British politics make Brexit a soap opera – and the whole world is watching. Like many observers, journalist Ina Verstl is shocked that the irish border issue hardly plays a role. A separation between Ireland and Northern Ireland could trigger a new era of violence. A journey around a torn land. Die britische Politik macht aus dem Brexit eine Seifenoper – und die ganze Welt schaut zu. Die Journalistin Ina Verstl ist wie viele Beobachter schockiert, dass die irische Grenzfrage dabei kaum eine Rolle spielt. Dabei könnte eine Trennung zwischen Irland und Nordirland eine neue Ära der Gewalt auslösen. Eine Reise durch ein zerissenes Land.
Northern Ireland, July 2019
How will this end? The UK’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has blithely claimed that 31 October 2019, the final deadline for departure from the European Union, is a “do or die, come what may”. No delays. No more extensions. Read my lips. For Northern Ireland, where people have long developed a black sense of humour, Brexit is a GUBU – an acronym coined by the Irish intellectual Connor Cruise O’Brien, which stands for “grotesque, unusual, bizarre and unprecedented”.
Many think that Brexit would have been a disaster, but a No-Deal Brexit will be a catastrophe: it could put 40,000 jobs at risk, cut exports to the Republic of Ireland by between 11 percent and 19 percent, and, more worryingly, reignite the violent conflict. This bleak sentiment is shared across community lines. In the 2011 census, 48 percent self-identified as Protestants, 45 percent as Roman-Catholics, 0.9 percent as non-Christian, and 5.6 percent as non-religious.
Considering that Northern Ireland has voted (56 percent) to remain in the EU and an equally large majority of voters has backed parties that expressly embraced the “Backstop” in the recent elections to the European parliament, it must have been a slap in their faces that Conservative party members in a June YouGov poll said they would rather see a break-up of the union and the loss of Northern Ireland than fail to leave EU.
Bar a miracle, the progress, which has been made over the past 20 years since the signing of the 1998 peace accord, could be thrown away. And that is because less than one percent of the UK’s electorate chose Mr Johnson as Prime Minister, whose so-called “war cabinet” wants to impose the most extreme form of Brexit on everyone else.
No one knows what will become of the hotly contested border issue between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (part of the EU), after Brexit. In fact, the 480 km-long Irish border will represent the only land border between the UK and the EU. As of 1 November 2019, says the BBC on its website, “the two parts of Ireland could find themselves in different customs and regulatory regimes, requiring border checks for all kinds of products. Only a trade deal would prevent this. However, the UK’s red lines, which include leaving the customs union and the single market, make that very difficult.”
The border is a matter of great political, security and diplomatic sensitivity in the whole of Ireland. Ireland is a small island. 4.8 million people live in the Republic of Ireland compared with 1.8 million people in Northern Ireland. Even when combined, that is fewer people than there were in 1841 (before the Great Famine and the exodus), when a census revealed a population of over 8 million. A provisional border only came up in 1921 after Ireland was split in two by the British following a guerrilla conflict, later termed the Irish War of Independence. The south became a separate state, formerly called the Irish Free State, now the Republic of Ireland, whilst Northern Ireland remained part of the UK.
Ignorance about the decades-long conflict, why it has arisen and what the solution might be, is widespread. Just take the term “Troubles” for the conflict. In our view, that is a euphemism if ever there was one. In the 1970s, bombs and shootings were an almost daily occurrence. Violence knew no barriers. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time could be fatal.
Why not call it a civil war (a taboo term) or a war for independence from British colonial rule? Catholic nationalists and their radical arm of republicans certainly believe that the north should join a united, independent Ireland. Not so the Protestant unionists and their radical wing of loyalists. They fervently believe that Northern Ireland should remain a part of the UK. And why not? Their ancestors, either English (mainly Anglican) or Scottish (mainly Presbyterian) had settled in the region as of the early 17th century in several waves of colonialisation, called The Plantation.
The Troubles: a conflict about power and identity in Northern Ireland – Es geht um die Machtfrage und die Deutungshoheit
Make no mistake, though. It is not a conflict over religion. It is about power, identity, and the prerogative of interpreting history, all of which have been contested for more than 500 years.
