Friday, 1 January 2016

Unionism in Northern Ireland

I have spent a week in Northern Ireland staying with my daughter, grandson and partner. I spent a bit of time listening to what my daughter's partner's extended family were saying about the state of Northern Ireland, today, across the age groups. The folk of my age, who were in their late teens and early twenties, during the troubles were pleased you could once again walk around the local towns and Belfast without a soldier or armed policeman on every corner, having your bag searched and at least one bomb scare every visit.

For my daughter's generation it was growing work opportunities as new international businesses opened in Belfast with no selection policies based on which side of the divide you belong, selection policies which are still present in many longstanding NI companies, more by default and chauvinism than deliberate policy, even in such UK wide organisations such as Sainsbury's, where my daughter works. As an incomer she notices the chauvinism in play, more than those co-workers, who are native, to whom it is 'normal' or do not want any trouble; while managers of both sides of the divide do it, the worst at it are the Unionist side.

For the teens they see a Northern Ireland which is a place to be, with exciting stuff going on and just wish their grand parents and parents would let all their fears and prejudices go and get with the new NI they want to be part of, the NI of Game of Thrones, tourism, new industry, new opportunity and their sense of pride in what NI is becoming.

To describe Belfast today is to look at a city back on its feet, redeveloping both its city and its image in the same way as Glasgow did back in the 90's. Around Harland and Wolf and the magnificent Titanic Exhibition, the old shipbuilding yards are being developed into film studios, start up business sites, new tech breeders with high end flats over looking the new marina along with the associated restaurants and coffee shops, as what was known as Protestant East Belfast shrinks into an ever smaller area where now you can do the house end wall paintings in both East and nationalist West Belfast on a tourist bus, as what was a marker for who they are and what they stand for slowly becomes the cultural memory of a past few would ever wish to return to. In between these two areas the UK media have taught us to think of as Belfast there are city centre flats, middle class suburban housing estates, tree lined parks, shopping centres, Hospitals and schools, all of which go to make Belfast just another city.

In the Northern Ireland country side you see the occasional remains, dotted here and there, of the military posts with their high, metal, bomb proof walls, inside these compounds all there is is fire weed and derelict ground, otherwise it is as fine a countryside as Dumfries and Galloway or the Lake District to which it is geologically related with the same mix of checker work fields, old falling down farmhouses, now out shone by their replacements but far more romantic in a wistful way.

Here's the thing; though my daughter's partner is a member of an extended Catholic family, not one of them is in the slightest interested in the reunification of Ireland. Ireland works very well as it is, to the mutual benefit of both parts, is their view; it is just the Unionist Belfast papers who are creating the scare stories of the 'Nationalists' (aka Sinn Feinn) seeking unification, to feed the fear and hatred in the remnants of the nutters which still remain on both sides. Many of these nutters, on both sides, who have seen their once profitable and wide spread scams, protection rackets and other criminal activities disappearing in the years since the 'Agreement'.  

Like the Catholic Church across Ireland, the Orange Lodge and the Sinn Feinn no longer wield the same power or influence in Northern Ireland they once did and for much the same reasons - corruption, financial malpractice, denial of what they did and their physical and sexually abusive behaviour towards those who trusted them to be their defenders. There is evidence that Orange Order membership in Northern Ireland has fallen from 74,000 in 2001 to 34,000 by 2012 and is now thought to be under 30,000, according to a 2014 article in the Belfast News. A similar fall off rate in regular attendance has been seen by the Catholic Church across Ireland over the decade. Sinn Fein are currently re-organising their membership criteria so their own figures are not available for comparison, other sources suggest Sinn Fienn's active membership in NI is around 7,000.

There remains a nuanced set of taboos and unwritten laws about what you can openly say or admit to, to hold the peace in certain public places and spaces but it is much better than it was ten years ago, I am told, as Northern Ireland folk willing to embrace the new way, find more money in their pockets and a greater sense of equanimity.

So next time you hear someone from the Orange Order in Northern Ireland or a Unionist politician bleating about the threat to Northern Ireland as part of then Union, posed by Scottish Independence, it is their own fears you are listening to because there is only one parliament that can kick them out of the Union and that sits at Westminster. There is no great desire for reunification in Northern Ireland or the South - outside of Sinn Feinn - because, it appears to me, the vast majority of ordinary folk in Northern and Southern Ireland are more than happy with the status quo and are in no rush to change things - the current status quo serves both sides of the 'border' well, as it is.

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