Good fences make good neighbours? A Crisisjam Special Edition on Northern Ireland

In the last three weeks, there has been a sequence of unrest in Northern Ireland that has at times felt like a throwback to previous, more harrowing times. The sustained rioting that erupted near the sectarian interface in east Belfast in late June – orchestrated in part by loyalist paramilitaries staking a claim for further public funding – was followed last weekend by disturbances in places as unlikely as the small market town of Ballyclare. As temperatures rise to greet the climax of the Orange marching season today, further trouble is widely anticipated.

The most likely flashpoint is in north Belfast where a nationalist protest against loyalists processing past the fringe of the Ardoyne district has been controversially re-routed. While there have been calls for calm from various public figures, there is every chance that the day will end with a reprise of the disturbances of previous years, involving police lines coming under attack from, amongst others, rioters who were not even born when the original ceasefires that heralded the ‘peace process’ were called.

The simmering tensions that have marked the early summer offer a timely reminder that while Northern Ireland may no longer be at war it not a society that is genuinely at peace with itself. Recent footage of children in hoodies hurling petrol bombs at police officers and stills of charred vehicles barricading streets littered with missiles may well have prompted people living south of the border to think about the six counties for the first time in a while. There were moments in the past, of course, when such prompts would not have been quite as necessary. The troubles at their height spawned a seemingly endless sequence of pointless atrocities that compelled the attention even of those who knew little and cared less about Northern Ireland. When the British state interned and executed its own citizens, when loyalists abducted, tortured and murdered nationalist men on the way home from a quiet pint, when republicans lined up Protestant workers against rural ditches and shot every last one of them dead, it was difficult to look away even if that was your natural inclination. How things have changed.

Among the more unfortunate and unanticipated effects of the peace process has been that it has enabled and encouraged people in the Irish Republic to cease thinking and caring about Northern Ireland and to do so with a clear conscience. The attitude of southern Irish nationalists towards their counterparts in the six counties has long been defined by a profound sense of ambivalence. The nationalist minority north of the border is considered at one and the same time to be kin who deserve to be supported, and to be troublesome strangers who would be best discreetly avoided. As a consequence, southern nationalists tend both to extend the hand of friendship towards their northern equivalents and to strive to keep them at arm’s length simultaneously. While most Northern Irish nationalists are bewildered and infuriated by this abiding sense of ambivalence, there is at least one of their number who has derived considerable benefit from it.

It is so long now since Mary McAleese took up residence in one of the finest stately homes in one of the largest parks in Europe that it is easy to forget just how implausible it was that she would ever become the Irish head of state. Is there anyone out there who can remember the specific contribution to public life that was deemed to identify McAleese as a suitable candidate to be President of Ireland? I will take that deafening silence as a ‘no’. The principal reason that McAleese was able to run successfully was perhaps that her candidature afforded southern Irish people the opportunity to offer a token gesture of solidarity with Northern Irish nationalists at a critical moment in the peace process. The autobiographical details of the north Belfast woman were revised so that a daughter of the petit bourgeoisie became in the popular mind a ghetto child. Those who cast ballots in the Presidential election were encouraged to believe that to vote for McAleese was to embrace those who have suffered longest and hardest in the ‘cold house’ that was Northern Ireland. Southern Irish voters were thereby enabled to salve their own consciences over the effective abandonment of the nationalist minority in the six counties and to do so in a manner that entailed negligible political costs.

The office of President is in effect largely ceremonial and affords relatively little political authority. Even if the position did entail real political power, however, it would soon become apparent that McAleese was sufficiently housetrained to ensure that deliberately rocking the boat is simply out of the question. There is only one moment that readily springs to mind when the President seemed to veer wildly off message and invite a storm of controversy. On that occasion, the head of state delved into the furthest reaches of her imagination to suggest that the unionist community merits comparison to the architects of the Holocaust. While the comments provoked some objections, the episode did little to damage McAleese’s political fortunes. It is highly unlikely, of course, that any political career in the Irish Republic will ever be hindered by an indiscretion as trifling as rehearsing idle prejudice against a target as easy as Northern Irish unionists.