The period known as the “Troubles” began in 1968. In Derry-Londonderry, civil rights protesters, calling for the vote, jobs and housing, clash with the police on 5 October. 30 people are injured. The ultimate origins of the Troubles, the historian John Gibney says, lay in the treatment of the Catholic minority under the Protestant parliament in Stormont, outside Belfast. “The unionist regime was inclined to treat Catholics as second-class citizens,” he argues. For example, most Catholics could not vote as the right to vote was linked to paying rates on property. Too poor to own property, Catholics were in fact denied political representation. A footnote: Women over 21 years old got the vote in the UK in 1928 – regardless of property ownership.
Discrimination against working-class Catholics in the 1960s meant they were confined to living in high-density areas like the Bogside in Derry-Londonderry, in decrepit houses, which lacked even basic sanitation. Photos from the time depict slums, which you would not believe still existed 50 years ago in Europe. Because of the rapid decline of Northern Ireland’s traditional shipbuilding and textile industries after World War II, unemployment in the Bogside sometimes ran as high as 80 percent.
Inspired by the civil rights movement in the US, Catholics take to the streets. But seeing their protests squashed by the police, militants take over and sectarian violence between republican and loyalist paramilitaries ensues.
The break-down of civil order during the summer of 1969 causes the British government to deploy the British Army to keep the rioting factions apart. According to the BBC, the arrival of British troops is initially welcomed by the Catholics who see the soldiers as peacekeepers – troops who would protect them from Protestant mobs. But the targeting of the army by the IRA, and controversial counter-measures like internment (that is detention without trial) lead to the alienation of the Catholic community from the soldiers.
The conflict comes to a fatal head on Sunday 30 January 1972. About 10,000 people attend a rally and march in Derry-Londonderry against internment. The army is ordered to prevent the marchers from reaching the Guildhall. What actually happened on the day, since called Bloody Sunday, has not been fully established. Soldiers from the 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment claim they came under fire from gunmen hiding amongst the marchers. The marchers say that there were no terrorists, and that soldiers shot unarmed civilians. Fact is, 13 people are shot dead and one dies later of his injuries. Many more people are wounded. With the violence spiralling out of control, Northern Ireland’s parliament is suspended soon after, and direct rule from Westminster imposed.
Running up a death toll of 3,700 people, mostly civilians, and leaving more than 47,000 people injured or maimed in 37,000 shootings and 16,000 bombings, the Troubles come to an end in a peace accord, the Good Friday Agreement. It is signed after years of negotiations in 1998. Direct rule from London is suspended because Catholics and Protestants agree to a power-sharing assembly. Among the measures, the UK government consents to demilitarise and remove security installations in towns, cities and along the border. The dismantling of the hard border has since become a symbol of the peace process.
Presently, you would not know that you are crossing into Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland, were it not for text messages on your mobile saying that you have changed telephone companies. On the Irish Republic’s side, there are signs warning drivers that speed limits are now given in kilometres rather than in miles to prevent Northern Irish from inadvertent speeding. But that’s it. There are no physical installations to remind you that you are actually entering or leaving another country.
However, in Northern Ireland the past still casts long shadows and the peace, precarious at best, feels more like an extended ceasefire. If you drive around the counties immediately north of the border, you may notice empty and boarded-up farmhouses. Many were once owned by Protestants, who have either fled or were murdered by the IRA. “Irish border Protestants believe that the IRA’s plan was to have fewer of them and more Catholic landowners there,” argues John Divine, a retired journalist. The land grab was to be achieved by what today is called “ethnic cleansing”. The IRA miscalculated. Protestant resilience was more obdurate than expected. Mr Divine suspects that mysterious Protestant financial arrangements have underwritten all efforts to ensure that threatened farms did not fall “into the wrong hands”.
Enniskillen: empty spaces of memory – Erinnerungslücken
Those entering into Northern Ireland from Sligo in the northwest of the Irish Republic, tend to pass through Enniskillen and Omagh on their way to Derry-Londonderry. The two towns are mainly remembered as sites of major bomb attacks by the IRA. The Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen took place on 8 November 1987. A car bomb explodes near the town’s war memorial during a Remembrance Sunday ceremony, which is a major event to commemorate British military war dead. Eleven people (ten civilians and a police officer) are killed and 63 are injured. The IRA says afterwards that it has made a mistake and that its target has been a parade of British soldiers to the memorial. No one has been brought to justice for the Enniskillen killing.
