Study trip: The conflict in Northern Ireland is tribal

In the last week of May 2019, ten master’s students from the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies visited Queen’s University Belfast, accompanied by Professor Eiki Berg and PhD fellow Eoin McNamara. We had the opportunity to learn firsthand how the conflict in Northern Ireland was settled (or has it been?) and how the looming Brexit threatens to rip open old scars.  

Nothing about the conflict in Northern Ireland makes sense to an outsider. “You mean to tell me that in the 21st century there is a religious conflict in Europe?” said a friend who could not restrain her bewilderment. Indeed, the two sides are named as Protestants and Catholics. It is not a disagreement about God or religious commandments, however, that seeds suspicion between them. Rather, it is a question over identity: who we are and how we can live.

Throughout history, this antagonism has been coloured in religious or ethnic shades, but in the end it is tribal in nature. Tribalism is another concept that seems so backward in our modern world, but it has been the latest fad in describing Western societies.

An outsider cannot tell which group is which on the street. Unless the street is covered in flags or murals, the buildings give no hints either. There is no obvious distinction between Protestant, Catholic, or mixed districts in Belfast or other cities in Northern Ireland.

Image credit: Merili Arjakas

While individuals who identify as British or Irish claim to speak with two different accents, a foreigner will likely have enough trouble trying to understand what they are saying at all, let alone distinguish differences between their respective accents. The Northern Irish accent is not easy to an unfamiliar ear. Yet for someone who has grown up here, the lines are visible and powerful. This is not to say that the two communities do not speak at all, but old habits are hard to break.

Belfast is a city of peace walls – a euphemism for separation barriers to keep the two communities apart. Bafflingly, since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 which ended the conflict by making the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland invisible, more walls have been built than torn down.

To go from Falls Road to Shankill Road, from the main Catholic road to the main Protestant road, we had to make a long detour because the gates between them are shut on weekends. A former mayor passed us with his bicycle. When asked, he had to admit that he did not know who locked the gates. It just gets done. Temporary becomes forever. The walls themselves do not ignite violence, but their surrounding areas are poorer and less developed than the rest of the city. Is anyone surprised that men who do not feel that society cares about them turn to violence? If we only have our tribal status to be proud of, it is easy to see the other side as threatening everything that we are.

The way is shut at the far end of the street. Image credit: Merili Arjakas

The first wall we encountered was in the Tallinn Airport, however, separating the priority boarders from the poor folks such as ourselves. A ridiculous glass wall was a preface to the ridiculous-but-tragic absurdity in Northern Ireland. This sentiment followed us for the week.

Glass borders at Tallinn Airport. Image credit: Merili Arjakas

The first Irish nationalists? The British. Dublin and London? They would have liked to settle the conflict a long time before it actually came to be. Brexit as the biggest threat to peace in Northern Ireland since the Troubles? It was not a topic in the campaign for any side on the mainland or here.

What happened in Northern Ireland, then? The story starts in early modern Europe, when Britain set out to conquer Ireland again to protect against a possible invasion coming from the island. To bring the land under their control, they encouraged British, usually Scottish, planters to settle in Ireland and replace former landowners. Thus, the Protestant community in the North came to be.

Prof. Crawford Gibbon explained in his lecture that throughout the centuries leading up to Irish partition, Anglican Protestants enjoyed the benefits of the establishment supporting them, both in Northern Ireland and on the British mainland. This created a community that was socially higher, financially in a better position, and distinguished by their religion. Crucially, they were also a minority.

Northern Ireland as a territory first emerged in 1920. In that year Ireland was effectively partitioned between Ulster counties in the North, kept under British direct control, and a larger part of Southern Ireland under limited autonomy. This decision was not made to show support for the Ulster unionists. Instead, it was intended to keep Ireland in the empire. Partition hardly ever solves anything well, and Ireland was no exception. The following Anglo-Irish war and the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 meant that the southern part of Ireland left the empire. This partition, however, continued to taint the relations among the communities in Northern Ireland and Anglo-Irish relations.

