Vigilance needed in North as tensions festering in political vacuum

Newton Emerson: Outside observers believe Northern Ireland is on the brink

Fifty years after the Civil Rights Association was beaten off the streets northern nationalists are once again a "restless people", SDLP leader Colum Eastwood told the West Belfast Festival last week.

He cited Brexit but could as easily have mentioned other issues surrounding the collapse of Stormont, or the sense of a socially progressive Republic leaving Northern Ireland behind, all framed by a tipping point where unionists are no longer a majority.

Public discourse feels increasingly fraught and bitter, with everyone’s faults cast up to them at every turn. Social media is blamed but newspapers and broadcasters too often choose to amplify it rather than filter it. Troubles’ hatreds seem to have been passed wholesale to a new generation, displayed at loyalist bonfires or in pro-IRA chanting at the West Belfast Festival’s closing concert. Outside observers have shifted from asking if violence might resume to believing Northern Ireland is on the brink.

Yet something counter-intuitive is happening on the ground – or more precisely, nothing is happening. The streets are as peaceful as they have ever been: a period of almost total calm that has lasted for three full years – unprecedented in living memory. This cannot be dismissed as blind luck or some strange calm before a storm. Look closely at the underlying triggers of violence and it is clear they are being addressed one by one.


First and foremost, Orange parading has been solved. The last trouble at the last flashpoint was in north Belfast in 2015. In theory, the Orange Order still rejects the Parades Commission but in practice it now reaches local agreements and observes all legal requirements.

Orangemen will comply

Although the potential for new disputes remains it is assumed they can be resolved, as in the Co Antrim village of Rasharkin this week, where nationalists objected to a parade, the commission imposed further restrictions and counter-demonstrations were called off, safe in the knowledge the Orangemen will comply. The Rasharkin parade is not an Orange Order parade - it is organised by Ballymaconnelly Flute Band - but members of the Orange Order participate.*

It is not just Orangemen and their loyalist hangers-on who have been tamed. For the past five years the most dangerous parade in Northern Ireland has been a dissident republican march in Belfast.

When it was first staged in 2013, loyalists mobilised against it in overwhelming numbers and the city centre witnessed the worst rioting it had seen in decades. Police re-routed it in subsequent years but last weekend it was allowed back into the city centre, along with a loyalist counter-demonstration. No trouble occurred and the dissidents – the political wing of a banned republican group – were also permitted a return parade after providing additional assurances to the commission.

There was alarming media footage last month after Belfast City Council forced the removal of two loyalist bonfires, but this represented a facing down of paramilitaries – and it worked. The UVF faction trying to instigate trouble slinked away when its bluff was called and its own community failed to support it. Everywhere, bonfires are yielding to regulation in the same manner as parades.

As for other confrontations, who is there to confront? There are regular parades and protests for Irish language legislation, same-sex marriage, abortion – which could be said to be civil rights, if not statutory rights. It is inconceivable the authorities would beat these protests off the streets. The PSNI sees its job as facilitating the right to free assembly, and took part in last month’s Belfast Pride.

Sinister elements

Sectarian disturbances can still flare at interfaces and be exploited by sinister elements. When this happened in Derry last month, targeting a Protestant enclave, dissidents encouraged the small number of youths involved.

BBC Newsnight ran an extraordinarily stupid item heralding the return of the Troubles, yet the real story was of nationalist and republican leaders in Derry standing up against the rioters.

Dissidents are still plotting murders and bombings, portraying police and intelligence action against them as an outrage and mounting “justice campaigns” that draw ill-advised support from the nationalist mainstream, including from the Republic. However, there would be no sneaking regard for any violence dissidents succeeded in achieving – no injustice in today’s Northern Ireland could plausibly be portrayed as warranting it.

As the journalist and academic Brian Walker has noted, there is no institutional discrimination any more, degrading identity politics to a form of entertainment. Past conflict continues to feed present anger but could that alone restart conflict?

The constitutional question now has an accepted political mechanism, as supposedly “destabilising” talk of a Border poll underscores. Beyond that, frankly, no-one is being sufficiently oppressed.

Of course, complacency would be foolish – but we are not complacent. People are worried and depressed by the tensions festering in the political vacuum, and that continues to drive vigilance and positive effort.

If anything has been achieved in the past fifty years, it is the social and institutional resilience to endure an acceptable level of anger. We can allow ourselves to hope this will be as bad as it gets.

* This article was edited on August 17th, 2018, to note the Rasharkin, Co Antrim, parade is not an Orange Order parade but that members of the Orange Order participate