When we stop in Enniskillen on a Sunday, the town is eerily empty and feels gloomy as if it has just been evacuated because of some security alert. We soon learn that many of its inhabitants are attending services at the town’s three main churches: Roman Catholic, Church of Ireland (Anglican) and Presbyterian, all a stone’s throw away from each other. Shops and pubs are closed and will only open at 1 o’clock, after church due to Northern Ireland’s strict regulations.
Coming from the Republic of Ireland with its liberal opening hours, we are desperate to find an open coffee shop to get away from the approaching rain. Once the showers stop, we follow our guidebook and walk to the Clinton Centre, situated on the site of the bombing. There is a glass window on the side of the building commemorating the attack. The inscription reads:
THIS IS OUR PURPOSE HERE | TO REMEMBER THE PAST | AND THOSE WE KNEW | AND LOVED; | SOLEMNLY AND | WITH FONDNESS; | TO LOOK TO | THE FUTURE | WITH HOPE; | AND BRING US | TOGETHER | TO LEARN THE | WAYS OF LIFE; | TEACHING WAR | NO MORE. | THIS IS A PLACE | FOR SORROWS TEARS | AND A PLACE FOR THE | LAUGHTER OF CHILDREN
The inscription seems wholly ironic, given that the Clinton Centre has a desolate air to it. Opened by former US President Bill Clinton in 2002 as a conference and exhibition facility to promote peace and prosperity, the building has stood empty for several years and is now up for lease. Despite best intentions, the Clinton Centre has fallen into disuse.
In fact, it has joined a list of well-meaning initiatives, which have courted controversy and caused endless grief. Take Enniskillen’s own memorial to the bomb attack. It takes the town 30 years to finally erect one. Bearing the names of the 12 victims, the memorial is removed within hours of being unveiled on 8 November 2017 because a Catholic trust, on whose land the memorial was to sit, has not been consulted over its location. Almost a year later, in September 2018, an agreement is finally reached to place it within the gable wall of the Clinton Centre. Come July 2019 and it still seems to be sitting in storage.
Omagh: j’accuse! – Die Bombe, die 29 Menschen tötet
The argument over how to commemorate the violent past also continues to rage in Omagh, the site of the IRA’s deadliest car bomb attack. The date is Saturday, 15 August 1998, in the afternoon when the town centre is thronging with people doing their shopping. Coming 13 weeks after the Good Friday Agreement, it is carried out by a group, which calls itself the Real Irish Republican Army, a renegade group, which opposes the IRA’s ceasefire and the Good Friday Agreement. The bomb kills 29 people, including a woman pregnant with twins, and injures over 300. Security forces receive telephoned warnings beforehand, but they are (deliberately or accidentally) inaccurate. Without knowing, the police inadvertently evacuate people towards the bomb. To date, no one has been convicted over the atrocity.
It is raining heavily when we finally manage to find Omagh’s memorial Garden of Light. Unfortunately, we cannot observe the light spectacle from the 31 mirrors (the total number of dead) sitting on tall poles. On a sunny day, they will reflect light from the garden to a glass obelisk on Market Street, where the bomb exploded. Otherwise, the obelisk, because of its position, will always be in the shade.
The memorial garden was officially opened in 2008, despite an argument raging between victims’ families and Omagh District Council over the wording for the plaque. In fact, there is an inscription at the garden, which lists the victims but omits the perpetrators. The obelisk in Market Street originally carried no inscription at all, fuelling suspicion among victims’ families that the Sinn Féin-dominated council objected to having the words “dissident republican car bomb” on the memorial plaque. Sinn Féin is a left-wing republican party that is active in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
At the end of 2018, Kevin Skelton, whose wife was killed in the attack, has enough and places a plaque at the bottom of the obelisk, which includes the contested wording. His justification? He wants the truth to be told. “The fact is that until this plaque was placed, a stranger coming into Omagh would not have known what happened because the memorial in Market Street gave no indication,” Mr Skelton complained to media. “For years now the truth about what happened has been denied by the council because of their decision not to include information on who carried out the Omagh bomb,” he added. Still, Omagh council had to consider whether or not to remove the plaque because Mr Skelton had not been authorised to attach it in the first place.
