BY JOE LEARY
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
The “Good Friday Agreement” of 1998 has made little difference in the lives of many in Northern Ireland – especially in the disadvantaged areas of both East and West Belfast. Where are the jobs that were promised? The integration? Why the sputtering violence?
Many in the outside world feel the problems of Northern Ireland have been solved, but those closer to the situation know there is deep unrest as both sides feel the threat of coming violence if people’s lives do not improve.
The Catholics fear they will never achieve their promised equality and the Protestants fear they will lose the heritage of the control they have had for hundreds of years.
The current reported unemployment rate of 8 percent tells only a part of the story; an additional 29 percent of Northern Ireland citizens are classified as “economically inactive” – that’s a total of 37 percent of Northern Ireland people who are lacking jobs and the independence and confidence that comes with permanent employment.
Furthermore, a large percentage of the employed citizens (some say as high as 37 percent) of Northern Irish work for the government or a government-subsidized company.
Even after achieving limited self government, Northern Ireland remains a British state that depends on London to provide operating funds. Northern Ireland individuals and businesses pay taxes that go to the British treasury. The amount of these taxes is not revealed. In turn, the British Parliament allocates a certain amount of funding to the Northern Ireland Assembly to spend on local government needs – like schools, roads, social welfare, and some security expenses.
Due to poor economic conditions in Britain, the returned amount has been decreasing every year.
The balance of Northern Ireland taxes going to London and then coming back through the British Parliament budgetary process has been the subject of much discussion. Is Northern Ireland paying its own way or, as is far more likely, are the British people subsidizing Northern Ireland? In either case, the answer can be politically sensitive.
Further complicating the situation, as has been noted in this column in the past, the composition of the Northern Ireland population has been undergoing dramatic change. Soon, very soon, Catholics will be in the majority. Many cities and towns, including the two largest – Derry and Belfast – already have Catholic majorities. Northern Ireland’s under 25 population is currently close to 60 percent Catholic. That majority also exists in schools throughout the educational system.
It will be extremely traumatic to the Protestant community when it becomes a minority. When the Belfast City Council voted earlier this year to allow the British flag to be flown over City Hall only 22 days a year rather than permanently, riots and severe violence resulted as Protestants protested throughout Northern Ireland in a clear manifestation of how the population change will cause difficult problems.
The so-called “Peace Walls,” frequently topped by hostile barbed wire, still tower over many separated neighborhoods that are painfully afraid of the violent past. These relics of the bad times permanently isolate the good people on either side.
The month of July is the time of the troublesome annual “Marching Season” in Northern Ireland, a major cause of sectarian violence. For years, authorities have been attempting to prevent the Protestant Orange Order parades from marching as loudly and derisively as possible through Catholic areas. But for the Protestants to give them up would be another sign of losing power, so they fiercely defend their right to march anywhere they wish.
Senior officials of the Northern Ireland Assembly recognize the seriousness of the problems. In a joint statement in early May, First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness announced a new program calling for “A Shared Future.” Diversified education and job training are essential components of the planned Shared Future programs. And in June, just after the Northern Ireland announcement, British Prime Minister David Cameron revealed his government’s support with his own program to bolster Northern Ireland’s economic prospects.
A large part of the answer lies in developing trust between people. The more you know about, and are friendly with, the other side, fear tends to dissipate. Significantly high rates of illiteracy in some neighborhoods must be addressed. Students learning together in diversity schools will be a great help. More available jobs and intensive skills training for the less educated are other keya to developing pride and independence.
Together these strong communities that have seen such brutal difficulties can grow into a powerful society, and Irish-American awareness can have a very positive influence overall.