I left Northern Ireland in 2005. So I have a sort of accumulated understanding of it – but I don’t have the day by day nuances of it any more.
I certainly know about the peace lines where the current rioting is taking place. I made my start in ministry in 1976 on the Oldpark and Ballysillan Roads. In West Belfast, the communities are divided into clearly-defined areas. But this area of North Belfast was and remains an area of conflict because the communities are interwoven street by street. In the parish area where I started, there were no fewer than eight peace lines – tall metal structures designed to make people feel safe by separating them. And now, nearly fifty years later, the same cycles of violence are being played out. And the reasons for it are both as brutally simple and as mystifyingly complex as ever.
The simple answer? Well it usually comes down to some version of the Zero Sum Game. BBC reporter Emma Vardy walked down the pavement with a young man who explained it succinctly – if people come to believe that Sinn Fein are winning, then our side must be losing. And some suggest that the view that Sinn Fein are winning is rooted in the decision not to bring prosecutions for Covid rule violations around the funeral of IRA leader Bobby Storey. And so we see young people hurling rocks and petrol bombs.
But the more complex reasons?
Today’s headline in the Guardian says ‘Boris Johnson’s careless Brexit is now playing out in Belfast. And surely at least some of the truth is in there. Brexit was always going to be costly for Ireland – if there couldn’t be a border on the island of Ireland, then there had to be a tariff barrier in the Irish Sea. That has been enough to lead some of the unionist population to believe that their status within the United Kingdom is being changed. We have sat on the quayside in Larne and Cairnryan and thought about these things – sat in queues sometimes of as few as eight cars and thought about the nonsensical and whimsical plans for a bridge or a tunnel as a way of helping us to feel closer together
If we open the focus out more widely, we end up needing to consider the future shape of the nations of the British Isles and their inter-relationships
I’ve been reading Gavin Esler’s book: ‘How Britain ends: English nationalism and the rebirth of four nations’
I’ll return another day to the themes of this book. But for now, I simply restate this comment: ‘The central argument of this book is that, while the United Kingdom can survive Irish, Scottish and Welsh nationalisms, it cannot survive English nationalism’
That analysis assumes that Brexit is an expression of English nationalism. As such it inevitably destabilises all the other relationships within the United Kingdom and the British Isles.