Stormont sectarianism sparks fears of violence

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The Democratic Unionist Party has finally agreed to return to government after leaving Stormont deserted for two years. DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson told journalists the negotiations with Westminster have ensured “Northern Ireland has the best possible chance to tackle short- term challenges and build longer- term prosperity.” The party has accepted a rebranding of the Red and Green Lanes that the Windsor Agreement created between the ensures, as Donaldson put it, “zero checks and zero customs paperwork” for goods moving from the UK to Northern Ireland and remaining there. The full details of the deal are yet to be clear and are subject to Westminster passing more legislation this week. While this return to government should be welcomed, Stormont will need far more than the Windsor Agreement to build longer-term prosperity.

The Good Friday Agreement heralded for ending the Troubles that persisted for 30 years could never have ensured immediate harmonious living between those who wished to be part of the Republic of Ireland and those who preferred to remain in the UK. In 2021, the worst violence since the Troubles took place in unionist areas, in a backlash against what they saw as Westminster damaging Northern Ireland’s place in the union. These riots evidence the growing fears that the youth are being radicalised – those who participated in the riots were predominantly teenagers, some as young as thirteen. Instead of fearing the violence that their forebears lived through, they are glorifying it. Perhaps naively, it was thought that the history of bloodshed could be healed by time alone, but sectarianism today is still rife.

Historically, nationalists have been the minority in Northern Ireland. Yet the dynamic between the two sides has reached a pivotal point, where those favouring a united Ireland form the majority of the population. A poll by Lord Ashcroft in 2019 put those in favour of remaining in the UK at 45 per cent and those in favour of reunifying with Ireland at 46 per cent. This demographic shift shone starkly when, in 2022, Sinn Fein won the majority of seats for the first time in the Stormont assembly. Even more alarming for unionism is that they form the majority in only the 65+ demographic. Extrapolating on this trend, a united Ireland is inevitable.

Stormont will need far more than the Windsor Agreement

The Good Friday Agreement outlines that only a simple majority is needed for Northern Ireland to unify with the Republic of Ireland, which places all that the Unionist side fervently believes in under threat. Their actions, manifesting in football chants today, could be the precursor to something more serious. If sectarianism does persist in the manner that it has, then the region could once again descend into political chaos. So, what can be done to tackle this division? 

Progress can start at the top, in Stormont. While both Sinn Fein and the DUP fixate on issues over the union, they fail to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland, which remains one of the poorest regions in the UK. For the sectarian culture to subside, Stormont must not practice and utilise it. The region would benefit socioeconomically from an extended period of power- sharing government, characterised by co-operation instead of bipartisanship.

The issues must also be tackled at the grassroots level. Sectarianism has taken over the identity of many in Northern Ireland, particularly the youth, whose actions suggest absolute loyalty to their side. This, and the glorification of violence, must be tackled with better education on the Troubles, which is taught only as a topic for those who take GCSE history. Making the learning of the bloodshed and the subsequent Good Friday Agreement mandatory may remove some of the emotion surrounding the divisions.

Better quality education, general economic uplift and more cross-community projects will give the radical youth something other than sectarianism to focus their energy on. To stop the youth from identifying so much with their loyalties, we must provide them with something else to identify with.

Image: Montecruz Foto via Flickr

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