Northern Ireland tribalism is a unique force that has created a near-permanent division amongst its people. This artificial state, set up and controlled by British leadership almost 100 years ago, has proven itself almost ungovernable since its inception.
On Thurs., March 2, 700,000 Northern Ireland voters will go to the polls to elect the 90 members of their new governing Assembly. It was only 10 months ago that they elected the last Assembly. That version collapsed because of the inability of its Unionist and Nationalist factions to agree on much of anything. The immediate cause was a growing scandal involving the DUP’s First Minister Arlene Foster and the protest resignation of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness, then the Northern Ireland leader of Sinn Fein.
It is probable that the election results in terms of party influence will be about the same as 10 months ago and that will lead to intense negotiation and probably a deadlocked Assembly. There have been some changes: Martin McGuiness has retired and Sinn Fein’s new Northern Ireland leader is Michelle O’Neill. But the same animosities prevail.
It will be the first task of the new Assembly to agree on its operational rules and elect the new leadership. Under the Good Friday agreement they will have only three weeks to do this or responsibility for running the Northern Ireland government will return to the British Parliament and include a mandated call for yet another Assembly election.
The odds on an early agreement between the parties are less than 50-50. To go back to direct rule from London after all the work that has been done to create peace would be a tragedy.
But the reality is that 20 years of peace and non-violence in Northern Ireland have done little to improve understanding and respect between Catholics and Protestants. The hardliners on both sides look for every opportunity to flaunt their superiority and denigrate the other party.
Nearly 50 so-called “Peace Walls” (sometimes called “Peace Lines”) still separate working class Catholic and Protestant homes and families. Built to last only six months, they have been in existence for 20, 30, 50 years. Young people living 50 yards from each other never meet. A British reporter doing a story about discord in Northern Ireland quoted a young man living on one side of the wall: “They are all soap dodgers over there. Can’t you smell them?”
Until these walls come down it may be futile to expect such people to agree on anything as they become adults.
The red, white, and blue colors of the British flag are painted on the curbstones of many neighborhoods to remind Catholics they are not wanted. Similarly the green, white, and orange colors of the Irish flag are painted on the curbs in Catholic areas.
Last month, Nichola Mallon, a pregnant Catholic mother who is a former SDLP mayor of Belfast and member of the City Council and the recent Assembly, received a bullet in the mail as death threat for her disagreement with a statement made by a Protestant leader. Also last month, a British flag on a large pole was erected in the middle of the night in the small town of Magherafelt in Co. Derry by a Loyalist group The Mid-Ulster District Council (now with a Catholic majority) had it cut down the next day.
The balance of power is changing with the Protestant population decreasing and the Catholic population increasing. Of the six Northern Ireland counties, four now have Catholic majorities. And Northern Ireland’s two largest cities, Belfast and Derry have Catholic majorities.
The Irish language has a dedicated following throughout Ireland, especially among the Irish of Northern Ireland. There are over 80 primary schools in the North that teach exclusively in Irish. On the Falls road in West Belfast high on a large hill is an Irish high school called Colaiste Feirste with 600 students and 47 teachers. They speak Irish during their school day, during sports practice, and as much as possible when they are at home. The Irish language is a very important part of their heritage.
When the Catholic Nationalists tried to give the Irish Language increased status in the Northern Irish government, the Unionists forcefully rejected the idea. DUP First Minister Arlene Foster snidely said she preferred Polish to Irish. No accommodation was possible.
How can we expect the politicians to govern sensibly with such bitterness remaining. The violent years have taken an enormous toll. No one wants to return to that time of terror.
Maybe time will heal all, but it has to begin soon.