The ignorance of Westminster to the reality of life in NI

[written Friday 9th June, 2017, the morning after the UK General Election]

“You do not understand what it is like to live in a sectarian country… your proposal to form a coalition with the DUP shows absolute ignorance of the reality of life and politics in Northern Ireland”

If you know me, you know that I talk about politics a lot, especially the unique political situation in Northern Ireland and my own issues with self identifying as either Northern Irish, Irish or British.

I first figured out what sectarianism was when I was 9, when a Catholic schoolboy was murdered in Ballymena (the closest town to my home village) for wearing a Celtic top. It took me a few years to get my head around this — why did it matter that he was Catholic and wearing a Celtic shirt? Members of my family were Catholic and my mum told me that I was Irish so I didn’t question my nationality, despite the fact that I carried a British passport and attended a Protestant church. Over time, I learnt that in a sectarian country you have to choose — compromise and call yourself British at a Protestant school, learning British history and being surrounded by British flags, or try to be different and call yourself Irish, try to interact with the “other side” of the sectarian Protestant-Catholic divide even if this is met with criticism. When I came to Edinburgh for university, being from Northern Ireland seemed like a burden. Living in GB meant always having to explain why I sounded funny, why our policies seemed “backwards” compared everyone else’s, and why I seemed hypersensitive about issues like my nationality and flags, when such markers of identity have always seemed so simple to everyone else.

To put it simply, the Conservative Party might say that they can make a stable UK government by reaching out to their friends in the DUP, but they have no idea what it’s like to be from a country that is peaceful on paper but still remains divided when it comes to education, sports and political parties.

To be from Northern Ireland often feels like carrying the weight of centuries of conflict on your shoulders. Living in a sectarian country consists of constant justifications for internal conflicts. It’s having to have the same conservation over and over again about religion. It’s having to excuse someone else’s ignorance about what the UK actually is is in order to not compromise the privilege of peace. It’s often having to be ignorant about the history of your homeland in order to avoid uncomfortable conversations in public, in school or in our homes. Living in a sectarian country means being told that it’s always “too soon” to have the aspects of society that define you fully explained to you.

Today, those of us from Northern Ireland woke up to see their fragile wee home thrown into the spotlight. I haven’t really been able to properly put my feelings into words, but my friend Matthew has done pretty good job of it. At last the rest of the UK will have to face the reality of the Northern Irish political landscape, the awkward problem child in the dysfunctional family that forms the United Kingdom.

I always believed that being born after the Troubles has been a blessing. I have been able to look at the worst aspects of my country’s history as just that — stuck in the past — and be inspired through my own country’s path towards peace to use my academic and professional work to help other divided societies to move towards peace as well. Today, looking at the electoral map of Northern Ireland and the Conservative Party’s proposal for a coalition with the DUP, I’m left with a horrible feeling of uncertainty.

I’m sleep deprived and doubt that much of what I’ve written makes sense, but now we have a lot of work to do.