The sense of ambivalence that was articulated in the outcome in the 1997 Presidential election would find further expression the following year. It would soon become evident that southern Irish opinion regarded the political settlement brokered during the agonising talks at Stormont to be an honourable one and this estimation was reflected in the overwhelming ‘yes’ vote during the subsequent referendum. The Good Friday Agreement was intended to herald, among other things, an era of closer interaction and greater understanding between the two Irelands. In hindsight, however, it has become apparent that the referendum in May 1998 represented the high water mark of southern Irish interest in what goes on north of the border. Northern Ireland is now very definitely out of sight and out of mind.

This is in part of course entirely understandable. The glacial pace with which the peace process has unfolded since has not exactly made the recent political history of Northern Ireland compelling viewing. Even the most profound and spectacular political developments north of the border, however, seem unable to sustain the interest of a southern Irish audience nowadays. In the summer of 2005, for instance, the Provisional IRA issued a statement that its military campaign was at an end and that it intended to decommission its arsenal. This was a genuinely historic moment that would have been almost unthinkable at any stage over the previous three and a half decades. Yet almost nobody on this side of the Irish border seemed to even take it under their notice. On the day that the Provo statement was issued, I happened to have conversations with perhaps a couple of dozen of people in the university where I work. At no stage did anyone even so much as mention the fact that the era of ‘armed struggle’ was apparently at an end. The news could not have had less impact or significance had it come from somewhere half way across the globe or just been dispatched from some distant, ailing planet.

A generation or so of the peace process would seem, therefore, only to have widened the existing gulf between the two Irelands. Anyone who has spent time in both jurisdictions will know only too well that most people have almost no knowledge of or understanding of the political culture across the border. Try asking someone in the six counties to name the current Irish Minister for Finance and you will almost certainly be greeted with silence. And if you were to ask someone south of the border to identify the seasoned naturist who holds the same portfolio in the Northern Ireland Assembly the chances are you would receive the same response. It has become increasingly clear that the existing fields of political ambition and possibility are those delimited by the border. In Northern Ireland, there is no shortage of evidence – both anecdotal and statistical – to suggest that many, and possibly most, nationalists are not entirely troubled by the prospect of spending the medium term within the bounds of the UK. In the Irish Republic, the ideal of a united Ireland increasingly appears to function as a comforting fiction that almost no one really believes and that has little real purchase on political culture.

While contemporary Irish political life has no shortage of iniquities, this ingrained and abiding partitionism is not the least among them. It is genuinely astonishing how rarely Northern Ireland appears in everyday conversation south of the border. Even seasoned political activists in the Irish Republic who have expert knowledge in the affairs of far flung places more often than not seem to feel that they are not obliged - or, more precisely perhaps, not entitled – to know what is going on in the six counties.

This special edition of CrisisJam arises out of a sense of frustration produced by the experience that Northern Ireland seems to exist beyond the field of vision of almost everyone else that resides elsewhere on the island. The essays that are collected here are intended to offer critical perspectives on the social and political realities in the six counties that will hopefully engage an audience that might not ordinarily look in that particular direction. While the contributors come from a whole range of different backgrounds, all of them share a sense of outrage at the stark inequalities that are as evident in Northern Ireland as any other capitalist society. The official narrative of the peace process has habitually sought to depict the six counties as a region gradually coming to terms with a violent past and edging towards what might be considered ‘normality’. The realities of contemporary Northern Irish society transpire, however, to be rather more complex and rather less comforting. The multiple injustices that are faced by ordinary people of both ‘communities’ in the six counties - indexed in low pay, academic underachievement, record levels of child poverty and all the rest - make only rare appearances in the southern Irish media nowadays. But they haven’t gone away you know.