As Long as It’s Home

Reflections on Northern Ireland, Twenty Years After Peace

Alina Utrata
Stanford Global Perspectives

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Alina Utrata, Class of 2017, is a graduate of the inaugural class of human rights minors at the WSD Handa Center for Human Rights & International Justice, a former Stanford Global Studies summer intern, and Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies research grant recipient. She is currently completing her Master’s in Conflict Transformation and Social Justice at Queen’s University Belfast as a 2017 Marshall Scholar. Alina shared some of her reflections on living in Northern Ireland with Stanford Global Perspectives.

Belfast City Hall. Photo credit: Alina Utrata

When I think about Northern Ireland, I think about the first time I landed in Belfast International Airport: a sign welcomed me to the home of the Titanic and to Westeros. I think about the jaw-dropping expanse of green, green, green in the countryside; the long road I walk along every day to Queen’s University Belfast campus; and the stunning sight of the ocean on the north coast.

But mostly, I think about walking over the cliffs to see the emerald tones of the Irish sea, one day in October, and thinking for just one second I might be able to understand how someone could love a land so much they would be willing to fight to call it theirs.

Left: Sign at Belfast International Airport welcomes visitors to Westeros, as several Game of Thrones filming locations are in Northern Ireland. Right: Ballymena, a town in Northern Ireland. Photo credit: Alina Utrata.
Sam Thompson bridge in Belfast. Photo credit: Alina Utrata.
Left: The fish of knowledge in Belfast. Right: Queen’s University Belfast Campus. Photo credit: Alina Utrata.
The north coast of Northern Ireland. Photo credit: Alina Utrata.

Belfast, for many, is not synonymous with beauty — it’s a reminder of bombs, bullets and balaclavas. Instead of the deep greens and blues of the north coast, Northern Ireland is the black and white of photos of the Troubles, the 30 year conflict described as “somewhere between a full-blown civil war and a wee bit of a bother.” For them, Northern Ireland was army checkpoints at shopping malls, bombed-out buildings, kneecappings by paramilitary groups, and sectarian war.

Left: An Irish Republican Army (IRA) member squats on patrol in West Belfast as women and children approach. 1987. Right: Passing through a security ‘cage’ into the Belfast city centre in the 70s. Photo credit: Pacemaker/Belfast Telegraph.
A man talks to soldiers over the barricade, in Divis Street, Belfast. 16/8/1969. Photo creidt: Belfast Telegraph.

The politics of Northern Ireland often baffle even the most attentive observer (myself included). As soon as things begin to make sense (Catholic nationalists support Ireland’s football team, Protestant unionists support Northern Ireland’s football team), something emerges to confuse it all again (everyone in Northern Ireland supports Ireland’s rugby team). As a mural in Belfast once cheekily declared, “If you are not confused, then you do not understand.”

Perhaps it is all the fault of the North Channel. The stretch of sea that separates the north of Ireland from the south of Scotland is quite narrow, and people have moved between the two islands for centuries. Politically, the history of population movements is contentious — some Protestants point out that their ancestors migrated to and from Scotland centuries ago, and their families have lived in the north of Ireland for hundreds of years.

For others, however, the Protestant community in Northern Ireland is synonymous with the Ulster plantation. The English King James I attempted to colonize the northern provinces of Ulster by importing English and Scottish settlers and imposing domination of English planters and aristocrats.

Thus developed the narrative that Protestant settlers had stolen the native Gaelic Catholic’s lands and a fear among Protestants that the Catholics would attempt to drive them them out of Ireland at the first opportunity. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the 17th century battle between the Catholic King James II and the Protestant William of Orange still remains contentious here.)

To be Catholic, Irish, British, English, Scottish, Ulster Scots, Protestant in the north of Ireland has always been — well, a wee bit complicated.

Students at Belfast University, carrying banners proclaiming ‘Civil rights for everyone’, the ‘Special Powers Act Must Go’, and ‘We want Houses Not Platitudes’, march through Belfast to the City Hall in October 1968.

It was the civil rights movement in the United States that inspired the civil rights protests in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s. After the partition of Ireland in 1921 (the south of Ireland becoming independent, while northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom), many Catholics grew increasingly resentful of the discrimination and repressive tactics perpetuated by the Unionist government. Many Catholics, along with some of their Protestant neighbors, took to the streets to advocate for equality.

