- In the last 24 hours I’ve seen men dancing on top of a police landrover.
- I heard a young loyalist man sneer at protestors ‘You’re second class – this is our country’
- I saw another young guy, face in full view, throw a wheelie bin and two breeze blocks at two policemen hidden behind vehicles.
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.