The Voice of Sanity is Getting Hoarse: Belfast and What History Tells Us

Between 1920 and 1922, a period spanning the height and end of the Irish War of Independence, almost 500 people died as a result of sectarian violence in Belfast. For context, that’s roughly one-seventh of the total casualties throughout Northern Ireland during the Troubles of 1968-1998. It was, up until that point, the most intense phase of violence in the city’s history.

As with time immemorial, the conflict occurred largely independently of events unfolding in the south. The bloody war between the IRA and the Crown Forces fared as a potent backdrop, but what played out on the streets of Belfast during the early 1920s was the confluence of a distinctly Northern Irish problem: identity jingoism rooted in needless division and compounded by socio-economic anxieties. Trace the fault lines a little further back and it’s a cycle that has uncoiled in Belfast, and throughout the north, for centuries.

To the outsider, the origins of the Troubles at the tail-end of the 1960s might have seemed like a singular rupture in a country’s social fabric. But especially to the older citizens of Northern Ireland, it wouldn’t have felt entirely novel. Spanning the creation of the state in May 1921, the conflict of 1920–1922 resulted in 465 deaths, 5,000 evictions, and 10,000 expelled from workplaces. During the summer of 1935, 2,000 people — mostly Catholic — were forced to flee their homes after being forcibly evicted, often with their furniture burnt in the street. Many civilians on both sides of the divide were also killed. And while no one is around today to recount the riots and tit-for-tat violence that consumed Belfast in years including 1835, 1843, 1852, 1857, 1864, 1872, 1880, 1886, and 1898, modern history reveals a dire generational sequence that our so-called leaders would be wise to heed.

Following six days of growing rioting and unrest, Northern Ireland is racing headlong to a new tipping point. Beyond the very real — and very serious — images of petrol bombs and burnt-out buses, the signs of deep-set fears and grievances are all there. As in many of the aforesaid years of violence, it can be traced back to a textbook source: unionists and loyalists sensing that their status within the union is under particular threat. Today, kindled by the cataclysmic fallout of Brexit, and the shameless rhetoric and whataboutery of Arlene Foster and the DUP, disenfranchised, working-class youth are now being weaponized by the collective anxiety of a generation.

Belfast 1972

But as many political commentators, both professional and less so, have shown on social media in recent days, it’s not only rash but downright irresponsible to disregard the critical socio-economic factors that transform unease into mindless rioting and violence — in effect, the communal manifestation of individual frustration resulting from limited lifetime opportunities, marginalization and the threat of sustained poverty as a result of the highly competitive employment sector. While the real-world ramifications of the Irish Sea border upon the future of the union is a colossal concern for many, isolating it as the only wellspring neglects the reality that oppresses myriad working-class youths and adults here.

There will be no prizes for working out why the current disorder is largely isolated in the interfaces of West Belfast and Derry, rather than, say, Ravenhill or Malone Road in Belfast. As some of the highest, and most concentrated areas of socio-economic deprivation in Europe — not to mention the obvious denominational partitioning — they have, time and time again, traditionally doubled as the origin of much broader conflict in the country. Today, goaded by the old guard, i.e. paramilitaries essentially operating as cartels, the private, deep-rooted anxieties of working-class youth about their future and place in the world are exhibiting as something that has long blighted NI: brainless machismo evinced as futile expressions of brutality. Like burning down a house to get rid of a creaking floorboard, small pockets of communities are once again acting upon their basest, most fearful impulses.

Countless working-class youth in Northern Ireland have habitually venerated the recent past — no matter how tragic or bloodstained — as an idealized time. Without experiencing it first-hand, the cultural longing for “war,” no matter how illogical, feels akin to purpose, belonging, and identity. Without question, this continued inheritance of glorifying untold misery in order to simply feel something is the biggest hallucination to have ever befallen this country. For years, it’s been a vague buzz of discontent transmitting throughout our communities. Twenty-three years on from the Belfast Agreement, a radical dismantling of the fallacy is overdue.

Much like a cat repeatedly attacking its own reflection in the mirror, working-class unionists and nationalists are, despite segregation and polarisation, one and the same populace. The current impasse is as much, if not more, a case of class neglect and a lack of opportunity as it is political allegiance. Writing on Twitter last night (April 8) Green Party NI councillor Brian Smyth clearly spelled out how long-term investment and strategy is critical to how this chapter plays out: “We can’t keep cutting corners, then wonder why young people are getting sucked into disorder, when infrastructure has been dismantled over years of austerity. We need to invest in our working class communities, children particularly. There needs to be long term strategic thinking around this.”

Whereas the Belfast City Hall “flag protests” of 2012–2013 felt pantomime-like, the escalating violence of recent days feels decidedly grave. We’re not quite at a tenth wave scenario yet but in order for tensions to de-escalate, and fast, it seems two main things need to change in the short term.

Firstly, political rhetoric and finger-pointing from the DUP needs to be dialed down several notches. To expect Arlene Foster to display even a modicum of poise or decency at this juncture is ambitious, but she has it within her power to recognise that the DUP’s whataboutery regarding the Bobby Storey funeral is a “he said, she said” cul-de-sac at best and a potentially catastrophic blind alley at worst.

Secondly, and most importantly, it is imperative that the concerns of working-class unionists and loyalists are heard. Within this wonderfully pluralist society — unsettled though it currently is — their voice must not simply be listened to, but actively sought. A 32 county Irish Republic within this generation, or the next, is a distinct possibility. Resisting that fact is like a drowning man trying to panic his way out of his predicament. Right now, many working-class loyalists are drowning men. By way of clear, level-headed conversation and compassion from all corners of the community, a lifebuoy can be thrown and they can be a key part of how the story goes.

Though it deserves a lot more than knee-jerk takes from the mainstream British media, Northern Ireland will most likely continue to be framed as something of a lost cause; a failed state destined to destroy itself from within, over and over again. Thankfully, the vast majority of the population—unionists and nationalists both — are wise to the unconcern. While the milieu of today and, say, 1921 is markedly different (e.g. the broader reality of war and the active engagement of armed paramilitaries) history is a huge learning curve. A whole century, a 30-year civil war, and a fractious peace process later, we must remember we are much, much stronger together.

In his seminal 1975 poem centering on the reluctance to speak out during the Troubles, ‘Whatever You Say, Say Nothing,’ Seamus Heaney wrote:

‘Oh, it’s disgraceful, surely, I agree.’
‘Where’s it going to end?’ ‘It’s getting worse.’
‘They’re murderers.’ ‘Internment, understandably …’
The ‘voice of sanity’ is getting hoarse.’

With Arlene Foster clearly incapable of executing her duties as First Minister, and the Conservatives hard-pressed to give one scintilla of interest beyond the potential ramifications on an already-doomed economic stalemate, the onus falls on members, and perceived leaders, of our communities to do the right thing and call for calm, communication and continued reconciliation. Though hoarse, the voice of sanity must once more ring aloud.