Derry-Londonderry: the war of the flags – Krieg der Flaggen
Admittedly, the on-going disputes over Enniskillen and Omagh’s memorials will elude tourists, unless they do an extensive research on the internet. Not so in Derry-Londonderry, Northern Ireland’s second-largest city (population: 100,000), whose name already elicits a taking of sides. Call it Derry, its original name, and you will give yourself away as a Catholic nationalist. Call it Londonderry and you may find yourself in league with the Protestant unionists, who rechristened it Londonderry in 1613 when a Royal Charter proclaimed “that the said city or town of Derry, forever hereafter be and shall be named and called the city of Londonderry.” The current compromise is to call it “Derry-Londonderry”. Long-winded, but apparently least offensive.
In Derry-Londonderry, the lingering conflict, permanently charged with the unpredictable electricity of violence, takes on a different quality. Visibly and unavoidably, it is inscribed on the city through flags, murals, painted kerbstones and fences. To this day, Derry-Londonderry continues to be segregated. The town centre, surrounded by a stone wall dating from the early 17th century, used to be a unionist stronghold with Catholics confined to areas like the Bogside and Creggan. Tourists would not know that in the 1970s, systematic bombing turned the town centre into heaps of rubble. It has since been rebuilt. They also would not know that the rows of neat new houses have replaced those reduced to shells after being set on fire to force its inhabitants to flee. Both sides engaged in this notorious practice. It is estimated that some 45,000 to 60,000 people were displaced during the Troubles, becoming what many refer to colloquially as “burnt out”.
Fortunately, also gone is the “Ring of Steel”, which was raised around Derry-Londonderry by the British army in the 1970s, to check on people coming in and out of the city. Even the old city wall was part of the army’s installations to keep a watch over the Bogside, laying at its feet to the west. Hard to believe but true: these were only dismantled in the early 2000s.
Obviously, the murals are the most expressive reflections on the Troubles. The academic Stuart Borthwick has photographed hundreds of them over the years, and published them in a book called The Writing on the Wall (2015). It is sadly out of print.
Like the flying of flags (the Union Jack in unionist areas, the Irish tricolore in nationalist quarters), murals serve as a claim on public space and territory, and an assertion of identity. Conversely, they also serve as a means to elicit loyalty from community members.
Historians argue that the unionist/loyalist tradition of mural painting is older than the nationalist/republican’s, going back for more than a century. Due to Protestant domination of politics and society, many of their murals appear both triumphalist and defiant in message. Plenty are linked to the annual commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne on 12 July 1690, when William of Orange, an import from the Protestant Netherlands, defeats the Catholic King James II and thus becomes the successor to the English throne. The dominant image in these murals is of “King Billy” astride his white horse, crossing the River Boyne. An often found slogan is “no surrender”, which refers to the Siege of Derry in 1689, when loyal Protestants defeat the Earl of Antrim, who was under the authority of King James II.
Nationalist/republican murals only began to appear in larger numbers during the Troubles. Murals honouring the hunger strikers, especially Bobby Sands, proliferated during the 1980s. Revered like a dead popstar, Bobby Sands was a member of the IRA, who died after 66 days on a hunger strike in 1981, aged 27, while serving a prison sentence for firearms possession. He and nine other hunger strikers, who fasted to death, strove to be considered political prisoners as opposed to criminals, but Westminster refused to give in to their demands. What makes his death politically poignant is that he was elected to the UK parliament while on hunger strike.
Coming from the Continent, where the flying of national flags is a more low-key affair and mostly reserved for public buildings, we find the profusion of Union Jacks, as well as regimental and paramilitary flags in unionist quarters, far scarier and unsettling than the murals. To us, the flags have taken the violent conflict to another, literally higher level. In the Fountain area of Derry-Londonderry, the loyalist community has hijacked lamp posts and hoisted flag poles on top of them with the help of duct tape and barbed wire, so that they cannot not be taken down easily. Call us obtuse, but as we study the skimped workmanship, all we can think about are gushing winds which might send the flags hurling down and smash the cars parked underneath them. Whose insurance will be held liable for the damage?
Interestingly, the nationalists’ response to Union Jacks ruling the air is to dress their streets in rainbow flags, underlining their support for more progressive political aims, in this case the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) initialism. Big LGBT events are scheduled for August. Previously, when Sinn Féin urged its followers to “support rallies in solidarity with the Palestinian people in their just quest for freedom and nationhood” and flew Palestinian flags in its areas, unionists could do no other than to hoist Israeli flags, we are told.
