Patriotism & Swagger – The Twelfth – Northern Ireland

This is done in the name of defending culture, tradition and national pride – patriotism and the flag.

This is not the Troubles – this is twenty first century sectarianism – this is swagger.

Many of those dancing in the street, running through the water cannon, singing and throwing bricks and breezeblocks are unlikely in that exact moment to have been inspired or moved by the trauma of the Troubles, nor the horrors of wars past and current to speak for and advocate for their communities.  They dance, run, jeer and throw because they have been taught from birth to think that they are better than the other half of their community/city/country – they also see their community leaders, church leaders and politicians manipulating an oppression, equality and justice discourse to feed and nourish this attitude of entitlement.

Why  else would you think it was hilarious to throw a breezeblock at the police?  Why else would you dance on a police vehicle if you weren’t confident of no serious acountability?

I was struck at the different imagery of riots and unrest in recent years in India,  Syria, Palestine, Israel, Egypt and Burma – where people are zealous, terrified, energised and traumatised by injutice and violence.  Then I see footage of riots in Northern Ireland and I think that these groups, communities and rioters are exchanging violence and insult in the currency of swagger.

Leaders here are too deluded to acknowledge or name, let alone challenge the problem – and this piece is not about getting deep into the arguments on both sides – suffice to say there have been terrible things done to and by both sides – I’m going to call out the problem – as thousands do all the time and every year.

Northern Ireland is deeply, violently, sickeningly and systematically sectarian.

The flags protests earlier in the year highlighted to many a horrid classism within communities – where the middle class protestant unionists judged the brick throwers appallingly and the brick throwers threw up a middle finger to them and their political leaders.  Similarly during the awful violences of the Troubles it was easy for the middle class to shelter, hide, travel and study away from any interfaces regardless of which community they identified with, if any.   It works the same way when it comes to austerity measures when the poor riot and the rich draw upon their savings and budgetting skills, or domestic violence when the poor are homeless and humilated in front of the neighbours and police, the rich stay with friends, draw upon savings, or  redundancies when the poor beg, steal, riot and borrow, the rich draw upon savings, are helped out by friends and family, get another job, go back to studying.  In Northern Ireland, the rich manipulate a discourse, the poor react, the rich set up society in a way that maintains divisions, speaks only about difference, defend exclusion and design futures based on separation and then throw their hands up in horror when groups (small ones at that) get all sectarian and use *gasp* violence!  When I say ‘poor’ I don’t necessarily refer to a lack of money – perhaps a lack of understanding, empathy, perspective, space, relationships, communication skills….

Northern Ireland is the only place in the UK that has a sixth category for reporting sectarian hate crime – these are crimes and incidents motivated by prejudice.  I’ve worked in the field of hate crime for the last three years – I’ve spent a lot of time in conversations with police, justice officials, community leaders and advocates about how to address Northern Ireland’s problem with prejudice  – serious money has been spent resourcing the response to crimes motivated by prejudice – but as visiting expert after visting expert will testify, there is no point trying to address prejudice when your politics and systems are designed around and maintained by prejudice.

A violent act motivated by sectarian prejudice does not stand in isolation but is part of a continuum of sectarian prejudice that people and communities in Northern Ireland move through over the course of lives and generations.  I’ve seen sectarian prejudice manifest itself in the colours children select for their balloons at a fun day, the particular chosen colour schemes in international branded sportswear, the way children are taught about difference, the way families are taught about God, about wars, about school and about peace.  Reinforcing, invoking and articulating prejudice and difference over and over will always lead to short and/or prolonged outbursts of violence and unrest – that’s just a dynamic of humanity.

History accounts for sectarianism, and it is not something we should shy away from, we need to stare down the history of this piece of land – we need to carry the pain and trauma inflicted and experiened by everyone. I imagine a justice and fairness model where leaders join together to celebrate and remember differences – not pit one side or one community against the other.  Still, today in the aftermath the politicans are key to say ‘it wasn’t us it was them’ or ‘they started it’ – I hear this daily from the children I care for.

What would today’s aftermath look like if we encouraged our leaders to use their words and to understand – the way that I do with the children I care for?  How would that make you feel?  What’s the kind thing to do?  How can you look after other people and make them feel safe?

No-one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. – Nelson Mandela, The Long Walk To Freedom

Just because we didn’t throw a brick doesn’t mean we didn’t choose a particular school, dismiss a particular church, defend or vote for a particular policy, or overlook a particular person because of where they come from or what they value.  I’ve heard that plans being put forward by our ‘divided’ government for shared schools include separate entrances for both communities – if you uphold sectarianism systematically, you uphold it attitudinally, violently and you incentivise prejudice.  As I have written before we will not flourish if we seek to maintain our strength.

I was proud today that the President of the Methodist Church in Ireland took to facebook this morning to show leadership:

All of us need to take action on the issues which underlie what happens on our streets. There is something fundamentally wrong with society when rioting is seen as recreation. Can we build and be part of a society where all know they are of value, where there is worthwhile work, where all see the point in voting, where education is encouraged and supported? – President Heather Morris

And where we have all heard enough political and sectarian Christianity to last a lifetime in this part of the world it is good to see some tentative voices speaking into the chasm of silence left by the Orange Order today after a week of ‘statements’ and ‘protests’ :

I have been more acutely aware than ever that the only way to beat the darkness was for the light to suffer, to give up comfort and rights and to be prepared to be sacrificed for the good of the world. Jesus has asked us to follow him into the pain of bringing redemption. – Rev Steve Stockman 

It’s time to dream of a new and profound justice – and use our influence in how we make friends, where we socialise, buy our houses, what we laugh at, what we teach our kids, where we go to school, how to take responsibility for our words and actions, how to compromise and what policies we sign off in our departments to overcome and challenge this dangerous and deep seated sectarianism.  It’s not enough for politicans to react to these riots and mine and others criticisms by saying ‘oh people will always complain about their politicians – nature of the job’ – in a place where protest has lost it’s meaning and it’s power – we’ve got to start muttering, chanting, ranting, deciding and voting to let leadership know that we do not like the way this place is being run and see change.

