Troubling Myself

It’s quite a common occurrence for me to speak as if with knowledge and authority about the situation somewhere I’ve never seen. I tend to put this self-permission, if you will, down to research and studying the history and current affairs of an area. Northern Ireland, though, is one area which is so deeply messed up that I have frequently felt it impossible to talk about it in more than the broadest, greyest, most uncommitted terms.

If you, as I did, visit Belfast after spending some time in Great Britain (NI is part of the UK but not Britain itself, because that refers only to the main island hence “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”, fellow pedants!) one of the first things which will inevitably strike you as you drive from the docks or the airport to the city centre is the lack of flags. London in particular is probably too obsessed with the Union Flag for its own good, though the mass of tourist shops contributes to this as much as the government – the flag obsession reached literally nauseating levels in the days before the royal wedding – but every major city in Britain, including those in Wales and Scotland, there were plenty of flags about. In Northern Ireland, waving a flag in any but the most entirely one-sided of areas – Shankill Road or Falls Road, for example – is likely to start a fight.

Fights are nothing new to Northern Ireland, though often “fight” tends to understate the matter. I’ve visited places which have in the past been war zones before, though never so recently as those I saw in Belfast and Derry – the worst massacres of which occurred recently enough that my parents can remember them. You can’t talk political issues in Northern Ireland the way you can in the rest of the world, by buying a beer and raising the relevant issues to folk at the bar – around these parts such actions are likely to get you decked. It’s frustrating and keeps you from getting the human angle which I find so essential to understanding political and cultural issues. I eventually managed to grab a hold of some variety on the situation in the region.

So let’s start with the historical facts, shall we? British presence in Ireland began in the Norman era, and was consolidated heavily under the Tudors to the point where control over the island was basically complete under the Stuarts. Catholic, Irish locals were denied rights, and their land was taken forcibly from them and given to Protestant, English or occasionally Scottish settlers. Ireland was treated as a local dry-run for the colonisation of the new world. In the mid-nineteenth century, Ireland’s population was cut in half in mere decades due to a combination of food shortage (the now-infamous potato famine) and immigration to either the United States or more promising parts of the British Empire like Canada or Australia – leaving the privileged settler population, concentrated in the north of the island, in even more of a position of control. The tension culminated in the Easter Uprising of 1918, sparking a large-scale rebellion which led to a ‘home rule’ compromise, and the division of the country between three of the regions of Ireland and part of the fourth (where Irish Catholics still made up a majority) and the other two-thirds of the fourth region, Ulster (where Protestant settlers, who thought – and still think in most cases – of themselves as “British” rather than Irish, despite many families having been there for centuries), which immediately defected back to the United Kingdom and became what is now Northern Ireland. Sure enough, Northern Ireland was itself a powederkeg, one which exploded when civil rights marches in the late 1960s by the Catholic minority (about 34% at the time) were attacked by the exclusively Protestant police force. The British army was called in which only made matters worse – barely a few years later, 23 Irish people were wounded and fourteen killed in what has become known as the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry (or as Unionists and certain Northern Irish authorities still refer to it, Londonderry). The leader of the British army force which committed this atrocity against unarmed civil rights protesters was given an Order of the British Empire for his actions because, you know, the British government hadn’t managed the make the Irish loathe it as much as it possibly could have yet. Membership of the Irish Republican Army – one of the best-known terrorist organisations of the pre-Al-Qaeda era – swelled, and they carried out attacks on banks and police and military buildings over the next thirty years before ‘officially’ disarming after a ceasefire was signed. Today, electoral politics in Northern Ireland is still conducted almost entirely along sectarian lines: Sinn Fein represent those who want to join with the Republic of Ireland (they also hold seats in the parliament of the Republic) and those who want the North to remain a part of the United Kingdom are represented most notably by the Democratic Unionist Party. Generally speaking, Sinn Fein speak from a democratic socialist angle on non-sectarian issues, while the unionist parties occupy the liberal-conservative side, though these positions are never set in stone.

And the personal angle I extracted from my time in Northern Ireland continues the story. The famous murals of Derry/Londonderry and Belfast paint both a literal and metaphorical image of the people involved in these conflicts. The Republican murals are either images of people made martyrs either by their actions (hunger strikers in prisons) or those of others (children killed by British soldiers or Unionist gangs), or expressing solidarity with other oppressed groups across the world (Palestinians, Basques, Cubans). Unionist murals celebrate the British who colonised Ireland (William of Orange, Oliver Cromwell) or paramilitary groups or gangs. There used to be a mural in the Shankill district of Belfast (home of the infamous “Shankill Butchers” gang) which borrowed from Iron Maiden cover art (the single release of “The Trooper”), which to be fair I would have thought was the coolest thing a few years back, but let’s be honest: if you are trying to gain sympathy for your cause, a flag-waving, sword-wielding zombie is probably not the best mascot for you to use. And to be fair, had I run into a couple of drunken ex-IRA members the one night that I’d drunk too much to heed my own previous advice about carelessly talking politics in Belfast I may not have come away with too good an impression of Irish Republicanism in the North, but the two off-duty British soldiers I talked to made right pricks of themselves and, by extension, of the violent, hardline unionist movement.

So, based on a combination of essays and articles I’ve read, things I’ve seen and people I’ve spoken to, I guess I’d be forced to side in a conflict which really is less grey and balanced than many would suggest with the Irish who want a united Ireland rather than the descendants of privileged settlers who don’t even identify as Irish and still look down upon the original and whoa whoa WHOA just HOLD the HELL UP for a second there, man.

I’m Australian.

I’m a white Australian who lives in a country where the British Empire has violently disenfranchised the original owners of the land and I indirectly benefit from that, where they’re still disadvantaged and most other whitefellas talk as if there’s some sort of equal playing field and it’s only due to personal laziness or, worse, inability on the part of the original people of Australia to not fit into the society which has been forced upon them after their land and ability to live has been forcibly taken from them. I’m privileged because of this arrangement and haven’t done anything to change this except vote for a party led by guy who was going to apologise instead of one led by someone who was somehow still refusing back in 2007.

And I’ve got some sort of right to talk about Northern Ireland?


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