Monday, December 10, 2012

Violence Reemerges in Northern Ireland

Sectarian clashes made the headlines yet again last week, but this time in a region people seem to forget has religious divides as deep as those in the Middle East. In the Western European nation of Northern Ireland, loyalists to the United Kingdom clashed with police officers over a vote determining how many days the Union flag would be flown over Belfast city hall. A move that in any other city would be relegated to the back page of the newspaper took on heightened significance and showed that tensions still run high between the Catholic and Protestant parties of Northern Ireland. Yet the vote also came at a time when the economy is flagging, one in four shops in Belfast stands empty, and the young generation is starved for jobs. To choose to vote on such an inflammatory issue at this time could only have led to more violence and damaged relations between opposing parties.

Murals depicting political affiliations adorn the gable walls of many Belfast homes (left is Protestant, right Catholic)

For over thirty years, Northern Ireland went through civil unrest known as The Troubles, in which over 3,000 people were killed. The violence stems from deep cultural divides between its Protestant and Catholic communities. The Protestants largely come from the “settler” generations and have Scottish, English, Welsh and Huguenot roots. The Catholic community on the other hand is largely from the pre-settler days and many within it view the Protestants as interlopers and colonialists. While The Troubles officially ended with the signing of the Belfast Agreement (Good Friday Agreement) in 1998, the most recent violence makes clear that trouble may be far from over. Many republicans still hope to join southern Ireland as made possible by the Agreement’s provision for a popular referendum to break from the U.K. With demographic shifts moving Catholics towards holding the majority, such a vote is more possible than ever.

To complicate matters further, it is believed that the paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) may be orchestrating further violence. The UVF has already been blamed for coordinating the violence that broke out in protests last week that left 28 people injured and 19 people charged with crimes. Death threats against members of parliament have led to several having to leave their homes, including cross-community Alliance Party of Northern Ireland member Laura McNamee.

The vote on the flag did no more than determine that the Union jack would only be flown 17 days out of the year instead of 365. Seventeen is the number of days it is flown over the Parliament buildings at Stormont, so this could have just been a move to unify governmental procedures; however, such actions are never seen as innocent in Northern Ireland. Every move that has even a whiff of partisanship has the potential to set the country back and recall the horrors of The Troubles.

Indeed, observers have noted that the flag vote could not have come at a worse time. It is the height of the holiday season when many tourists are visiting downtown Belfast, where the shopping district is located directly next to the City Hall where the violence took place. Such an image would only ingrain the image of a violent and unstable Northern Ireland in the minds of visitors, hurting the much needed tourism industry and discouraging economic recovery. To an outsider, a simple solution seems to be that both flags, Irish and British, are flown on all government buildings every day of the year in acknowledgement of the multiple identities of the Northern Irish. Yet in sectarian conflicts, simple solutions are rarely as easy as they appear to be and there will always be forces interested in perpetuating tumult, not assuaging it. 

*Author’s Note: My boyfriend lives and works in Northern Ireland and grew up in Newtonards, a small town outside of Belfast. When I visited Northern Ireland last year I could not have found a more enchanting and lovely country, and the vast majority of people I met would never take part in the violence described above. The preceding is simply an illustration of how small groups of extremists can place hardship on an entire country, not a warning against visiting Northern Ireland.

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