in the UK and sends more than 95 per cent of its neatly uniformed girls to university.
In the old days the Falls was the scene of hundreds of shootings. Patrolling British Army soldiers crouched close to walls, aiming their rifles at windows where IRA snipers could be lurking, or where bombers might be waiting to detonate a boobytrap device. Now, there are no soldiers. Pupils stroll from the school grounds to the little newsagents which serve as their tuckshops. They chat and queue at bus-stops. They are, in a word, untroubled.
New houses and apartments proliferate in the area, some of them built on the sites of what were once highly-fortified army and police bases that were attacked dozens of times by the IRA. Now no traces of most of the military installations are visible. Some reminders of the conflict remain, mostly in the form of republican murals which include portraits of IRA members who died in the conflict. There are a number of small gardens of remembrance, carefully tended, bearing the names of local activists and civilians who were killed. But it feels more like history than current affairs: the image of the Falls as a war zone is out of date.
In the Protestant east, however, there are areas which exude an air of aimlessness verging on hopelessness. Nearly all the old ship building and engineering firms which traditionally employed Protestants have gone, and the absence of a culture of educational aspiration among working-class Protestants means the population has not adapted to the post-industrial age.
The welders and riveters who built the Titanic in the famous Harland and Wolff shipyard there took fierce pride in their Protestant work ethic. Seamus Heaney, detecting a grimness under the strength, wrote: “The cap juts like a gantry’s crossbeam, cowling plated forehead and sledgehead jaw.” But today’s reality is even grimmer. Community workers tell of high unemployment, patchy schooling, alcohol and drug addiction, along with excessive use of painkillers and anti-depressants.
When there’s trouble outside their doors many young men readily join in. Although few stone-throwers actually get hurt and arrests at the scene are comparatively rare, police film the disorder from cameras mounted on their armoured Land Rovers. Later, they raid the backstreets and pick up culprits—camera evidence has led to 260 convictions this year. Criminal records make finding employment more difficult than ever.
When the Northern Ireland state was created by the Government of Ireland Act in 1920, its boundaries were carefully designed to create a solid Protestant majority: two-thirds Protestant, one-third Catholic. The unionist administration which ran Northern Ireland for half a century went further by indulging in gerrymandering, an unsubtle but highly effective means of maximising the value of Protestant votes.
In Londonderry, for example, it re-jigged boundaries so that a city with a Catholic majority was run by a unionist-controlled council. It did so with an arrangement which meant that 7,500 unionist voters returned 12 councillors, while 10,000 nationalist voters returned only eight. The arrangement lasted for decades.
But today the traditional Protestant majority has disappeared. Northern Ireland now consists of two large minorities, and one is younger and growing faster than the other—the school population is 51 per cent Catholic and only 37 per cent Protestant. The future does not look unionist.
Quite a few Protestants have reacted by taking flight to satellite towns such as Carrickfergus, Newtownards and Lisburn. The controversy over the Belfast City Hall flag-flying came about when unionists lost their majority on the council. Eight years ago the unionist-nationalist split in the governing Assembly was 50-40; this has narrowed to 47-41, and the Sinn Fein vote goes up in every election, as does the overall nationalist vote. On present trends, it will come as no surprise if, in the next decade, Sinn Fein overtakes the DUP to become the largest party. This helps to explain unionist apprehension.
Nationalists, by contrast, are markedly more relaxed, since the implications are correspondingly agreeable to them. They regard the protesters as exasperating rather than threatening, and as lacking a coherent strategy.
Nationalist politicians are much more confident than the often insecure representatives of unionism. “We have power-sharing,” says a Sinn Fein leader. “We have some of the best equality laws in Europe and possibly in the world, every policy that comes out has to be equality-proofed.” Their immediate goals, however, may be more modest than many unionist fear, even if their ultimate aims are not. Nationalists aspire to see Ireland united—but not yet. The Republic of Ireland is experiencing economic misery while the north benefits from an annual British subvention of around £10bn. The nationalist consensus is that unity can wait, and will probably arrive in its own good time.
What should Richard Haass do now? There is clearly severe strain in a system in which such marked Protestant discontent contrasts with Catholic contentment. He needs to start by working with politicians of both parties to put an end to the street clashes, although the low esteem in which the Assembly is held by the public doesn’t help. He and others must convince the Protestant community of the merits of education, and that the old days of domination will never be back.
They need to be persuaded, by Haass and others, that the way to protect their culture and traditions in a rapidly changing Northern Ireland lies in dialogue and negotiation. A new Belfast is coming into existence, but some of the remnants of the old have yet to be consigned to history.