Image credit: Merili Arjakas

In the late 1960s, the tensions gave way to a surge of violence that lasted until the Good Friday Agreement. In the vein of a classic English understatement, this period is referred to as the Troubles, despite the guerrilla warfare from the paramilitaries taking more than 3500 lives and affecting everyone in Northern Ireland. The Troubles ended with the Good Friday Agreement. The conflict transformed into a brittle or bad peace. The violence declined and the rest of the world forgot that there ever was a conflict.

Nevertheless, the relations between loyalists and republicans can hardly be described as affectionate, and the continued viability of dissident paramilitaries keep threatening the fragile peace. The example offered by Professor John Barry of Queen’s University Belfast demonstrates the extent to which paramilitaries keep playing a role in the politics of Northern Ireland. If a state police officer tells an elected official that they must consult with a leader of such a group to ensure the success of the endeavour, it is more similar to Libya or Afghanistan than a 21st century state in the European Union.

But Europe it is. After landing in Dublin airport, we headed straight to Belfast. Eoin, the Irishman in the group, explained to us that while he had been to the North before, it was still somewhat of a trip to go there, and most people do not travel to northern counties often.

Ireland and the United Kingdom are not in the Schengen Area, but the Good Friday Agreement erased the visible border on the ground. Despite looking for it as we entered the North, we could only tell that we had passed from one country to another because a fellow passenger on the bus pointed it out. A few minutes later, our phones received an SMS with a message welcoming us to the United Kingdom.

The situation is tranquil enough that this is one of the only ways to realize that you have crossed the border. With the looming Brexit, thoughts of the border brings worries to everyone that if Ireland is forced to set up checkpoints, violence can easily erupt once again.

In Belfast, we received a warm welcome from the Queen’s University Belfast, our host for the week. Queen’s provided us with an excellent opportunity to learn from the most distinguished experts on how the situation in Northern Ireland had emerged. Dr. Timofey Agarin explained to us in his introduction that the Belfast we see now is very different from what Belfast was like until the late 1990s.

Back then, almost all of the public spaces in the city centre were empty by 6 PM for fear of violence. If you did see someone, the wisest thing was to run the other way. Metal detectors before entering a store were usual. On Sundays, everything was closed because people went to church. Nowadays, despite an overwhelming number of churches in cities, religion is much more constrained to the private sphere of life.

Image credit: Merili Arjakas

We had the opportunity to be guided to the streets where the conflict is still most visible. In Belfast and other cities, hundreds of murals are scattered around the city walls. The paintings were once used to demonstrate control over territory, but they are now more like exhibitions aimed at tourists. A knowledgeable viewer can read the murals to understand which historical event they refer to, but even laymen can easily see the grand themes in stories that the two sides tell about themselves.

The Irish Nationalist narrative tells a story of resistance and self-determination, often adding references to other famous resistance movements, such as in Palestine and the Basque country. The British Loyalist narrative is harder for outsiders to grasp, because they lack such an easily comprehensible story. Yet they too speak of being here to stay.

Both sides also try to connect their aspirations with famous conflicts abroad – Israel and Palestine, Basques against Spain, and others. There is probably no other European city with so many Palestinian murals on walls. After all, divide and rule, leading to a partitioning of a land, is an oft-used method from the British toolbox. Nationalists were quick to draw up similarities, even when knowledge and understanding were left aside. As a response, loyalists hijacked the Israeli flag, with even less interest in the actual situation.

Image credit: Merili Arjakas

Our schedule included both academic lectures by the professors of Queen’s and site visits to organisations which aspire to build common ground between the communities. The topics ranged from Ulster unionism and Irish nationalism, to the role of Christianity in Ireland and the Troubles in the 1970s–1980s. Of course, Brexit came up now and again, as it had been the main reason for us to visit Northern Ireland. Site visits allowed us to talk with people who work to create a shared future on a daily basis.

We also visited Londonderry – or just Derry, depending on whom you are talking to – the city that gave birth to the civil rights movement in the 1960s. If there was one significant place where the Troubles could have been said to start, it would be Derry. Now Derry hosts museums dedicated to commemorating the history of both sides, such as the Apprentice Boys on the Protestant side and the Museum of Free Derry on the Catholic side.

Image credit: Merili Arjakas

The Apprentice Boys museum was a reminder that all exclusive and somewhat secretive organisations are the same, despite differences in their founding and activities. There were some in our group who did not understand why this organisation was so keen on keeping its tradition of wearing coloured shawls during their marches, despite similar shawls of the Orange Order being connected with violence.