These squabbles may seem absurd, but they are indicative of the tit-for-tat politics in Northern Ireland, where the perception of victory for one community necessitates an equally bold response by the other in order not to fall behind.
We call ourselves lucky to have missed out on another spectacle which highlights the deep rift between communities: Northern Ireland’s bonfire night, simply called “The Twelfth”. If you think “bonfires in back garden” you have seen nothing yet. Each year, on 12 July, hundreds of pyres are lit across Northern Ireland to mark the Protestants’ victory in 1690. Though branded a wholesome family activity by unionists, replete with bouncy castles and live music, we would have been freaked out by this kind of “recreational pyromania” (the Irish Times columnist Donald Clarke). Because we are talking about enormous towers, built from wooden pallets and placed within sparking distance of family homes. Probably driven by swagger and competitiveness, some of the structures have risen to 30 metres in height in recent years. The fires are lit round midnight for show and effect. Equally for show and effect, Republic of Ireland flags, posters for Sinn Féin and effigies of whoever happens to have caused loyalists’ ire have reportedly been thrown into the flames too on occasion.
Defenders of the bonfire razzmatazz call it “living culture”. Well, to see it this way requires a very broad notion of culture, especially as it often degenerates into a drunken affair, despite the unionist Orangemen’s reminder that the bonfires are “about the battle [of the Boyne] not the bottle”. No matter how hard unionists try, the bonfires’ critics will always say that the bigotry is explicit, intimidating and unyielding.
Their longstanding tradition notwithstanding, the bonfires and the accompanying unionist marches remain highly controversial. But locals have come to deal with them pragmatically. They simply go away. Large sections of Northern Ireland are virtually deserted on the Twelfth weekend. A businesswoman tells us: “Let them have their fun. But I don’t have to watch it. So I lock up and spend the weekend by the sea.” A colleague of hers from the Irish Republic refused to believe that, except for the marches, life will grind to a halt. So he came, saw … and turned on his heels.
This type of response can be expected in nationalist areas, but it is also true of many areas where Protestants live. Middle-class unionists are as likely as nationalists to mock the idea that polluting the air and damaging buildings can be regarded as a form of culture. This points to an aspect of class division often overlooked, says the writer Owen Polley. The contentious fires take place in staunchly working-class areas. Therefore, we are bound to agree with Mr Polley that many Catholics are unlikely ever to be convinced that the pageantry on The Twelfth is inclusive [that is for everybody], because of what it represents politically: the triumph of Protestantism and Britishness.
Belfast: unionists parades are about ritual, tradition and control – die Paraden der Protestanten
In the end, the unionist marches still catch up with us. Silly us, marching season is from Easter until September each year. And it is not exclusive to the unionists. Nationalists, republicans and other groups also like to parade. However, all parades need to be authorised by the Parades Commission, established in 1998, which has such far-reaching powers that it can even prohibit the ones it deems offensive.
Perhaps we made a mistake when we rented accommodation in Belfast in an area next to Donegall Pass, a thoroughfare. To us, it seems ideally located, within walking distance to the city centre. Having consulted political maps, we are aware that we will be staying in a loyalist area. But little do we know how resolutely loyalist it is.
On a Saturday afternoon, as we are drinking coffee, we suddenly hear a marching band play nearby, followed by another and another. Checking with paradescommission.org, we see that the South Belfast Young Conquerors flute band has organised a march almost past our front door. A total of 40 bands and about 1,000 people are scheduled to take part. Out we rush to see it for ourselves.
What can we report? Well, the licentious Cologne Carnival parade it ain’t. Although the lively tunes get our feet tapping along, and the drum majors do their best to impress us with their mace-juggling skills, the whole business seems – joyless. Not even kids running around with string steamers and adult bystanders consuming copious amounts of beer and cider, can dispel the air of spookiness. No one speaks to us, no one wants to draw us in. In fact, we are even eyed with suspicion as we study the toys sold by a makeshift stand, which include … plastic machine guns, branded as “Sniper Rifles”.
At 6 o’clock the bands disperse and the marchers treat themselves to hamburgers and chips from a van before they go home. We heave a sigh of relief. Four hours later all hell breaks loose outside. Women are screaming, men are shouting. In no time four armoured police vehicles with blues and twos arrive. The screaming and shouting continue, this time directed at the police. After some kerfuffle, two men in handcuffs are taken away. Probably a usual Saturday night on Donegall Pass.
