Yet Another Clusterfuck: Britain, Brexit, and Belfast…
Oh, I realize that I’m not an expert. I can’t figure out Brexit, its implications, though I can understand why such a large percentage of Brits voted for it. Mistakenly. I think even they realize it now. And certainly, four days in Northern Ireland, as a tourist, doesn’t make me a pundit. But I can report on what I saw, what I felt.
The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are worried. This nervous peace, which most of us an ocean away point to as “see, it can be done if the two sides want it badly enough,” is tenuous, fragile, like a bad marriage that relentlessly threatens to come apart at the seams. It is just that — a bad marriage, with years, now centuries, of merciless history barely concealed below the surface.
“Oh, it is 95% better than it was.” I heard this phrase, these exact words, from every tour guide, every native spoke with. And I have no reason to doubt it. But it also signals how bad it was. The Nationalists, Catholics, want one nation, harbor what seem to me to be ancient grudges; the Unionist, Protestant Presbyterians mainly, harbor more recent resentments. This nervous peace.
Here’s what I saw – in Belfast, the City Centre, alive, vibrant, restaurants, coffee shops, tour buses; then a bit north of the centre, beautiful, tree-lined streets, and the beautiful campus of Queen’s University. Ah, all is well, you think.
And then – for isn’t there always an “and then”? — the “other” side of town, where working people live, those without the resources for those well-manicured lawns and highly-polished brass door fixtures. Rows and rows of smaller houses, most neat and well-cared-for. And graffiti, and slogans, and murals on so many of the building walls. The Nationalists, the Catholics, you can tell their neighborhoods. They support Palestine, identifying with them in their fight for existence.
They support Catalonia in their fight to be separate from Spain, though to this outsider, the argument can be made that the Catalonian issue supports the Unionists, who want to be separate from the Republic of Ireland. (I kept those thoughts to myself.)
The Protestant neighborhood, no graffiti or slogans, their umbrage more subtle.
To me, an outsider, the neighborhoods seems identical. But they are still separated by walls, by fences, by religion. Separate. Still separate.
Start with the children, you say. Sounds good, except 97% of the public schools in Ireland are under church control, 91% of it under the control of the Roman Catholic Church. And while the Irish seem to have found the acumen to think for themselves (same-sex marriage, legal abortions), this does not appear to have affected their thinking about bringing Ireland under one aegis.
I visited Derry, or Londonderry as the Unionists call it, the city that experienced the worst of The Troubles. The Battle of the Bogside historically marked its official beginning. So much history, so many mistakes, and the bog area, the west bank of the River Foyle, still glaringly poorer than the rest of this lovely city. Yet I walked across the Peace Bridge, constructed in 2011, as a visible symbol of …what? Peace, perhaps?
So many mistakes. The English valuing country over people; the Irish valuing independence over human lives; systematic starvation; and the feelings so deep, religion an easy coat to label.
But this has nothing to do with Brexit, right? Or does it?
Those I talked with worried that a split, with Northern Ireland leaving the EU, would provide a vehicle for Nationalist sentiment to come to the fore, a tacit approval to mount a campaign of violence. The Republic of Ireland likes being part of the EU. They have fared well, as, it appears, has Northern Ireland. Open borders, free flow of traffic, goods, and people, and, perhaps most importantly, money. Pulling Northern Ireland from this agreement raises a myriad of imponderables – how would you monitor goods, how would you keep good with lower standards, and perhaps lower prices, out of the EU? And should you?
And what about this peace, this nervous peace?
I have no answers, no advice. I was but a tourist. But my heart aches for this island, this Ireland.