Northern Ireland's riots are the death spasms of a broken Britain
The English ruling class has spent decades neglecting Northern Ireland. This week’s violence in Belfast was the inevitable outcome of that reality
Don’t ask who struck the match. Ask who built the pyre. Ask who let poverty, illiteracy and alienation so corrode Loyalist communities across Northern Ireland that their boys tear at the seams of their own community so they can wave the shreds as flags.
Try to imagine being a teenager in a community whose entire identity is built on loyalty to British institutions that barely know you exist, which do nothing to ensure you have anything to look forward to.
The UK was a business arrangement. The famous loyalty to Britain in Protestant communities in Northern Ireland was forged in metal workshops of the shipyards of East Belfast in the 19th century. Looking across the Irish Sea to its ship-building siblings – Glasgow and Liverpool – the Unionist community played its part in conquering the British Empire, and the jobs doing so soldered their sentiment.
By the 1990s, with the empire gone, the peace was floated on public spending and a bubble of consumer debt. Middle-class Unionists had abandoned Belfast and sprawled into suburbs, hiding from social tensions behind the wheels of their cars. The old Harland and Wolff shipyards became – effectively – a theme park and shopping centre known as the ‘Titanic Quarter’, an appropriately named simulacrum of a past when loyalty was rewarded.
“Everybody here is traumatised, or caring for someone who’s traumatised,” says Órla Meadhbh Murray, a feminist sociologist from Belfast. These troubled souls were salved with retail therapy.
And then came the crash, and the austerity years. Between 2011 and 2019, Northern Ireland’s schools had their spending cut by 11%, the deepest slashes anywhere in the UK. Youth work was put to the torch.
Everybody here is traumatised, or caring for someone who’s traumatised
Brian Smyth, a youth worker and Green Party councillor in North Belfast, put it simply: “We can't keep cutting corners, then wonder why young people are getting sucked into disorder, when community infrastructure has been dismantled over years of austerity. We need to invest in our working-class communities, children particularly.
“I look at the opportunities I had as a working-class kid in the 1990s growing up in North Belfast, with a decent youth service and network around it. It let me meet others from different backgrounds, travel to places I never imagined. It broadened my horizons and gave me a sense of hope and optimism.
“I benefited directly from the peace process… as a young person, with the investment and funding that flooded into youth work. Without it, I could have ended up in a paramilitary organisation, in prison or dead.”
For generations, the mostly Catholic nationalist communities faced discrimination, banned by paramilitaries from jobs in the shipyards. And they responded by encouraging their young people into formal education.
Young people in working-class Loyalist communities, whose parents and grandparents had been rewarded with well-paid, skilled manual jobs, tended not to be encouraged in the same direction, community workers on the Loyalist Shankill Road explained to me in 2018. One in five Northern Irish adults has ‘very poor’ literacy skills, and that’s heavily skewed to Protestant communities, they said.
“The stranglehold of paramilitaries in working-class Loyalist communities is so strong, I don’t know how you get out of that. [Young Loyalists] are not being treated well by the people who represent them,” Murray adds.
Building the bonfire
And then came Brexit. Those same Loyalist communities had been encouraged by their leaders to vote for it. Fearing the growing Catholic population and an increasingly unappealing British state was making a united Ireland more likely, the Democratic Unionist Party had gambled. Leaving the EU was, they thought, a way to sever north from south.
But the English leaders who had campaigned for it had a different idea. It’s pretty clear that Boris Johnson and those around him hadn’t considered the challenge of the Irish border before the vote in 2016. When a friend raised the subject with one prominent Tory Brexiter before the referendum, he blinked and said, “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that.” Johnson was more than happy to resolve the difficulty by placing a customs border down the Irish sea.
There is a pretty strong argument for looking at the partition of Ireland through economic as well as identitarian lenses. One hundred years ago, the majority Catholic areas of the island were mostly agrarian, and wanted to protect farming from free trade and cheap imports. But the mostly Protestant area around Belfast was industrial, and so its leaders wanted unfettered access to the imperial market.
When the Irish border was raised with one prominent Tory Brexiter, he said: 'Oh, I hadn’t thought of that'
Drawing a customs border down the Irish sea is the final end of that strategy.
And ultimately, that’s a consequence of England voting to leave without a thought for the other nations of the UK, of the fact that the Conservative and Unionist Party has lost any real interest in being Unionist in any meaningful sense.
“This is the first scenario [since 1994] that I can see setting off a chain reaction that leads us back to serious violence,” says Peter McColl, a political analyst originally from Belfast. Until now, “the various summertime rioting around the marching season and the flag riots of 2011 were very limited. These don’t feel limited – it feels like the lid might blow off the pot.”
There were, of course, matches: last month’s drug raids against formerly Loyalists paramilitary gangs; the media stirring up anger at Sinn Féin’s Northern Irish leader Michelle O’Neill for attending the funeral of former IRA man Bobby Storey, despite COVID restrictions; the failure of Loyalist leaders to channel the anger in their communities against the real causes of alienation.
But the British state spent decades building this bonfire.
The riots across Northern Ireland this week are the death spasms of the United Kingdom, killed off not by Irish or Scottish nationalists, but by an English ruling class that has turned in on itself.
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