By Joe Rossiter
Last week, as rioting broke out on the streets of Belfast, with petrol bombs and fireworks being thrown over peace walls, the lack of awareness surrounding Northern Irish history was starkly exposed.
Last Friday, the Metro newspaper ran the headline “Bad Old Days Are Back” on its front page, with reference to the outbreaks of violence. Just underneath was a headline referencing 12th April, when some coronavirus restrictions loosened. What editors failed to notice was the controversy of placing the headline “Glorious Twelfth” below a piece on Northern Irish violence: unionists celebrate William of Orange’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne on 12th July with parades and bonfires, often provoking sectarian clashes.
This is just one example of the dangerous lack of awareness in much of the UK about one of its constituent nations. Although equally prevalent in government, Northern Ireland is consistently viewed as little more than a political pawn.
In 2017, many highlighted a potential conflict of interest when Theresa May agreed on a confidence and supply deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), given that the government is supposed to be neutral in the region’s politics under the Good Friday Agreement. May’s Northern Ireland Secretary, Karen Bradley, admitted in 2018 that she “didn’t understand things like when elections are fought, for example, in Northern Ireland – people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa. So, the parties fight for election within their own community.”
Whilst appointing a Northern Ireland Secretary may be difficult given its complex nature, it should be the bare minimum to comprehend the basic reality of the almost two million people for whom they are responsible. Bradley technically had the constitutional power to call a referendum on Irish reunification, yet showed a deep ignorance for the basis on which one would be fought.
Under Boris Johnson, the Northern Ireland cabinet post was occupied briefly by Julian Smith, arguably the most successful occupant of the role in this century. Smith helped to restore devolution after three years of gridlock, negotiating the “New Decade, New Approach” agreement. He was sacked after six months – prompting criticism from all sides – amid suggestions that Downing Street felt “out of the loop” with the details of the deal that restored the Executive. Quite clearly, the government does not recognise the importance of competent leadership in the Northern Ireland Office, something which is now painfully lacking.
At all levels of British society, Northern Ireland seems to be an afterthought. YouGov polling revealed that mainland Britons increasingly do not care whether the region remains within the UK: 54% said that its status “wouldn’t bother me either way”, and a greater number of those surveyed thought that Northern Ireland had more in common with Ireland (40%) than with Britain (28%). Figures for education were damning, with just 6% of respondents saying they had studied Irish Home Rule and the Troubles whilst at school, in comparison to many more who had studied the Tudors (56%) and World War Two (51%). When we learn more from Derry Girls about Northern Irish history than in entire school curriculums, alarm bells should be ringing.
At present, there are serious and complex issues manifesting themselves in the Belfast riots and other incidents over the last few years which threaten to become ever more dangerous without consistent and skilled management. But these problems cannot even begin to be dealt with when those in positions of responsibility lack a basic understanding of the root causes.
This chasm of misunderstanding will almost certainly be pertinent in this decade, as a recent survey found a majority in Northern Ireland favouring a referendum on Irish unity in the next five years. Wherever the course of history runs next, it will be contentious, requiring talent and leadership to navigate the region through. This wisdom is currently nowhere to be found. The biggest victim? Peace, hard-won through incredible feats of negotiation and expertise from figures who put astonishing effort into understanding and working with the divided communities. Too many now take that peace for granted.
It is clear that many in Britain have little concern for Northern Ireland and its future, a disregard that feeds into government priorities. This lack of a national conversation over a region teetering on the edge of conflict means that the precious peace is being eroded, not consolidated. Ultimately, the most frightening prospect is that authority figures are ill-equipped to handle a gathering wave of violence, a problem that can only be solved by teaching the history and making the region a priority for politicians in Westminster. In failing to educate on the issue of Northern Ireland, peace is being set up to fail.
Photograph: Hossam el-Hamalawy via Flickr.