I (Merili), on the other hand, could not shake off the feeling of an Estonian fraternity. Some of the similar organisations in Germany and Austria are related with Neo-Nazism. In Estonia, some claim that these fraternities establish a boys club that hands out jobs and contacts. All changes that outsiders demand, however, go against the very nature of these organisations. Thus, the Apprentice Boys’ decision to carry on with their traditions despite the controversies was obvious to me. This small gap in our own group represents the gulf in not understanding each other, of not even starting to talk on the same page that brings so much tragedy in a conflict society. 

The Museum of Free Derry left us all baffled, though, when our guide, a young man, suddenly raised two placards when talking about how his grandfather was shot during the Bloody Sunday protests by the British soldiers. These were zoomed-in pictures of the dead body. He continued to demonstrate on himself the exact locations of the bullet wounds, all the while imbuing his speech with a strong sense of injustice. Yet when asked a provocative question about the Protestants two streets away, he would not take the bait. He immediately backed to a carefully prepared answer that would not attribute blame to an entire population.

Image credit: Merili Arjakas

This carefulness, of walking on eggshells, is strong and widespread, but seems to be established from above, rather than growing out from the grassroots. A rather vocal student in our group was nearly thrown out of a taxi because he commented loudly on Catholics. We sincerely expected that either he or Eoin would get beaten up by the end of the week, either due to saying the wrong things at the wrong time or wandering into the wrong streets.

Sandy Row Street had holstered flags to show their support for Soldier F, an unknown soldier from the British army who was under trial for murder in the Bloody Sunday shootings. Eoin, very much aware of his strong Irish accent, did not dare to speak loudly when we passed those areas. Perhaps we worried too much, but it does not hurt to be cautious.

Image credit: Merili Arjakas

Not all remembrances of the past are dreadful. There is also humour, both to cope with the history and to take each other less seriously. Sunflower Bar in Belfast proudly presents a security gate – a metal cage that each guest has to pass before being allowed in – and a tongue-in-cheek comment on the Ulster suffering. A lecturer walks in with a Brexshit sign on a T-shirt. A priest calls to the stage his fellow educator in a community centre, a man who looks like someone you would not like to meet alone on a dark alley, and describes how they would walk hand-in-hand on the streets to calm the youth groups.

The Stormont building, a seat of the parliament, hosts daily tours and stands in guard to wait for the eventual reassembly of the devolved government. The territory has not had a working government since January 2017. Residents do not seem to mind. If life is absurd anyway, they might as well embrace it.

Image credit: Eiki Berg and Merili Arjakas

Both communities have a strong sense of the story they want to tell. However, it was obvious that the history they present is full of gaps. Instead of engaging with each other and reflecting on how things came to be, they have divided the history between them – Bloody Sunday to the Catholic side, IRA violence to the Protestant side. It is not the fault of these museums in Derry, as the entire narratives of the communities in Northern Ireland are built on avoiding the events and themes that are too uncomfortable to discuss.

A famous quip by Lev Tolstoy said that all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. In international politics, this is not quite true, as all conflicts are in some ways similar to each other. Northern Ireland adds its own Irish flavour by the twists and turns the story takes. In the end, however, it is the same old story of learning how to cope with each other.

Fear is never a good omen in politics, but in a post-conflict society fear-mongering can create a situation in which ‘post’ is taken away from the description. If a hard border is imposed, it is only a matter of time before the first stone is thrown.

Irish history is full of examples when fatal violence has erupted in a fragmented society despite no major actor eagerly desiring it. It is also full of politicians in London encouraging tensions in Ireland to advance their party interests. Even if the worst is avoided, Brexit has made the brittle situation in Northern Ireland even more fragile.

There is a story of Nigel Farage admitting that Northern Ireland had never crossed his mind during the referendum campaign – ‘No, no, no… what’s the problem? There is no problem.’ For those who have been building castles in the sky, facts on the ground might indeed create no problems. It is everyone else who is left to suffer the consequences.

The authors of this post, Merili Arjakas and David Liggera, are master’s students of the International Relations and Regional Studies Programme at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Sciences, University of Tartu.

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