Northern Ireland: the bastard state

A hundred years on from partition, Pádraig Ó Meiscill diagnoses the many ills of past and present Northern Ireland

April 10, 2021 · 14 min read
Protestors march in support of Irish unification, London 1979. Credit: Gillfoto

Not that long ago, the future of Northern Ireland – the bastard state that no one wanted – appeared secure. No respectable commentator expected a united Ireland this side of their, or our, graves.

Only a decade ago, Peter Robinson, the man who replaced Ian Paisley at the helm of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), was confidently talking of the bankruptcy of those who insisted Northern Ireland was a failed political entity: ‘My challenge… is to attract some of the… Catholics who say they are content to remain within the United Kingdom to vote DUP,’ he proclaimed. Robinson’s pitch was aimed at Catholic members of the northern business class. The goal was, in the late journalist Liam Clarke’s words, ‘to attract more Catholics to the DUP by building up its centre-right, pro-business credentials’.

Within months of Robinson’s conciliatory pronouncements, unionist paramilitary-linked bandsmen were marching in ceremonial circles outside a Catholic church in central Belfast playing racist and sectarian party tunes. A number of residents who attempted to film the display were attacked and threatened by the bandsmen.

In the controversy that followed, political unionism seemed to endure an existential meltdown as it attempted to defend both the age-old right to sectarian coat-trailing through any available Catholic area and the image of a post-sectarian Northern Ireland plc, as some politicians had taken to toe-curlingly calling it. The message that seemed to win out was that if the new Northern Ireland didn’t contain the right to intimidate Catholics, then what was the point of the state at all?

Not blaming Brexit

In the popular narrative it was Brexit that put paid to the latest attempt to make Northern Ireland work. The sheer bloody mindedness of the English in their determination to cast themselves adrift from the European Union had, in the process, scuttled the steady progress of Northern Ireland plc, a majority of whose inhabitants voted to remain within the EU.

The DUP had supposedly fallen hook, line and sinker for the Tory propaganda and campaigned for a Leave vote to their own detriment. However, the DUP has been consistently, rabidly anti-European throughout its history, unlike the more vacillating attitudes of British Conservatives.

The problem with Northern Ireland is not so much those who are trying to undermine it but the politicians who are trying so desperately to defend it. The problem is Northern Ireland – a state that has had the far right, not merely conservatives but avowed adherents of supremacist politics, firmly at the centre of power for no less than 64 years of its century of existence.

With its borders and status secured through pogrom and mass intimidation, Northern Ireland was solidified through systemic discrimination in the areas of electoral rights, employment, housing, education, language and access to justice against the sizeable Catholic population, which was loath to submit to its writ. Always, there was the exercise of repression to make that writ manifest. The Special Powers Act gave the police force in the North of Ireland, the RUC, the power to do essentially anything it wanted to protect the rule of the Unionist government at Stormont. In the five decades of uninterrupted Unionist Party rule until the immediate aftermath of Bloody Sunday in 1972, mass imprisonment without trial – used almost exclusively against Irish nationalists – was implemented in every single decade.

Indeed, it was the South African apartheid regime’s minister for justice John Vorster who stated in a white nationalist parliament in 1963 that he would be willing to exchange all the legislation of his much-criticised Coercion Bill ‘for one clause of the Northern Ireland Special Powers Act’.

Northern Ireland was solidified through systemic discrimination against Catholics, in terms of electoral rights, employment, housing, education, language and access to justice

Unionist government ministers, almost without exception, boasted of their membership of the Orange Order, the secret oath-bound Protestant society that is barred to Catholics yet insists on marching through residential areas inhabited by them at every opportunity. The first prime minister of Northern Ireland, James Craig, proudly proclaimed that he was ‘an Orangeman first, and a politician and Member of this Parliament afterwards’. While the Orange Order is now a shadow of itself and its influence on events diluted, its ugly legacy remains.

Peace and privatisation

A peace wall, built to separate Protestant and Catholic communities, in Belfast. Credit: Still Burning

Following the birth of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, new anti-Catholic pogroms, the reintroduction of internment without trial, the massacre of peaceful protesters and onset of a vicious guerrilla war, Northern Ireland was brought under British direct rule for much of the 1970s and 80s. Unionist communities, however, were spared some of the economic brutality of Margaret Thatcher’s reforms due to the imperatives of maintaining a war economy staffed with thousands of local militia and prison guards, a large civil service and the insistence on building back bigger every time the Irish Republican Army’s bombing campaign devastated a provincial town centre.

Yet while the signing of the Good Friday Agreement gave the population breathing space after 25 years of conflict, it also reintroduced the local far right into government. This heralded what the economist Conor McCabe has described as the ‘double transition’ – the path to peace going hand-in-hand with widespread privatisation.

Sinn Féin, some of whose senior members were protagonists in the latest Irish war, also entered government as a result of the peace process. But any hopes, or fears, people had about them bringing a radical social and economic agenda along with them have largely faded.

As the unionist commentator Newton Emerson pointed out in the midst of the hysterical mainstream media reaction to Sinn Féin’s recent electoral success in the South of Ireland, ‘It has implemented with the DUP… devolving corporation tax with the intention of lowering it… and using UK- imposed private finance schemes to build schools and hospitals, none of which indicates plotting for a Celtic Cuba.’

The DUP and Sinn Féin have also cooperated at a more local level, most recently manifested in the decision to hand Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter over to a Tribeca conglomeration of multinational corporations despite widespread opposition. Although the city council received more than 450 letters of objection to the development and only five letters of support, it still decided to donate the Quarter to a bunch of rentier capitalists.

