In Northern Ireland, like South Africa, the future cannot lie in the past

In Northern Ireland, like South Africa, the future cannot lie in the past

It has been a weekend of bonfires and marches in Northern Ireland commemorating the Protestant defeat of the Catholic King James II in 1690 at the Battle of the Boyne. The province has been studied extensively along with South Africa from the 1970s as comparative examples of political and inter-communal violence, policing and terrorism. With peace struck in both in the 1990s, GREG MILLS and DICKIE DAVIS take a look at Northern Ireland’s progress and failings.

Harland & Wolff’s twin yellow gantry cranes, fondly known as ‘Samson’ and ‘Goliath’, dominate the docklands of Belfast. Over 35,000 once worked in this great shipyard, building among many vessels RMS Titanic and its White Star Line sister ships RMS Olympic and RMS Britannic along with six Second World War aircraft carriers, and various Union Castle liners including the Pendennis Castle, the record-setter on the Cape Town to Southampton run. Founded in 1861, a hundred years later, with the birth of the airliner and increased international competition, the writing was on the wall for the Northern Irish ship-building business. Nationalised in 1977 and privatised 12 years later, Harland & Wolff now employs just 500 staff and concentrates on offshore wind turbines.

samson & goliath

Photo: Harland & Wolff Samson & Goliath. (Greg Mills)

Further south, across from the passenger terminal at Belfast’s George Best City Airport is the old Shorts’ aircraft factory, owned by Bombardier since 1989, producing flight control systems and other high-tech items for the who’s who of the aviation industry. Such skills have been around over generations. Shorts is notable for its range of flying boats, including the venerable Sunderland, and the Stirling four-engine bomber during the Second World War.

The waterways around 185 acres of ‘Titanic Quarter’, where the doomed liner was designed and built, now boasts ‘Titanic Belfast’, an ultra-modern museum intended as a signature project of the province’s economic and political regeneration, surrounded by top-end accommodation and high-tech industries. Similar plans are afoot to develop the quayside around the old Sirocco works, once the site of the largest rope manufacturer in the world.

Despite this industrial decline, Northern Ireland today is a wealthy place. With an average per capita GDP of $25,000 among its 1.8 million people, wealth per se has not been a problem. Rather it is the unequal distribution along sectarian lines that has been the source of friction.

Northern Ireland’s politics, like its economy, has also moved with the times.

The 10 April 1998 Good Friday Agreement, sponsored by both London and Dublin, ended the period known as ‘The Troubles’, 40 years of sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants which cost the lives of 3,500 civilians, 700 British troops and 300 police officers and saw 35,000 injured and 100,000 displaced.

To get to this point, the Catholic/Republican Sinn Fein had to give up on the ambition of a united (socialist) Ireland and the Protestants to accept their opponent into a local executive, known as the Northern Ireland Assembly, at Stormont. To do so, they had to agree to work together in a consociational coalition, where certain key powers, notably security and intelligence, were retained by London.

stormont sinn fein

Photo: Sinn Fein’s President Gerry Adams (L) and chief negotiator Martin McGuinness (R) take a brief walk outside Stormont Parliament Buildings in Belfast 29 November 1999. EPA PHOTO/EPA/ADRIAN DENNIS

For all of the angry language, provocations, marches, bonfires and effigies, rival banners and dramatic propaganda murals, today peace still holds. The Catholic strongholds of Falls and Springfield Roads and the Protestant heartland of Shankill and Crumlin Roads, which were a maze of police barricades, fortified police stations and platoon-strength army patrols, now play host to busloads of tourists. While ‘peace lines’ or ‘interface fences’ keep the communities apart at night, and windows on these lines remain shielded from bottles, stones and bricks, there are few policemen and no soldiers in sight.

bobby sands martyr

Photo: Bobby Sands, once Catholic hunger-striker and now martyr. (Greg Mills)

protestant martyrs

Photo: The Protestants have their martyrs, too. (Greg Mills)

The 6,700-strong Police Service of Northern Ireland, now with one-third Catholic composition, has been created out of the politically tainted and virtually entirely Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary. While 2,400 British Army soldiers remain on the island, they are now focused on missions overseas, providing only limited backup to the police.

Yet it’s a fragile peace, vulnerable to extraneous developments – from the impact of troubles with the Euro on the Irish Republic (where Sinn Fein holds increasing power) to the impact of any moves towards Scottish devolution (which could lessen London’s interest in the province).

But the biggest risk comes from within Northern Ireland itself. There have been costly institutional and policy indecisions including the reluctance to limit the period of retrospective investigation into historical incidents, which could see the legal system consumed by the past and not the present, and the failure to establish an amnesty process.

David Ford, Northern Ireland’s minister of justice, describes the settlement as “a deal to make a deal. There remains a political gulf”, he says, “and the agreement is still being filled out. We have a degree of peace without reconciliation”. Belfast-based South African political scientist Adrian Guelke says the absence of a “proper amnesty” means “we relive the troubles every week”. It has been less a process of conflict resolution and more one of conflict management.

By comparison, South Africa has much to be thankful for.

After the victory of William of Orange, laws were enacted barring Catholics from all public offices, land ownership, and schooling. As a result, Catholic unemployment was higher than the average, workers tended to fill the lower ranks, and there was a perennial shortage of housing. Achieving social mobility has been challenging and wealth divides between Catholic and Protestant remain, each grouping now roughly the same percentage of the population.

