OVER the course of the last few months, the North of Ireland has witnessed much change. Brexit and changing demographics have brought the subject of Irish unity to the forefront of discussion across the 32 counties for the first time since partition. The census conducted last month is likely to reveal a Nationalist majority in the North for the first time since its creation. Given the demographics of school age children and the economic argument that can be presented to middle class Unionists, that majority is only going to grow, and it appears that the re-unification of Ireland is a very strong possibility within the next 15-20 years.
Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, a border poll should be held ‘when the majority of people in Northern Ireland are likely to vote for unification.’ The European Union and US Government form part of the international bodies involved in the settlement to ensure that such a vote cannot be prevented, and that democracy cannot be brushed aside in the way that it was when it came to the Home Rule crisis and then the partition of the country in the first quarter of the 20th century.
The principle of consent underpins the agreement, giving Unionism its place and allowing Nationalists to pursue their political aspirations in a peaceful political way. Republicanism made a huge compromise in accepting those terms. They did so for pragmatic purposes, but also because there is a recognition that having ended the apartheid sectarian state and obtained civil rights for its community, there was a better future on offer to children of all backgrounds through settling their differences with dialogue and a ballot paper.
Confrontation and threats of violence
No longer does the Orange state exist and oppress its Catholic citizens, nor do Nationalist areas get burned to the ground in the manner of Bombay Street in August 1969—the spark which lit the fuse for the 30-year conflict and led to the formation of the Provisional IRA. However, recent events provided scenes reminiscent of that event on a smaller scale. After a week of rioting, petrol bombing the police and the attempted murder of a bus driver on the Shankill Road, Loyalists moved their protest to the interface at Springfield Road; the very same area from which the pogroms of 69 began.
After confrontation for a couple of hours, the crowds dispersed. Whilst people are in a very difficult position as their homes and communities face threat, Nationalists must stay cool and not fall into the trap. Make no mistake, that is exactly what this is. Young working-class teenagers are being coerced and encouraged by criminal elements within Loyalism to conduct these riots and then to move their protests to the peace lines. All the while, those giving the orders sit on the sidelines as the youth of today suffer and potentially get dragged into the spiral of violence… and this time it cannot be allowed to happen.
The threat of violence has been present ever since the sea border was installed as part of Brexit. Unionists were warned of the dangers of leaving the EU, but their political leaders pursued it and encouraged their ever-ready supporters to vote it through. Unable to cope with the consequences, the old tactic of stamping feet and igniting violence was turned to by political Unionism. Beyond that, the DUP insisted that there would be action taken because of there being no prosecutions for Sinn Féin members who attended Bobby Storey’s funeral in West Belfast during the height of Covid-19 restrictions last year. Interestingly, the DUP had little to say about the PSNI arresting people laying a wreath to mark the passing of their friends and family members during the Sean Graham Bookmakers’ massacre. Meanwhile, they didn’t call for convictions when Rangers fans lined the Shankill to celebrate the recent league title triumph, nor did the DUP have anything to remark about large funerals taking place for deceased Orange Order members during the same period of Covid-19 restrictions.
The reasons for this are simple, the Bobby Storey funeral is nothing but a smokescreen. We have seen Loyalist violence erupt in their own areas and against the police before it moved towards the interface. Is burning a bus on the Shankill or cars at Newtonabbey and Derry really because Sinn Fein attended a large funeral last year? Of course not. Is it because they can see a United Ireland coming due to the ongoing discussions around a new Ireland, a border poll and the rapidly changing demographic and political landscape? Most likely. That tactic was adopted to prevent Home Rule for Ireland in 1912, to prevent full independence in 1921, and to prevent Civil Rights being granted to Catholic citizens in the six counties in the 1960s. But times have changed. The Good Friday Agreement enshrined civil rights for all citizens and provides a clear path towards constitutional change (or maintaining the Union, if that is what voters decide), rendering this behaviour futile.
It is also claimed that the Belfast attacks are being orchestrated by the South East Antrim UDA, who are using the Bobby Storey funeral as a cover to get youngsters to cause chaos in response to the police arresting several of their members for alleged criminal activity in recent weeks.
Reacting by not reacting
So, what can the Nationalist/Republican communities do about the situation? Firstly, it is vital not to react. In previous generations there were not the same conditions and protections that our generation now enjoys. We have a peaceful solution to partition through the ballot box, which is very close to being realised. As such, United Irelanders need to avoid a return to violence and keep calm to fulfil their objectives. We must be wise, learn the lessons of history and analyse where we are at present. We should continue to extend the hand of friendship and reconciliation, reach out to progressive Unionists, and discuss what a new Ireland can offer them. Our efforts should be to seek solutions as to how we can accommodate our various traditions and how young working-class people of the future can enjoy peace and prosperity.
There will be difficulty with the Unionist leadership making remarks like this from Arlene Foster: “This is not protest. This is vandalism and attempted murder. These actions do not represent Unionism of Loyalism. They are an embarrassment to Northern Ireland and only serve to take the focus off the real law breakers in Sinn Féin. My thoughts are with the bus driver.”
The challenges can be overcome though. Indeed, a great Republican who lived through the painful years of the Troubles said to me recently: “We are teaching [young people] a better way. ‘Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.’” With leadership like that, we must take the advice of those who suffered the horrors of war, stay strong, and see through the end goal of Irish unity, whilst creating the kind of society we would all like to live in.
In addition to those words, Councillor Daniel Baker said: “I would appeal to all young people on both sides not to get involved. Our young people on either side of those gates have more in common and share the same problems. We need to work together to give them a better future. Hand of friendship. Peace.”
I urge readers located in the North to take heed of the advice from your leaders and help defuse the situation as we pursue our legitimate and very attainable objectives in peaceful fashion.