Northern Ireland is coming on in leaps and bounds. New building complexes, new apartment blocks and the first complete term of a new devolved power-sharing Government (since power was first devolved in 1998) have all appeared, as if over-night, in Belfast. However, we are in some ways the same as we always were. We are not still searched when we go into shops in the city center, but nor are the days of violence behind us. We are better, we’re just not quite there yet.
The threat of violence in Northern Ireland is still a reality, as the pictures conveyed around the world of the rioting in the Short Strand this year show. However, rioting in Northern Ireland is different to other places. The old joke runs that we have 5 seasons; Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and marching season. Northern Ireland is a nation of people determined to march their ‘traditional route’ come hell or high-water and other people determined to stop them. This comes to a head in July each year, with the Orange Order parades on the 12th. Some love them, but on the 12th this year I watched as the men marched their ‘traditional route’ and my heart broke. We are a young country, we are tethered to Britain for better or worse and we struggle on. A fledgling country, which is hit over the head with a hammer every single time someone demands to march. It is not culture, whichever side is marching. It is stubbornness made flesh.
[aesop_image img=”https://soundthesirens.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/ni.jpg” credit=”Jill Luke’s mobile phone” align=”center” lightbox=”off” caption=”Northern Ireland’s Castlewellan Forest Park.” captionposition=”left”]
However, people riot for reasons other than because of the season. For example, there is that old stalwart ‘recreational rioting’, in which people trash their communities in the name of fun. We must also acknowledge the fact that the rioting this year was in the Short Strand, an area of enormous economic deprivation. Northern Ireland suffers from an almost incredible lack of investment. There are people who live in extreme poverty on our doorsteps. There are no jobs and many can see no future for themselves. Sectarianism plays its part but both frustration and boredom have roles too.
Whilst this is a feature on the Northern Irish calendar, it by no means dominates society. The majority of people here live peacefully. We have an excellent education system and some of the plushest countryside you could wish for. Generally speaking, people are proud to come from ‘Norn Iron’, albeit in a reserved way. It is also worth mentioning that people from my generation are largely ignorant of the suffering that our country went through.
Between 1969 and 2001, 3,526 people were killed as a result of the Troubles. To a country of approximately 1.5 million people, this is a huge number. People deal with it in different ways. Some want endless inquiries. Others want to draw a line under it. But I have many friends who have no idea of what happened here. Indeed, when a group of Swedish students came to school and asked us in hushed tones about how we would feel about the ‘peace walls’ coming down, I was standing beside a close friend. He looked at me, I looked at him, and dripping with style he announced “I have never even seen a peace wall [1. For the record, a peace wall is a large wall between a Catholic and Protestant community over which missiles are often thrown, intended to make both communities feel safer. It often does the opposite].” This is often the case, the middle classes in Northern Ireland have a very different understanding of our society than those who live at “inter-face areas”, almost all of which are working-class. I have Catholic friends and Protestant friends, we go to gigs together, we go to the cinema, we hang out at each others houses, we keep each other going about our religions and we have never seen each other differently because of it. The same Swedish people informed us that they had been told not to wear green or orange in case they offended someone. This patronizing view of the people here still makes me prick with anger. We are not savages, we are not children. That view of the situation is ridiculous.
Part of why Northern Ireland is moving forward is the political system. My politics class charted the local Assembly elections this year with an enthusiasm bordering on the fanatical. We predicted great things happening in the city, rumors of power changing hands and stagnating parties suffering. And then the election happened. And everything stayed exactly the same. Whilst that is not strictly true, for example the Alliance Party (progressive liberals) made fair gains, things all stayed fairly dormant. Our system is not perfect; we have convicted terrorists, open bigots and a single person from an ethnic minority in Government but we have survived an entire term without anyone storming off. Whilst in a Western Democracy that should be par for the course, in Northern Ireland is was a genuine source of delight. We survived. We passed laws. People shook hands and sat in the same room as one another. Improvement.
Northern Ireland is a beautiful place, but it is a work in progress. There are those here who would drag us back to the dark days of fear and political deadlock. But there are also those whose great passion it is to move us further forward, to bring investment and lasting peace to “our wee country”. There is an affection and local pride here that I genuinely think is enough to overcome barriers placed in our way both by our past and present. We have too much to lose by regressing and so much to gain by moving forward.
So come visit! Take a trip round the murals, try some Guinness, we promise you’ll have good craic. We are a country of outstanding beauty, peace and friendliness. You’ll love it here.