Why did the protests devolve into horrible sectarian violence? Some say it was because the security forces used excessive force on protestors. Others say it was because the paramilitary organizations co-opted the protests for their own political gain, pitting communities against each other. Still others say that violence is never far when you live in a divided society.

But the main point is that violence is awful. Northern Ireland had thirty years of it.

A young boy and an old man stand amid the destruction following a night of riots in the Falls Road in West Belfast. August 1976. Photo credit: Alain Le Garsmeur/Getty Images.

Last Tuesday, Belfast celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement — the peace deal that ended the conflict. Various celebrity powerhouses were in attendance at the commemoration events, including former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, former Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern — and Game of Thrones star Kit Harrington.

The mood in Belfast was not elated. Stormont, the power-sharing executive established by the peace agreement, has been suspended for the past 14 months. Deadline after deadline has passed for the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein to restore the power-sharing executive after a corruption scandal collapsed the government. Civil servants, struggling to provide health, education and other public services without the direction of elected ministers, are now wondering whether they can make critical decisions themselves.

Brexit remains a question mark. If the UK leaves the customs union (which it must if it wants to control its own borders), a hard Irish border will have to be re-instated. But there are over 300 miles of border, with more border crossings between the UK and Ireland than between the European Union and all the countries to the east of it. A soft border arrangement with special status for Northern Ireland — in which Northern Ireland stays in the customs union, while the rest of Great Britain leaves — seems equally impossible. Unionist politicians in Belfast, including Theresa May’s coalition partners the DUP, are unlikely to accept a border “beginning in the sea,” fearing an antecedent to a united Ireland.

It is sometimes unclear if the British government in Westminster understands the ramifications of the Irish border. British foreign minister Boris Johnson was widely mocked in the region for suggesting that the once heavily militarized Irish border would be easy to maintain, likening it to the border between the London boroughs of Camden and Westminster.

A satirical tweet with a picture of the militarized Irish border after Boris Johnson compared it to the border between Camden and Westminster.

People in Northern Ireland will tell you that the conflict did not end in 1998 — it is ongoing, with the two communities divided by over 100 peace walls, segregated schools, and the continued (albeit reduced) presence of paramilitaries. This is besides systemic poverty; the most impoverished areas in Northern Ireland during the Troubles remain some of the most deprived in Western Europe, twenty years after peace. There have now been more deaths from Troubles-related suicides than there were during the entire Troubles.

As Claire Mitchell, a freelance writer in Northern Ireland, recently wrote, “I voted for peace and all I got was this lousy culture war.” It is true that sectarianism doesn’t seem to be declining. In Protestation/Unionist/Loyalist areas, Union Jack flags, photos of the queen, and murals of loyalist paramilitaries adorn the walls. In Catholic/Nationalist/Republican areas, the Irish tricolor flag, murals of the Easter Rising, and photos of fallen Irish Republican Army (IRA) members adorn the walls.

Left: Troubles-related mural in Belfast. Right: Mural of King William of Orange in Belfast. Photo credit: Alina Utrata.
Paramilitary-related murals in Belfast. Photo credit: Alina Utrata.
One of the peace walls that divides the two communities from each other in Belfast. Photo credit: Alina Utrata.

But peace, even a hostile peace, is better than war. As the architects of the Good Friday Agreement know well, peace was not an easy labor. But, as a Belfast taxi driver once told me — every day people live without bombs, shootings, paramilitaries, and British army patrols on the streets, a return to violence becomes less attractive.

There is still work to be done. During the commemoration events, Senator Mitchell said, “The real heroes are the people of Northern Ireland.” As Bill Clinton and the rest of the dignitaries flew away in their helicopters and airplanes, the amazing people I have met in Northern Ireland stayed to do the hard work. They’ve done it for the past twenty years, and they’ll do it for the next twenty. Perhaps sectarianism will never really go away — but at least the violence might.

Seamus Mallon, the first deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and one of the negotiators of the Good Friday Agreement, made a powerful comment at Tuesday’s commemoration event, which I hope reflects the future trajectory of Northern Ireland’s peace process.

“There was a man who was shot dead on his tractor by paramilitaries, on land that his family had farmed for 400 years, because he was a member of the British occupiers. When his blood dripped down into the soil — was that land Irish or British?

I don’t care, as long as it’s home.”

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Alina Utrata
Stanford Global Perspectives

PhD’ing in Politics and International Studies at Cambridge via Queen's University Belfast via Stanford. www.alinautrata.com