The DUP alone

But the DUP in its own right? That phenomenon in full flow is a sight to behold. Most recently, four DUP MPs travelled from Ireland to Westminster in the teeth of the latest lockdown to vote against the health and safety regulations being imposed in England. Meanwhile, back at home, its Stormont ministers fought viciously against similar measures.

The DUP hasn’t so much failed the unionist working class as shamelessly used and abused it for its own corrupt, mercenary ends

Sammy Wilson, the DUP MP for East Antrim, has called on people to ignore the pandemic-related advice of the British Medical Association. And during the Brexit campaign of 2016, he was filmed appearing to wholeheartedly agree with a constituent’s assertion that the point of voting to leave the European Union was to ‘get the ethnics out’. Now some may say charitably that Wilson is a maverick and a crank. And he is. But not within the DUP and the northern state he isn’t. As the DUP’s chief whip in the House of Commons, he is more than reflective of its membership.

Let’s not attempt to dodge the bullet. The DUP is the largest party in the North of Ireland and it has achieved that feat consistently without ever disguising its reactionary impulses. Neither has it been shy about advertising its crush for the international far right. But to call the likes of Donald Trump an inspiration would be to neglect the unionist party’s own pedigree in ultra-reactionary rhetoric and policies.

And how has the DUP served the tens of thousands of working-class unionists who have stood solidly behind them in election after election? In the East Belfast constituency, once the home of a formidable, unionist, industrial proletariat, the former seat of Peter Robinson and now held by the party’s Gavin Robinson, Dr Peter Hodson has noted the ‘communities that bore the brunt of shipyard deindustrialisation now also endure socio-economic exclusion from Titanic Quarter’ – an earlier Tribeca-esque regeneration project.

The DUP hasn’t so much failed the unionist working class as shamelessly used and abused it for its own corrupt, mercenary ends. In fairness to the party, it never claimed to offer structural change for the poor. It never even offered bread and circuses for its base, just the right to go on with the sectarian bearbaiting. Without that, the state loses its sense of itself, its centre of gravity.

The continuing divide

In January 2021, the Loyalist Communities Council, publicly acknowledged as a front for a number of unionist death squads, met the Northern Ireland Office – the British government’s permanent decision-making body – to raise concerns about post-Brexit trade barriers between the North and Britain. ‘The 90-minute meeting was described as “forthright and hard-hitting”, with four NIO officials told of the “anger on the streets” in loyalist areas,’ according to the Belfast Telegraph.

Days later, Mark McEwan of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) told MPs in Westminster that this ‘anger’ would be more visible but for the Covid-19 pandemic. Anger and plague give a distinctly apocalyptic flavour to Northern Ireland’s 100th birthday, but would we all otherwise have been celebrating? This part of Ireland was never a homogenous society, that is abundantly clear, but it is less so now than it ever was, and it is all the better for it. But is it a home fit for everyone – or, indeed, any of us?

In December last year, the Belfast Newsletter reported that the PSNI declined to even respond to a report labelling the force ‘institutionally racist’, a finding which came as result of the targeting of Black Lives Matter protestors in Belfast and Derry in the summer of 2020. In January this year, the Belfast Multi-Cultural Association was gutted in an arson attack that the PSNI later described as a hate crime. In the year 2017-18 alone, there were 1,073 recorded racist hate incidents in Northern Ireland.

With independent researcher Dr Robbie McVeigh finding in his 2019 report that ‘sectarian inequality continues to be real’, it is clear that newer arrivals to the North have also been suffering the consequences of a state that is historically fine-tuned to discriminate.

‘Segregation is often marked by a sectarian differential in life experiences between Protestants and Catholics. In other words, their experience is often not just different or separate, but also unequal,’ was one of the main planks of Dr McVeigh’s report.

Northern Ireland now has a power-sharing administration but it has proved unable to overcome the social, economic and cultural nightmare that the state continues to represent for the disadvantaged and the marginalised. Meanwhile, business seeks to tighten its grip over the real agenda. As journalist Colin Gannon wrote last year, ‘The River Lagan does not flow alone: speculative capital darts freely and invisibly around the city [of Belfast], erecting huge developments, pushing up house prices, and displacing working-class residents.’

The next hundred years?

Alliance for Choice activists protest outside Stormont. Credit: Emma Campbell

And this, perhaps, is where the DUP has shot itself in the testicles. If it had followed through on its Tinder match with the Catholic business class, it may have alienated some of its traditional base, even enraged the dormant death squads, but the prize could have been the solidification of the Northern Ireland state for another century. But the sound of the big Orange drum banging its way through cramped inner-city streets, the vibrations of superior feet on disconcertingly changing streets, the scent of the idolatrous Virgin Mary and the flags of foreigners burning atop the July bonfires proved too alluring for an essentially neoliberal plan of action to win out.

And yet, on those very same streets, campaigners for Irish language rights, the LGBTQ community and reproductive rights and others besides have built a vibrant, patchwork quilt of social movements that refuse to take the foot-dragging or outright opposition of establishment politicians as the final word in their lives.

As the weathervanes of capital have clumsily realised, there is a growing number for whom a united Ireland makes more sense than partition – which also raises the question of what purpose that future Ireland will serve. Will it still be a country of rampant speculation and grim inequality?

Regardless of the answers to these pressing questions, any chance unionism had of securing a consensus for the future of the bastard state of Northern Ireland has long since been squandered.

Pádraig Ó Meiscill is a writer from Belfast. He is currently finishing his first novel, Misadventure, based on the events of the Falls Curfew in 1970

This article first appeared in Issue #231, People, power, place. Subscribe today to support independent media and get your issue hot off the press!

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