Twenty-one years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland finds itself on unsolid ground. The deal that ended the Troubles was supposed to encourage former enemies to work together but has now turned sour. Brexit has lit a fuse under the deadlocked Northern Irish political landscape which has caused frustration among the population. Despite this, the peace process in the region has steadily progressed, but Brexit has the capacity to open Pandora’s Box in a region that is not yet ready for sudden change.

Mural depicting Arlene Foster (DUP) – PM Theresa May – Mary Lou McDonald (Sinn Fein). Photo: Frederik Mahieu

Marching season has kicked off in Northern Ireland. From Easter Monday until September, some 3405 marches will be held. While it is mostly a unionist tradition, both sides use it to commemorate historical events. The most symbolic and contentious marches occur on and around 12 July, to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, in which the Protestant prince William of Orange defeated the Catholic King James VII and cemented Protestantism on the Irish isle. Nowhere else on earth do so many political marches take place.

Sign protesting the Orange marches in Northern Ireland. Photo: Frederik Mahieu

Many of these marches make it a point to march through areas of the opposing affiliation. To the dismay of local communities. “The practice was supposed to fade out when the Good Friday Agreement was signed,” says Monica McWilliams Professor of Women’s Studies and Social Policy at the University of Ulster and former negotiator of the Good Friday Agreement. “The Agreement called for both sides to work together from then on. But that didn’t happen, and these traditions just help to shackle the entire situation in place. Deadlocked.”

Police in riot gear escort protestant Orangemen marching through the Catholic Ardoyne district of north Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photo: Peter Muhlypeter

From a purely political standpoint, the situation has worsened since the signing of the Agreement. Both sides have moved to the extremes of their respective spectrums. Originally, the Agreement was brokered between 8 different parties, but the big ones were the Nationalist SDLP (Social Democratic Labour Party) and the Unionist UUP (Ulster Unionist Party). They are respectively, the more moderate versions of the current top political parties: Sinn Fein and DUP (Democratic Unionist Party). Compromises had to be made in order to get a deal. Compromises that did not sit well with the party’s constituents who considered their position too weakened. Not long after, both the SDLP and UUP would be overtaken in the polls by Sinn Fein and the DUP.

Cats and dogs

Like magnets with a similar pole, Sinn Fein and DUP repel each other. Not willing to budge or agree on any single issue. Even though the Good Friday Agreement states they must co-govern and power share. Each providing one Prime Minister to the region. Whenever Sinn Fein says one thing, the DUP reactively and instinctively says the complete opposite and vice versa. Something Sinn Fein has been spinning quite handily for many years.

“The debate over same sex marriage is one example,” says Paul Donnelly, local Belfast guide. “Up until a few years ago Sinn Fein, being a prominently Catholic party, opposed same sex marriage. But after the referendum in Ireland and the DUP’s disagreement of it, they have turned their stance around. Painting the DUP as bigots and religious zealots along the way. They’re masters of spinning the political debate. They might have traded in their guns for ballot boxes but that doesn’t make them any less deadly.“

Placard of Sinn Fein advocating for same-sex marriage. Photo: Frederik Mahieu

Alignment with the European Union is another example. Before the Brexit referendum both DUP and Sinn Fein wanted nothing to do with the European Union, a rare common stance. Sinn Fein felt that Europe would only detract from the idea of the Irish identity and its sovereignty. As a socialist party at heart it also opposes its neoliberal ideology. Thatcher’s ghost weighs heavily in these parts. But after the 2016 referendum and the DUP’s ascension into the anti-EU government of Westminster, Sinn Fein naturally turned its head in the opposite direction.

“For us as politicians in the late 90’s, having this European unifier or common denominator, was a godsend. We finally had another way of identifying ourselves other than Catholics or Protestant,” says Monica McWilliams. “But Sinn Fein and DUP wouldn’t budge and held onto their respective Irish and British identity during the discussion. Unsurprisingly they’re the only ones who didn’t ratify the Good Friday Agreement at the time, and yet they’re in power right now. Technically at least.”

Technically, because as of writing this, Northern Ireland has not had a working government for 834 days. Sinn Fein pulled the plug almost three years ago, after debates over same-sex marriage, furthering investigations of killings during the Troubles, and the Irish Language Act went overboard. Since per the Good Friday Agreement, parties from both sides need to be engaging in the political process, Northern Ireland has been without a functioning government for almost 3 years.

Powerless

In all this political turmoil it is the common citizen that is stuck in the middle without any representation. As stated before, Northern Ireland does not have a government, and Sinn Fein refuses to take their seats in Westminster, since they are ideologically against the concept of a United Kingdom. They literally never attend.

That leaves the DUP to represent Northern Irish interests in the British Parliament, but they do not account for a majority of the population when it comes to Brexit, the UK’s most pressing contemporary issue. Fifty-six percent of Northern Irishmen voted for Remain during the 2016 Brexit referendum. An opinion which was supposed to be defended in the British Parliament by Sinn Fein, the now de-facto pro-European party in Northern Ireland. Since they don’t attend however, the only Northern Irish opinion that gets heard in Westminster is that of Arlene Foster and the DUP, who are staunchly in the hard Brexit Leave camp. Preserving the Union is their highest priority after all. However, percentage wise, they effectively do not represent the majority of Northern Ireland’s population on the topic, leaving them without any representation on all sides.