Northern Ireland’s largest city Belfast (population: 340,000) has tried hard in recent years to reinvent itself as a tourist destination. Thanks to peace, investment and regeneration, tourists are keen to visit the Titanic Museum and, of course, everything to do with the smash hit TV series Game of Thrones, which was produced in the Titanic Studios. Although the series was filmed on locations all over Europe, Northern Ireland’s coast provided much of the outdoor scenery for “Westeros”.
Official statistics show that in 2018, there were an estimated 1.5 million overnight trips to Belfast. Cruise ship tourism is another area of strength, with a total of 128 ships bringing 200,000 visitors to Belfast in 2018.
The city has definitely changed for the better since the peace accord. Many first-time visitors to Belfast will struggle to imagine that in the 1970s, the army’s “Ring of Steel” effectively shut off the city centre every evening around 6 o’clock. Yet, venture beyond the small city centre today and you will come across plenty of empty lots and derelict buildings waiting to be given a new lease of life.
Like in Derry-Londonderry, Belfast’s two communities remain separated by a network of oxymoronically named “peace walls”, which are physical barriers some 8 metres high, erected to “keep the peace”. According to the website theculturetrip.com, the earliest peace walls in Belfast were built in 1969. Although conceived as a temporary measure, they never came down. Indeed, as time went on, the walls got longer and more numerous. Around one-third have popped up since 1994 when the IRA declared a ceasefire. In total length, Belfast’s peace walls measure 30 km. For comparison, the Wall between West and East Berlin came to 43 km and was 3.60 metres high.
The peace wall between the loyalist area of Shankill Road and the republican area of the Falls Road is the most visited. If you take a look at it from the Shankill side you will find yourself in some sort of fenced-in street, with the peace wall on one side and a lower fence on the other. Where streets intersect between the two communities, there are double steel gates. They are usually open during the day, sometimes manned by police, sometimes closed and locked at night. For Berliners, who still remember the Wall being up, walking along the peace wall can bring back uncomfortable memories.
Most residents on both sides believe that retaining the walls will have a positive impact on community safety. However, this may be unwarranted. Because this year alone, there have already been a series of violent incidents, which have revived fears of the Troubles.
According to media, in January, a bomb placed inside a van explodes in the centre of Derry-Londonderry. A pizza delivery man had a gun held to his head when his van was hijacked for the bombing. In February, two men are shot in the leg – in typical paramilitary fashion – in Derry-Londonderry. In March, five small explosive packages are found at locations across the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. In April, the journalist Lyra McKee, 29, is shot dead while observing a riot in the Creggan area of Derry-Londonderry. In June, a bomb is found under a police officer’s car at a golf club in east Belfast. It is believed that the New IRA, a paramilitary group, which was formed around 2012 from several IRA splinter groups, is behind the attacks and the murder.
It has not helped relations between the communities that Northern Ireland has been without a functioning administration, as was granted by the Good Friday Agreement. The government collapsed in January 2017 when the two main parties – the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin – had a bitter row over the DUP’s handling of a green energy scandal. The rift soon widened to broader cultural and political issues.
Since then, the Northern Ireland Assembly and government have been suspended, and attempts to restore these institutions have failed. There is already talk that Westminster will re-impose direct rule, so that there is “no vacuum” ahead of Brexit (UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab). Direct rule would effectively mean that all the powers, which have been handed over to Northern Ireland’s government, are taken back by ministers in London. They would make decisions on issues including health, justice and policing, education and transport, explains the BBC.
With a No-Deal Brexit imminent and direct rule under consideration, all are awaiting the opening of trial against a former soldier, scheduled for September, with abated breath. He is charged with murdering two men and attempting murder of four on Bloody Sunday in 1972. The first hearing in the case will be held in Derry-Londonderry on 18 September.
“Soldier F”, as he is referred to, was a member of the 1st Battalion Parachute Regiment. The UK’s Ministry of Defence has said that the ex-soldier will receive “full legal and pastoral support”, and the government would “urgently … drive through a package of safeguards [to] ensure our armed forces are not unfairly treated”.
No action will be taken against another 16 soldiers who were involved in the Bloody Sunday shootings, though. Relatives of those who died said they were “terribly disappointed”. Many of them have been campaigning for criminal trials since 1972.
