Following the recent UK general elections in which the Conservative party failed to achieve a majority in order to remain in government, they called on some old friends to help them out. Those friends were the DUP in Northern Ireland who were paid a £1.5 Billion fee/bribe to form a coalition with the Tories, which in turn secured enough collective seats in parliament to keep them in power.
Without going into detail as to where this money came from and how it magically appeared after years of forced austerity, I think it’s fair to say this weighty transaction raised eyebrows across the nation as to who the DUP were and exactly where this money is going, because if we’re honest with ourselves, Northern Ireland has more or less been neglected by the mainstream British media and political establishment for as long as most of us have been around, only popping up in the news for stories attached to a conflict many of us on the mainland have no real understanding of.
While this deal with the DUP is an absolute insult to the British public after years of cuts inflicted on society one can only hope that, although the Conservatives only released this sum to Northern Ireland for the reason of clinging on to power, this £1.5 billion of tax payers money goes towards properly funding public services and social care programmes in Northern Ireland, improving the lives of its inhabitants.
For those that might not know much about the situation in Northern Ireland or fully grasp what the divisions are all about, I’ll do my best to simplify what I know and what we experienced while visiting. The city of Belfast is divided between Republicans and Loyalists. Republicans being the Irish who still believe the whole of the country should be governed by Ireland as a republic and Loyalists being descendants of Scots who began settling during the 1600s as part of British colonial policy, then following a long line of wars between the British and Irish, in 1921 managed to secure Northern Ireland’s status as part of the UK which it remains to this day.
The militant wing of the Irish republicans who formed in the early 20th century and fought to remove British Rule from Northern Ireland are the IRA and the various splinter groups following on from them which are still active to this day. The militant wing of the Loyalists, who were formed to protect their communities from the IRA and to maintain Northern Ireland’s status as a British colony, are the UDA/UVF paramilitary groups which are also still active. The political representation of the republicans is Sinn Fein while the newly highlighted DUP represent the loyalists, or most of them.
The ideologies of these two opposing factions are made very clear when visiting their respective neighbourhoods in west Belfast. Shankill Road, being one of the most well known Loyalist areas, is covered in British flags alongside imagery of the Queen with fairly intimidating looking murals dedicated to paramilitary fighters or centuries-old British battle victories over the Irish. By all accounts the Loyalist areas seem to be very conservative which makes perfect sense seeing as they are trying to conserve old British colonialism.
On the other side of the 60ft dividing peace wall you have the Falls Road which is a famous Irish republican stronghold in Belfast. When entering the area you are of course met with Irish flags and murals dedicated to fallen IRA members but also signs stating ‘British military not welcome here’ or ‘Do not speak to MI5’ which immediately indicates who is in charge around there. One of the most interesting aspects of the Falls Road area is the artwork dedicated to people or causes that aren’t immediately connected to the conflict in Northern Ireland. Palestinian flags are commonplace as is mural work commemorating Che Guevara, Fidel Castro and Nelson Mandela amongst other famous leftist freedom fighters that the republicans identify with.
The mainstream media often likes to paint a picture of a bitter religious divide between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland as I guess in some ways it passes the blame and sweeps the real issue under the carpet but in reality religion plays a small part in the tensions that have existed there for the last 100 years. The conflict is quite simply rooted in the on-going dispute over who should rule over Northern Ireland, the Irish or the British, and the political ideologies that reinforce either side of the debate.
There’s no point beating around the bush. As Londoners from progressive left-wing backgrounds who are firmly against imperial rule and military oppression of any kind, it’s hard for us to understand how anyone can justify the British occupation of Ireland, but then that’s why we wanted to visit. Passing judgement from afar is often limited in accuracy.
At times it was hard to stomach being in loyalist areas that displayed such extreme levels of allegiance to the British flag and the Monarchy but not because we aren’t proud of being British. There are good reasons to be proud of modern day Britain. Our tolerance to different races, cultures and communities living in the UK, our NHS and welfare state, our efforts to keep neighbourhoods within our cities mixed with regards to peoples socio-economic backgrounds are all things to be proud of. While many of these attributes have been slowly eroding under Tory rule, I feel it’s still safe to say we are still, generally speaking, a more progressive society than many other developed world nations.
With all that said there are things about the UK we should be ashamed of and the seemingly never-ending military invasion of other countries in a quest to enforce British imperial rule over its inhabitants, satisfying the greed of our ruling elite, is something that falls directly into that bracket.
