“Everything is built on sand”

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The faces of the conflict’s future? Nationalist youth burn a Union flag to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

 

Once again, today was to be a day when I had intended to write about diversions. Believe me, I’d like to, but events, or in this case interviews, keep getting in the way.

I returned this morning to Belfast after spending the prior day down in Dublin doing the tourist thing with my daughter. (Stay tuned, I’ll write about that at some point.) In the afternoon I had another of those interviews with a refrain that has become all too familiar:

The peace here is far more fragile than it looks, and if you dare to scratch beneath the surface you’ll not like what you find.  The lid may be on for now, but it won’t be for long unless present dynamics change.

The person I talked with has been involved with the Community Restorative Justice initiative in the Republican community since its inception in the 1970s.  Several points he made stuck out to me, in large part because they confirm what others, both Nationalists/Republicans and Unionists/Loyalists, have said to me on this trip and prior ones.

  • There is no peace process. There is only a politically expedient arrangement that creates a veneer of peace. In his words, if you lift the hood to examine the engine that drives the peace you’ll find that “the engine is fucked.”
  • The underlying contradictions that led to the explosion of violence in the late 1960s remain unchanged. The present political configuration is not designed to change those dynamics. To the contrary, it is locking them in as the status quo.
  • There is no viable political Republican alternative to Sinn Fein, and people are losing patience with it and with politics in general. Alienation from the political process is increasingly the norm. Under these conditions Republican “splinters” and “micro-groups” appear increasingly attractive.
  • The future of the peace is in the hands of people too young to remember the bad times. These young people are the most alienated from normal politics, and they are ripe for recruitment into paramilitary organizations on both sides of the sectarian divide. Those organizations recognize this and are taking advantage.
  • Sectarianism is deeply entrenched and in some ways has become worse, especially on the Nationalist side which always maintained that its struggle was about politics, not tribal identity.
  • When it becomes obvious that the political process here has failed, and that failure is becoming increasingly visible, then people will return to the traditional way in which political conflict gets resolved here. Violence.

In short, according to my contact today, all of the institutions of the peace in Northern Ireland, which are celebrated by politicians and academics alike, are built on a foundation of sand. And that sand is steadily, but inexorably, washing away.

 

 

The day started so well

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The tricolor flies at City Hall.

 

So St. Patrick’s Day was intended to be a day when I was going to focus on the “diversions” part of blog’s title. And it certainly started out that way. Sarah and I got up (not all that early given our late night before) and headed down to Belfast City Hall for the parade. Big crowds, lots of families with young children hoisted on shoulders so they could see, and a general atmosphere of merriment.

The parade passed by rather quickly (it seemed much smaller than similar parades in the States) and then we walked off to get some “refreshment” before meeting up with friends. As we sat outside a cafe with drinks in hand, we noticed crowds of young teens, many of them draped with the Irish tricolor, all headed back toward City Hall.

We finished our drinks and followed, and as we got closer, we could see, above the gathering crowds, the waving Union and Ulster flags of the day’s small group of flag protesters, who were staging a 24-hour vigil in front of the City Hall to protest the decision made in December 2012 to stop flying the Union flag from the building on a daily basis (it is flown on designated days only).

And that’s when the inevitable occurred. As the Belfast Telegraph put it:

Northern Ireland’s entrenched factional tensions erupted when their arrival prompted a sectarian slanging match between unionists and nationalists draped in tricolours.

What unfolded was a display of pure tribalism. There was no “politics” on view in the standoff, just hurled abuse, taunts, chants, hot tempers, and police in riot gear holding the line that separated one group from the other. It all culminated with a Union flag burned by a crowd of jeering teenagers, encouraged by several older men who moved along the edges of the group whipping up their enthusiasm and directing their bile.

Yesterday’s display was a small taste of what is often called “recreational rioting” over here. When calmer heads express concern for the future, it is often about this generation. These kids are too young to know how bad things can get when they go bad. And while yesterday’s incident was mild compared to what happens here on an all too regular basis, you can see just how volatile the atmosphere remains. It would have taken very little for things to have gotten a lot worse. And that’s what scares people.

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So much for the sanctity of flags.

 

Mind the gap (in your research)

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Walking around Bogside this morning, Sarah and I spotted the above mural in the neighborhood up the street from the more celebrated murals of Derry’s People’s Gallery. Up we went to take a look and take a few pictures.

As you can see, the mural celebrates and honors the contribution made by women to the Republican struggle, whether under arms, in the prisons, or in the community. It occurred to me in thinking about it that this represents another gap in my research, and thus in my understanding, of what has gone on here in the past and what the future might hold.  For all the trips I’ve made here over the years, I have interviewed precious few women.

This is not all that different from the other gaps I have mentioned before on the blog. Before this trip I had spent very little time outside of Belfast. That has now changed, and will change further next week when I get out of town again for another round of interviews. Before this trip I had very little contact with working class Loyalists and former Loyalist paramilitaries. That too has changed.

This newly recognized gap in my work is, at least to my mind, understandable though obviously not desirable.  My field research unfolds through contacts and intermediaries. I meet someone, or interview someone, and then I ask them to give me the names of other people they think it might be good for me to talk to or to make an introduction on my behalf.  Without exception, all of the contacts that I have made this way have been with men.

I’m not quite sure how to change the dynamic. For this trip it is probably too late. Clearly I am going to have to be more proactive in seeking out women’s voices the next time I am here doing field work. Maybe I’ll get lucky in the last week of the trip, but barring that, I’ve got some work to do for next time.

Have fun storming the castle

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Standing where kings have trod since 1690, with the castle across the harbor.

 

With my daughter Sarah here for a few days, I’m taking a bit of a break from research responsibilities to play a little tourist and amateur tour guide. So while I still have phone calls to make and interviews to line up for the end of this week and in to next, we are going to get out of town and see a bit of the country.

Yesterday we took the train north to Carrickfergus, toured the castle, then stood on the spot where King Billy himself landed in 1690 on his way to everlasting glory and Protestant dominion over these lands at the Battle of the Boyne.* The castle itself is the best preserved Anglo-Norman castle still standing in the North, and the town itself, while more than a little down on its heels, is still pleasant to walk around. Or it would be when it’s not freezing cold, damp, and windy.

If you find yourself here, check out the free museum maintained by the Borough Council. It’s worth stopping in. Then walk around the churchyard at St. Nicholas Parish. And the pints at the Great Northern are much cheaper than in Belfast, so take advantage of that too.

Tomorrow we are up early to catch the train to Derry, to walk the walls, see the Bogside murals, stand at Free Derry Corner, and perhaps tour the Bloody Sunday museum. Going to mix business with pleasure.

*Remember what I said about these links. Do as I say, not as I do …