All the people

Southern Belfast feels different from the rest of the city. Less worn-out, more vibrant. The area around Queen’s University is affluent, with many arts centres, cafés and boutiques setting up shop here. Numerous pubs and kebab shops along Botanic Avenue cater to the steady stream of students making their way to and from class. Along it, tied to every other lamppost or blooming tree, satirical posters can be found slyly mocking the upcoming local elections.

Satirical poster of the Imagine festival. Photo: Frederik Mahieu

It turns out to be a cryptic invitation to Imagine! Belfast’s annual festival for ideas and politics. Over the course of five days attendees can freely discuss and vent over the current political situation of Northern Ireland.

Emotions ran high during the Imagine festival when these issues of non-representation came up. Not of spite or contempt for ‘the others’, but of frustration and anger towards the political system set up here by the Good Friday Agreement.

At one of the events, speaker Robin Wilson, a policy researcher and advisor to the Council of Europe put it like this: “In many ways the agreement actually incentivised polarising behaviour. For example, on their first day in Northern Irish parliament, MEPs must designate themselves as nationalist or unionist. A rule put in by the GFA to make sure both communities agree on a matter. Previous negotiators in the 1970s also believed a coalition government as we have it today to be completely unfeasible. But due to the rushed nature of the GFA and pressure from third-party actors, such as the USA and Europe, it was adapted anyway. The loss of these third-party actors and the involvement of civil society has led both parties to focus solely on their own goals again. Respectively being the reunification of Ireland for Sinn Fein and a hard Brexit for the DUP.”

He concluded that a lot of hope and aspiration many people had in 1998 is replaced by disillusionment. But at the same time these are things that can be fixed. If the political will is there these are not insuperable problems.

“The GFA was not and is not a solution to the problems of segregation here. Then again it was never meant as a reconciliation tool. It just had to put an end to the killing” Colette Fitzgerald is the Head of European Commission Representation for Northern Ireland. She oversees the implementation and workings of EU funded projects in Northern Ireland, and acts as a direct liaison to the Commission.

“The idea was that if we could put a stop to the killing and implement some form of peace – however uneasy – by 2021 the Catholic population would eventually become the demographic majority. If by then the Catholics still wanted a united Ireland, they had the numbers and the provision in the Good Friday Agreement to do so.” Demographical data back up her statement. Two out of every three children under 4 in Northern Ireland are raised Catholic. A census from 2011 put the percentage of Protestants at 48 percent compared to Catholic’s 45 percent. “But Brexit has somewhat complicated the matter as you can imagine. Suddenly there’s a clock running on the issue. And with the population split evenly and polarization at an all-time high.. There won’t be a smooth transition of power like the Good Friday Agreement intended there to be.”

Trampled seeds

Due to its political inefficiency, Northern Ireland continues to struggle with addressing several social issues. At 69 percent, the region sports the lowest employment rate in the UK. It also has the highest suicide rate, especially among young men aged 25-29. “Drug abuse, PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), economic deprivation and a perceived lack of purpose are seen as the highest contributing factors,” says Joe Dixon, a spokesperson for Cycle Against Suicide. “Violence this constant and close to home, leaves a lasting impression on children. In a sense our entire society has some form of PTSD.” Since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, more people were lost to suicide than to the Troubles themselves.

Statistics on suicide rate in Northern Ireland. Source: factcheckni.org
Statistics on suicide rate in the UK. Source: ONS
Cycle Against Suicide raises awareness in Northern Ireland for suicide. Photo: Frederik Mahieu

Segregation in the educational system is another stubborn issue to deal with. As with everything in Northern Ireland, what school you go to defines your identity. “Ninety-five percent of children go to segregated schools. Meaning they either go to a strictly Protestant or Catholic school.” Colette Fitzgerald is the Head of European Commission Representation for Northern Ireland. She oversees the implementation and workings of EU funded projects in Northern Ireland, and acts as a direct liaison to the Commission. “Only five percent of them actually go to mixed schools, like Methodist College in Southern Belfast, which is more affluent and has a higher level of education associated with it. It’s a mixed, gentrified part of town.”

Aye Guinness please

While they may go to separate schools and are respectively Catholic and Protestant, Tiernan (22) and Garry (21) met each other during a party in one of the clubs on Botanic Avenue in South Belfast. Tiernan grew “I’ve got no problems with this guy” Tiernan grins as he side-hugs Garry. “Aye there’s history, but that’s got nothing to do with us. I might say ‘Tiocfaidh ár lá’ to my mates every now and then, but that’s in jest. Just messing around you know. I’ve got no balaclava on me. New-IRA are just cunts in hoods with guns.”

Tiocfaidh ár lá – pronounced as ‘chucky ar lah’ is a popular Republican phrase originating from Bobby Sands’ hunger strike. It is a Gaelic phrase meaning “our day will come” referring to an Irish victory and the reunification of Ireland.

Garry nods in agreement as he sips his Guinness “If you ask me most would probably vote for a more centrist party if they could, but they’re afraid of the other side winning. That ‘them’uns vs us’uns’ mentality sits deep. Especially in the older generation. We were born after the bombs so… I’d change it if I could, but we’re shackled to those older generations. Plus, we don’t even have a government at the moment so what does it all even matter” he ends laughingly. Tiernan adds on: “Aye I don’t think taking a three-year vacation as those idiots in Stormont are doing now is the key to solving anything. Wish they’d just get off their arse. Slàinte!” He slams his Guinness on the table and heads to the bar for another round.