Northern Ireland: beyond normalisation

This was first posted on in August of this year.

A week, they say, is a long time in politics. This maxim, backed up by ample evidence, is true of all politics except Northern Ireland’s; in this part of the world change takes time. Lots of time. My first month back in Ireland after two years in South Korea afforded me the chance to assess whether two years is long enough to bring about a sea change in attitudes.

It’s certainly true that times have changed for the better, and urban renewal projects like Derry’s new Peace Bridge – a superlative project that connects the majority nationalist Cityside with a new public square formerly used as a British Army base on the unionist side of the city – have engendered a sense of confidence rarely seen in this part of the world.

The reality, however, is that this is a job not yet completed; to accept the improvement in atmosphere and increased tourist revenue as the end of the road would be to betray those who forged the long sought after peace. But it doesn’t take the fresh view of a returning son to see that the momentum of the last decade isn’t being used to full effect. The British and Irish governments have long talked of the “normalisation” of the province – a process that brought about the departure of British troops – but now that violence is the tactic of only the lunatic fringes, what’s next?

As the political class tour the world to preach the lessons of recent Irish history, it seems that they forget that to have two communities living in relative peace alongside each other is still to have two communities. This week, The Guardian printed details of a University of Ulster report into Belfast’s towering and paradoxically named Peace Walls. A depressing 69% of those living closest to Belfast’s Peace Walls feel they need to remain for community safety. 95% of children are still educated in school’s dominated by students of the same religion and this weekend’s Loyalist commemoration parade in Belfast brought about the largest policing operation in 20 years. To assert that reconciliation is a job to be finished is not to be sullen about how far we’ve come, it is to hope that the political class will show as much vigour in the next stage of the process.

The forging of a civic identity and pride need not lead to a battle of semantics involving “Irish”, “Northern Irish”, “Ulster” etc. Rather, the generation reaping the rewards of the Good Friday Agreement is showing a refreshing apathy for the petty squabbles of the past. Ryder Cup golfer Rory McIllroy, a northern Catholic, is currently seeking to dodge this tiresome debate entirely. The great Brendan Behan spoke accurately when he opined “other people have a nationality, the Irish and the Jews have a psychosis”. A pride in locality that would surely lead to a more permanent peace can only come about when we are content in our own identity and apathetic about our neighbour’s.

Mistrust and division, almost a century in existence, are problems requiring more than one solution. But, to borrow the words of one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement, why not begin with a focus on “education, education, education”. The fact that most children spend up to their first eighteen years with their own religious group is a recipe for disaster. The situation has created an undesirable opportunity for barriers to form, myths to be created and lines to be drawn. The integrated education movement in the north – those who seek to see more than 5% of children educated together, regardless of religious background or academic ability – has historically faced hostility from the churches, political parties and, in turn, from the population. Evidence, however, suggests this this is changing – a 2008 study by the Northern Ireland Council for Integrated Education (NICIE) revealed that 84% of people believe integrated education to be important in the search for peace and reconciliation. Indeed the clergymen who have always sought to protect their monopoly on education are themselves recognising the need for change – a separate NICIE study reported than church attitudes to integrated education were “softening” and becoming more “pragmatic”.

And so we turn full circle, back to the political class going to far-flung locations to talk of the hard won peace. The people of Northern Ireland are willing to ensure the next generation grow up together – 831 applications for places in integrated schools were rejected because of a lack of places in 2008 – but no political party has prioritised the expansion of integrated education. As so often happens in this part of the world, the population are moving in the right direction well before their political representatives.

Challenges remain, of that there is no doubt, and challenges will not be overcome by self-congratulation – should we really be heralding the ability to sit down in a democratic institution with former enemies as the height of our success? Motivation can be found in the difficulties we have put to rest; with the guns buried and the extremists side-lined there is every reason to believe that together, we can use the classic northern civil rights refrain with confidence: We Shall Overcome.


One response to “Northern Ireland: beyond normalisation

  1. Pingback: DeGaulle had a point: Nationalism clouds the judgement. | Hope and History Rhyme·

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