If you’re interested in reading more on this see my Belfast series from earlier this year:


An accidental series that grew out of the protests and riots that wrecked Belfast in late 2012 and early 2013 – moved to write after a week of going to sleep with helicopters overhead these essays and accounts remain the most popular on the blog so far.

Under My Skin

What Could & Might Happen Next

Five Consecutive Nights

‘It’s not about a flag anymore…’

‘She should be asking what’s for breakfast…’

‘I wanted to go home…but I knew I couldn’t get home…’


Filed under Culture, Justice, Uncategorized

14 responses to “Patriotism & Swagger – The Twelfth – Northern Ireland

  1. Pingback: Ardoyne Loyal Order Parade Banned For Return Route On 12Th July. - Page 154

  2. Truther

    Bog standard Middle Class NIMBYism. Of course Church Leaders are horrified, they abandoned the Protestant Working Class years ago to play footsie with those ‘sexy’ Republicans who murdered their kin. Do something really radical, get out there and report oppressive policing, indiscriminate use of plastic bullets and speak to a community who genuinely feel they have their backs against the wall in this so called shared future.

    • William

      There is no such thing as indiscriminate use of plastic bullets in riot situations when the polices’ lives are being threatened on a prolonged basis. If you count the number of bullets fired during the recent riots, they are far outnumbered by the number of bricks projectiles and other missiles, kicks and punches thrown at the police. Where are the cries of discrimination when plastic bullets are used against nationalists? And rubber bullets in the past? Nobody can claim justificationn one hand and disdiscrimination on the other. Its a self defeating argument. At the end of the day the riots were illegal, and the police response was very restrained. I would be surprised if any arrests follow to be honest as they have done in previous years. But if they do theyre deserved. On both sides. The politicians need locked in a room until they make some progress with peace and shared futures. And while you have a right to change who you vote for, eventually you have to accept that we are all in this together or Northern Ireland will suffer. And I dont want that. Do you?

    • wildman

      These mobs wouldn’t know oppressive policing if it hit them round the back of the head, which, ironically it didn’t and which might be part of the problem. They were told they couldn’t get down the road, end of story. No-one wants them down the road, they are sectarian, divisive and hate Roman Catholicism. There’s no obligation to let them down the road, they don’t own it. A legally binding decision was made that they shouldn’t get down it. Don;t like it, talk about the parades commission, politically. Backs to the wall? You’ve more union flags in East Belfast than Westminster. All the polls suggest a United Ireland is a fantasy, what are you afraid of? if you don’t like cosying up to “sexy” republicans, tough, your own politicians took that deal, take it up with them, the DUP had no problem coming in from the cold when it meant political power. East Belfast has plenty of its own murderers running about, the people that live in that area shouldn’t have to put up with an organisation walking down a road and glorifying people that murdered THEIR kin. It’s easy to sit around worrying about symbolism when you’re unemployed and have no education prospects, East Belfast needs to being more to the table than the bill for policing these drunken jokers every July, never mind letting them off lightly, they should have hammered them into the ground for that display, you’ve never had it so good standing around rioting in shorts and drinking beer and singing.

  3. I’ve tried very hard to frame the piece in terms of encouraging all people regardless of community, class and/or background to think about what response they might make to address the ‘othering’ that goes on and highlighting division rather than common interests. There’s a lot of church leaders working with the protestant working class – some are making steps forward some are fuelling tired sectarian attitudes. I think the ‘backs against the wall’ image is a powerful one – and was really highlighted by the riots at Christmas time – it’s not necessarily related to legacy, tradition or national identity – but its something that people have been told is all they have. I’ll be writing more about the broader issues affecting these communities soon.

  4. Also I would be the first to criticise oppressive policing if I felt there was a criticism to be made.

  5. Jez

    “Why else would you dance on a police vehicle if you weren’t confident of no serious accountability?”

    I don’t know, have you asked Gerry Kelly? He’s been pictured doing this twice in as many weeks. It is perhaps for the same reason that Gerry Adams has been accused in public of abduction and murder and hasn’t been questioned or placed under arrest. Or Martin McGuinness has admitted directing terrorism, yet hasn’t been questioned let alone charged with that offence. Namely, politics and political power taking the place of justice. Though I suspect the loyalists abusing police property will be arrested and put on trial. The Republican politician-paramilitaries will not.

    I might be minded to take this blog more seriously were it not so utterly sectarian in its focus, and totally devoid of any real empathy or understanding of the unionist working class. God save us from the cause merchants, of whatever type.

  6. Great blog Harriet. Thoughtful and encouraging.

  7. Mark

    Well put Harriet, I agree completely. They say that what seperates humans from animals is the potential for empathy. Its only a potential however, and you are going to get far too many of the latter bleating “you don’t understand our position, we the oppressed Loyalist / Republican”. How dare they, when they have never once in their lives considered anyone elses.

  8. Pingback: Christians and “Orangemen’s Day” (the 12th of July) – Contributions to the Debate | Gladys Ganiel

  9. Pingback: Violence As Lack Of Trust: A Generation That Is The Hardest To Lead | harrietlong

  10. Pingback: The Lectionary and a Legacy; A Letter To Myself - Caris Adel

  11. Wow, this article is fastidious, my younger sister is analyzing these kinds of things, thus I am going to convey her.

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