It’s easy to understand why, still to this day, the republicans would want to end British rule over their country. Their country doesn’t belong to the British and never has done. It was simply invaded and oppressed over the last few hundred years in a bid to seize land for the British Empire and the Irish republicans have every right to resist this in my opinion. The difficult thing to grasp, particularly as an outsider, is why the loyalists would be so fixed on remaining as part of Britain by any means necessary? If they themselves understand they are descended from colonists, who are only there following the British seizure of Ireland then how could they not understand why the Irish might want to reduce their influence? This is something that I genuinely could not get my head around but in truth I was probably taking a slightly biased and simplistic viewpoint.
The more you research the region and it’s history the more you realise that the loyalist communities are essentially stuck between a rock and a hard place. They were located there as a British colony hundreds of years ago and have been propped up by the full weight of the British aristocracy and military ever since as a way of ensuring British rule in Northern Ireland. In the past they were granted societal privileges over Irish Catholics and in more recent times they have been supplied arms and military assistance by the British government in order to combat the IRA. It’s not just the republicans who have endured misery as a result of imperialism. The loyalists have too, for they have been placed in hostile territory and left to fight off republican uprisings. Many, many lives have been lost trying to protect this British colony and it’s one that’s roots stretch back to the 1600s. It’s their home. Completely surrendering the region’s UK status now is clearly not a real option to its inhabitants even if the British government were to entertain the idea. It’s a series of events that’s gone too far, and gone on too long, for any straightforward solution to easily satisfy both sides.
The question you’re left with then is how can things progress and be peacefully resolved? How do you end a culture of violence that has seen the armed paramilitary groups on both sides turn to organised crime and infighting?
From talking with people on either side it seems Sinn Fein have made real gains with regards to reducing tensions and listening to the needs of both communities. There are also many less hard line people on both sides that would love the barriers to be broken down and for everyone to live amongst each other peacefully. It’s a tall task to try and break down the bitter cultural barriers but it’s clearly the first port of call before anything else can be properly dealt with.
The root of the problem clearly lies in imperialism and it would be extremely hard to argue the case otherwise, regardless of what side of the fence you sit. But unfortunately history cannot be reversed. Ireland was invaded and colonial rule ensued. The continuation of the problem lies in culture and that is something that can be changed. In all honesty it’s difficult to see how there can be real peace while Northern Ireland is governed by the UK, especially when loyalist communities display such extreme levels of patriotism, but could those who consider themselves British live peacefully in a united Ireland? I’d feel inclined to say yes. In fact they would probably be more free to express patriotism in a united Ireland because the republicans would be secure in the knowledge that their land is no longer under British rule.
Lets take London for an example. Nobody objects to millions packing the streets of west London once a year to celebrate Caribbean culture, it’s embraced. Does anyone really care if there is an Islamic hate preacher spreading the word outside Wood Green shopping city? Not really. We are secure in the knowledge that while every race and ideology lives amongst us in the capital, ultimately we are all British citizens and we are not living under imperial rule. Banging on about your native country, culture or religion is fine. It’s more than fine. Its what makes the world interesting but if the UK was invaded and conquered by another country tomorrow would I be keen on the new settlers flying their flags everywhere or painting murals dedicated to their monarchy and doing a yearly victory dance? Probably fucking not and if I was killed during the invasion my children probably wouldn’t either and I could also place a bet from the afterlife that my great, great, great grandkids would still not be that happy about the whole invasion-and-conquer party each year to celebrate the murderous oppression of their ancestors and the occupation of their land.
So to hammer my point home – It’s not the celebration of people’s nationalities or ethnic backgrounds alone that cause these tensions, it’s what wrongdoings your nation might have been responsible for and if you decide to justify them, which can be. Having a parade once a year, in a country you have invaded, to celebrate your success in doing so, might be a slight wind-up if you ask me.
On that note thank you for having us Belfast, and love to all the people we met on both sides of the wall. The Irish are a good spirited, tolerant and warm bunch so regardless of which heritage people may claim, there is a real capacity for diversity and acceptance in Northern Ireland which is something we all want to see sooner rather than later. £1.5 billion can’t pay for peace but if directed properly then hopefully it will go towards a better quality of life for the people of Northern Ireland through the creation of centres, programmes and events that successfully bridge the divide.