DUP leadership purge the death throes of the old Northern Ireland
Next year’s Assembly election set to be a vote on the future of Northern Ireland - between one stagnating in the past, or one continuing to move forward
East Belfast, a once impenetrable Unionist stronghold is proving to be a key indicator of progress in community relations within Northern Ireland. After the successful launch of the first East Belfast GAA Club last year, East Belfast is now set to have its first integrated Irish-language pre-school, marking another first in a series of steps toward integration and reconciliation.
There are now more than 7,000 pupils in Irish-medium education in Northern Ireland, with an increasing appetite for even more across all stages of schooling. This, coupled with the overwhelming demand for integrated education, demonstrates an deep desire amongst many in Northern Ireland to break free from the segregation of the past.
The list of schools bidding to become integrated continues to grow. Glengormley High School is now set to join Bangor Central Nursery and Harding Memorial PS in Belfast amongst others in transitioning to an integrated model, after more than 70 Per cent of parents cast their ballot for the shift.
Support for integrated education is not anything new; there has been majority support for the desegregation of schools since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 - support which only continues to mount. Many integrated schools are often oversubscribed. Delays in hastening the pace of change are not due to a lack of demand but rather the result of under-investment, stalemating and a lack of will from political representatives.
Outside of education there are further signs of integration evident across the region, in the arts, sports, culture, and importantly in the attitudes of the people. The National Life and Times Survey which has been monitoring relations in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement shows the overwhelming majority of citizens consistently want to break down barriers between communities. A majority continue to support mixed housing, integrated education, and the removal of Peace walls. The desire for meaningful reconciliation has not dissipated nor waned since 1998, rather, it is being held back by a political institution which has failed to deliver on many of the commitments promised.
East Belfast GAA has served as a powerful reminder of the binding nature of sport, and the benefit in bringing those from all backgrounds together for a shared and unconditional love of the game. Alongside sport, the arts have also played a significant role across the North in building better relations and breaking down divides. Art has long been a window on society in the North, and street art, a vehicle for expressions on what binds us - and what pulls us apart.
Northern Ireland’s murals have habitually depicted a troubled past, but the streets of Belfast and beyond have begun to tell a different story; one rooted firmly in the present. Instead of art based on division or segregation, we see a growth of murals portraying commonality and social cohesion; mental health, peacebuilding, equality, and cultural murals are swiftly cementing Northern Ireland as a recognised focal point for impressive, and inclusive, street art.
These trends are not outliers. They are persistent and growing - the outliers are the pockets of disruption and violence that continue to erupt sporadically in primarily working-class areas, Communities which have for too long been ignored and denied adequate investment. Many still hope that with determination, ambition and imagination, chnage can be brought about in even the most resistant regions.
That is what we have always had in Northern Ireland in one form or another - a hope that despite the attempts by those with a nefarious agenda, Northern Ireland has and will continue to move ever forward. For in the words of the Translink bus drivers in protest to the Easter riots, “We will not go back to the dark days”. It is testament to the resilience and determination of a people who have had enough.
There continues to be a low voter turnout, perhaps unsurprising given the combative and disruptive politics of the North which prove particularly alienating to younger generations, but those who do make their way to the polls have been shifting their votes. Electorally, there have been significant swings over the past five years, with the ‘Alliance surge’ in the last Westminister election widely predicted to stick. Next year’s Assembly election may prove a crucial turning point, with what appears set to be a vote on the future of Northern Ireland - one stagnating in the past, or one continuing to move forward.
It may seem that some within our communities are becoming more entrenched in their tribalist views, but appearances can be deceptive. The current political theatrics are the actions of an ever-shrinking minority, one which has not come to terms with their current dwindling position within Northern Ireland. We are likely to be saturated over the coming days, weeks, and months ahead with coverage of the DUP dissembling itself, and the retrenchment of Unionist political ideologies, but this is no great sea-change for Unionism.
These are the death throes of a bygone era, which - hard as it may try - will not succeed in clawing its way back into the position of power it once held over our region. To quote a lesser-known Skywalker, “You can’t stop change any more than you can stop the suns from setting.”
Emma de Souza is a writer and citizen’s rights activist