The victims’ families are angry and upset because public inquiries into Bloody Sunday have taken almost 50 years and have led to the trial of just one soldier. The first public inquiry, which was conducted shortly after the deaths and largely exonerated the soldiers, was branded a whitewash by victims’ families. They thought it an insult that in 1973, the commanding officer of the battalion in question was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire).
In 1992, the Conservative Prime Minister John Major refused the families a new inquiry. But in 1998 his Labour successor, Tony Blair, appointed Lord Saville to chair another investigation. It became the longest-running and most expensive public inquiry in British history. It determined that the troops had killed protesters who posed no threat, and seriously criticised the decision to send them into the Bogside in vehicles. Following the inquiry’s conclusion in 2010, then Prime Minister David Cameron said the killings were “unjustified and unjustifiable”.
There is trepidation that radical factions in both communities might claim the trial of “Soldier F” as a pretext to take the conflict back to the streets. Since the announcement that “Soldier F” will be prosecuted, banners in his support have appeared in loyalist areas across Northern Ireland, with residents anxious that veterans of the UK’s Armed Forces could become victims of a witch hunt.
Because official inquiries into the Troubles have been too few and too slow, if not unbalanced and one-sided, victims, relatives and communities have been deprived of a closure, which can only be achieved if the truth is established and those responsible for the violence are brought to justice. In this respect, the peace walls can also be read as a symptom of a society in trauma. Widespread mental health issues underline this diagnosis. The region has the highest suicide rate in the UK. Alcohol and prescription drug abuse are persistent problems.
It is hardly surprising that Northern Ireland’s communities feel let down by Westminster, whose own role in the conflict has been a thorny subject, as it has shifted back and forth over the decades: from initial peacekeeper to alleged colluder with loyalist paramilitaries, from impartial broker of the Good Friday Agreement to tacit supporter of the DUP, whose ten MPs help consolidate the power of Prime Minister Johnson’s minority government.
They feel particularly aggrieved that hard-core Brexiteers have used Northern Ireland as a gambling chip in Brexit negotiations. At the same time, they worry over the English’s waning interest in Northern Ireland. Blame it on indifference, dislike, bafflement: A poll, conducted in late 2018, revealed that English voters (62 percent) want money raised in England to be spent there and not in Northern Ireland. That view is even more widespread among Conservative voters (73 percent).
There is no doubt: Northern Ireland is being drip-fed by the UK. Each year the UK exchequer transfers GBP 10.8 billion (EUR 12.1 billion) in annual subsidy to Northern Ireland, compared with only GBP 8.6 billion to the EU.
Most of the UK money flows into the public sector, which provides for nearly 30 percent of all jobs in Northern Ireland, which compares with 17 percent across the whole of the UK. The EU itself has stipulated over GBP 660 million a year in funding, which has bolstered research, jobs, and culture initiatives. Out of that sum, nearly GBP 350 million have gone to 25,000 farmers each year.
Already, the effects of Brexit are being felt. In Northern Ireland much needed investments in businesses and new jobs have been put on hold, while in the Republic of Ireland hoteliers and publicans say they are seeing fewer visitors from Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK this year. One explanation is that because the pound has lost over 10 percent in value to the euro since the Brexit referendum, many Brits are finding a sojourn to the Irish Republic too expensive.
The spectre of a united Ireland – das Gespenst der Wiedervereinigung
There is much talk now that a hard Brexit could force communities in Northern Ireland to consider the possibility of a united Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement explicitly allows for a what is called a Border Poll – a referendum on the issue. But what was once a fringe aspiration among nationalist, and a nightmare for unionists, has become an urgent debate for all.
Hardline unionists, including the DUP leader Arlene Foster, have said they will not live in a united Ireland. Although Mr Johnson has comforted unionists – for now – that a hard Brexit will not pave the way for a united Ireland, they cannot be certain that it will not happen in a few years’ time.
Gradually, demographics are shifting towards a Catholic majority. Among schoolchildren, Catholics are at 51 percent compared to 37 percent Protestant. Once these children reach voting age, they may swing the vote towards unification. Both communities, as well as citizens in the Irish Republic, are terrified by what a botched, rushed conversation about unification might yield, the Guardian newspaper has argued (2 August 2019). The fear is that the birth of a united Ireland would be accompanied by violence and upheaval.
Indeed, the price of a hard Brexit could be the unforgiveable loss of peace.