When asked to describe the outlook for Northern Ireland I find myself increasingly falling into old patterns of disillusionment given the past couple of years we’ve had.
To give a bit of context, I recently recorded a podcast alongside Nathan Stewart of Fly By Those Nets for Josh Hamilton’s Chatter NI podcast. Whilst we had a casual chat about NI politics in general, the topic of where I went to University came up and my general feelings about where NI currently is as a country/province/occupied six counties (insert your own adjective here).
I left NI for University in Wolverhampton in 2011, before that I had been working in a call centre as my first job out of school. My mindset at the time was very much that of jumping at the first chance to get out of this place and try to experience what a “normal” life would be like outside of NI. 2010 was marked by tense talks around policing and justice, Constable Heffron falling victim to an under-car bomb and a 250lb car-bomb being set off outside Newry Courthouse. 2011 followed up with some of the worst rioting in years being orchestrated by the UVF and Ronan Kerr losing his life to a dissident attack. I felt I was leaving behind a sectarian country with little to offer beyond a grim call centre life and waiting for news on the next outbreak of violence.
I quickly discovered it was naive to expect to leave behind NI by fleeing to England. I soon found myself having to explain to my English flatmates why Belfast City Centre was on the news as extreme rioting seized the city and giving them the entire rundown of Irish history. At the time it helped reinforce my mindset of “see what I’m leaving behind?”, however I was still very much homesick (not for the rioting I should clarify). However alongside this grim set of circumstances came a relatively positive turn of events. The flag riots saw Belfast mobilise against them with a zero-tolerance attitude kicking in. Movements were started up amongst local businesses to “take back the city” and keep things going regardless of those trying to grind things to a halt. A bomb going off in the Cathedral Quarter of Belfast was met with news footage of some hero taking his dinner into the street and a rising satire scene gave a strong voice to calling out the idiocy behind NI politics and mocking sectarianism.
Eventually I finished my course and decided to come back to NI, I considered there had been a turning point and we could be on the way to a ground-breaking societal growth where NI could indeed become a shared place that works and abandons the divisive rhetoric that pointlessly keeps us stumbling. I eventually started working with Nathan Stewart on developing Fly By Those Nets to explore some of the thinking behind this and inviting others to share their views around living in NI. The ideal being regardless of your view or writing experience we’d give you a hand trying to articulate some of the difficult thoughts this place brings to mind.
I was asked to address two major aspects in this piece; what problems do I see in Northern Ireland and how do we fix them? Those questions alone are probably worth decades of study to give any sort of accurate analysis. We have countless problems, whether they’re our rather NI specific issues of paramilitary grip on working class communities and segregation dividing our people or the more conventional matters of how our health service is on its knees.
My issue with providing a solution to any of these is that they fundamentally fall victim to that same divide that haunts every aspect of our society and helped lead to the collapse of the Assembly.
This country was born out of warfare, its boundaries shaped for a sectarian purpose and its history (so far) defined by decades of discrimination and sectarian murder. We are living in the aftermath of this period where our two largest parties are the political representatives of the two most hardened sides of that divide. As long as our politics are split between the political wing of the PIRA and Ian Paisley’s “No Surrender” brigade, I have very little expectation for things to continue here without issue. If a deal is made or there’s a return to direct rule, this place will still be subject to that ever-looming ultimatum of when these two will be at each other’s throats whether it’s over legacy issues or a border poll.
Maybe that’s just the natural burden of being born in Northern Ireland and winding up not being one of the lucky chosen people who hold unwavering loyalty to their respective community’s cause.
We live in a place where same-sex couples aren’t allowed something as basic as being allowed to marry each other. Where women face prison or a trip across the sea to try and access reproductive healthcare. Where child poverty affects thousands of children. Where our citizens live in the shadows of peace-walls and are threatened out of their homes or murdered by paramilitaries. Where the looming catastrophic effects of climate change threaten us all. Where our graduates flee over sea in large numbers, leaving those who aren’t lucky enough to be middle class or qualified to fill our call centres and hotel staffing requirements and await what economic horrors Brexit may bring.
We have enough problems ranging from small to huge to keep us busy and the only solution to any of them starts at one point (which is cheesy and obvious); working together. As we have seen since 1998 this hasn’t been easy and we’ve had more deals than the local supermarket to keep us trundling along. Given the behaviour we have seen from our leading parties and how strongly the public vote for them, I don’t hold out much hope for any of these issues to be resolved in any long term sense. We stand at a rather grim point in our journey where we have to rely for those in power to make the difficult compromises in their fundamental ideologies to try and move this place forward and as with Brexit the rest of us will just have to sit here and wait and see what happens. Where we end up is anyone’s guess but as people flee to seek better lives elsewhere it’s on the rest of us to consistently demand a better quality of life at home for ourselves and others regardless
Brendan is a 25 year old legal analyst and photographer based in Belfast