This illustrates the difficulty, too, for all of the importance of projects like ‘Titanic Belfast’, to break the habit of living off British government welfare, less at the level of individuals than at the level of the devolved administration. Northern Ireland is the size of an English county, but has the institutional set up and government apparatus of a sovereign state. In Northern Ireland the public sector is 70% of the economy. Put differently, one-third of the workforce is in the public service, compared to 19% across the entire UK.

To fund this, the Northern Ireland Assembly receives £10 billion in central government subsidies annually – at little less than the entire budget of the UK’s department for international development for the rest of the world.

If work, not welfare, is the only way to build an inclusive society, this message that has to be taken on board by Northern Ireland Assembly before its citizens.

This failing is reflected, too, in the slow pace of integration. Some 97% of social housing in Belfast is still segregated, and fewer than 10% of children attend integrated schools. As Michael Maguire, the police ombudsman, puts it, “You can go until you are 18 before you meet someone of a different religion”.

Having someone else pick up the tab encourages parochialism and recklessness on the part of the Assembly. It provides a stake in maintaining the narratives of the past.

The financial subsidy has allowed tough decisions to be avoided. This is worsened by the absence of a formal opposition within Stormont. With a coalition of five parties, over a hundred members of the legislative assembly and no fewer than 11 councils, it’s a structure designed to end conflict and keep everyone within the tent rather than provide for efficient, focused government. In this respect the British government’s budget announced last week, which attempts to rebalance away from welfare towards ‘making work pay’ and with inclusion of a further dose of austerity, will add pressure to the debate.

One of the biggest disappointments by far has been the inability of politicians to avoid the temptation to play to their galleries, and to delve back into their past.

Instead of focusing on getting deals done, and growing the economy to make accommodation easier, there is a constant reaching back into the territory’s mythologies, not just to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1920, or even the deployment of British troops in 1969, but instead nearly half a millennium to 1690 and the defeat of King James’ forces by William of Orange in the Battle of the Boyne. Politicians see different events in entirely different ways: Catholics see 1916, for example, as commemorating the declaration of Irish independence, Protestants remember the year for the Battle of the Somme and the contribution of the Ulster Division, which included large numbers of a Protestant militia, the Ulster Volunteer Force, a name that was recycled by a paramilitary in the 1960s. History is hard to escape in Northern Ireland.

back to 1690

Photo: Back to 1690, not 1969… (Greg Mills)

In an environment where a culture of victimhood prevails, where political loyalty is defined by background, and political behaviour is immature and determined by short-term expediency, Northern Ireland remains a severely divided society. Communal identity links with ideology, too, where one side has not fully abandoned their socialist underpinnings and the other is broadly aligned to the right.

With the middle ground around 10% of the vote, as in South Africa, the question on everyone’s lips is, Can identity be trumped by prosperity? Peter Sheridan was the most senior Catholic officer in the police force. He now heads Co-operation Ireland, which works to reduce the political temperature. He says that “what will change this country are jobs for young people”.

Over time the demographic balance is changing with Catholic population increasing, in part due to immigration from Europe and to Protestant migration. But an increasing Catholic population does not mean that the break up of the Union is inevitable, for surveys show that most Protestants and up to 47 % of Northern Irish Catholics want to remain part of the United Kingdom. Thus the current constitutional arrangement for Northern Ireland looks set to endure; what is needed is politicians to make it work for the common good.

It is easy to overlook that people in Northern Ireland, as in South Africa, are much better off today than they were in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s “by any stretch of the imagination” reflects Maguire. Dealing with the issues and adjusting the narratives will take time, perhaps generations. But while there is agreement on how the province will be governed, the relationships to do so have not yet been formed, in part because it is too easy for politicians to play to their galleries. Reliving the differences publically through bonfires, ubiquitous bunting and rhetoric makes this much more difficult.

In the Back to the Future film trilogy, Marty McFly and his friend Emmett ‘Doc’ Brown use a modified silver DeLorean sports car to fly through time.

Approximately 9,000 of the gull-winged, stainless steel DeLorean DMC-12s were manufactured by former General Motors executive John DeLorean’s company, DeLorean Motor Company in Dunmurry, a suburb of southwest Belfast between 1981 and 1983.

The Northern Ireland Development Agency (Nida)provided £100 million towards the cost of setting up the plant, despite an external assessment that the business had only a 10% likelihood of success. But high unemployment in the province saw Nida disregard that advice. Plagued by production and reliability problems, the DeLorean Motor Company went bankrupt in late 1982 after its founder’s arrest on drug trafficking charges.


Photo: DeLorean sports car. (Greg Mills)

The province’s deep-seated sectarian antipathies illustrate Cicero’s point that the causes of events are always more important than the events themselves, causes which are routinely hijacked by opportunistic politicians.

Yet in Northern Ireland, as in South Africa and elsewhere, progress demands looking forward and not back to the future, no matter the political temptation to do otherwise. DM

Mills and Davis have recently visited Northern Ireland for the Brenthurst Foundation. Mills’ latest book (co-authored with Jeffrey Herbst) ‘How South Africa Works and must do better’ (Pan Macmillan) is released this month.

Main photo: Titanic Visitor Centre, Belfast, Northern Ireland. (William Murphy)


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