Politicians in Northern Ireland share something with the royal family on certain occasions: a heightened sense of the power of the symbolic act. This gift for symbolism was in evidence on Monday, as Irish republicans joined with unionist members of the Stormont assembly in paying tribute to Prince Philip. This would have been, to use to a phrase that has become hackneyed in the Northern Ireland peace process, unthinkable just a few years ago.
One reason for the breadth of the tributes was the Duke’s role in the royal family’s efforts at acts of British-Irish reconciliation over the past decade: he and the Queen going to the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin; her cúpla focail on the same state visit; shaking hands with Martin McGuinness. All richly symbolic, and all unthinkable just a few years ago.
The problem arises not with the gestures themselves, but when the truly valuable thing that is supposedly being celebrated or captured in the symbolic act – in this case, reconciliation – isn’t truly happening. Last week, Belfast children who were not only not born when the Good Friday agreement was signed 23 years ago, but whose parents were themselves teenagers in 1998, were being encouraged to throw petrol bombs and masonry at other working-class children living yards away from them.
At a certain point, congratulating ourselves on acts of symbolism becomes not just deluded, but in poor taste. This is especially so when some of the structures designed to foster peace building and conflict resolution appear to be at best enabling the continuation of division, and at worst empowering and enriching actors who have a vested interest in division. We may now have reached that point.
Last weekend it was confirmed that a Stormont-funded programme designed to “transition” former paramilitaries out of positions of coercive control in certain neighbourhoods will receive a further £10m. The problem is that there is a growing consensus that programmes such as these have simply incentivised the very thing they claim to want to end – coercive control and gatekeeping of working-class areas, especially loyalist ones.
Although the Loyalist Communities Council – an umbrella for organisations such as the UVF and UDA (why these groups still exist is another legitimate question) – denied they had been involved either directly or indirectly in orchestrated rioting, they did not deny that individual members had been involved. But then, if no member was involved and these riots simply happened without the consent of these organisations, what influence do they have, and why are they being funded at all?
Contrary to some excitable hot takes, Belfast is not in flames, nor are the riots all about Brexit. It is also unhelpful for Northern Ireland to be dragged into essentially English continuity battles over the 2016 referendum. But what has happened is contextualised by Brexit and the sharpening of sovereignty that is demanded by that project. Virtually everything about Brexit is destabilising for Northern Ireland. While it is true that many unionists sincerely dislike the principle of Northern Ireland being treated differently from Britain in relation to customs and regulation of goods, as per the Northern Ireland protocol, it is also true that even more people here dislike the principle of leaving the EU itself – a majority in Northern Ireland having voted to remain.
And not only would the protocol be unnecessary in the absence of Boris Johnson’s government seeking the hardest possible divorce from the EU, but the Brexit deal itself only emerged after more than two years of tortured negotiations in which the largest unionist party, the DUP, held the balance of power at Westminster. It could have used that power to force a softer form of Brexit for the whole UK, avoiding disruption between Britain and Northern Ireland. It chose not to. It chooses now to continue to indulge a demand that the protocol simply be abandoned in favour of a hardened land border. Among the many reasons this position is disingenuous is that the border on land has already been hardened as a result of Brexit in myriad ways that damage the capacity for north-south cooperation, just not in the area of moving goods.
Brexit is the opposite of reconciliation: it means standing apart rather than coming together, asserting distinctiveness over finding common ground. For those who still question the damage that the UK leaving the EU has done to the architecture of the Northern Ireland settlement, which was predicated on a healthy British-Irish relationship, look at the difficulty the two governments now have in simply agreeing to convene a formal meeting to discuss what is happening in Northern Ireland. For more than four decades, the margins of European council meetings offered a place for UK and Irish ministers to engage without formality and pressure. Not any more.
What does this matter to a 12-year-old throwing rocks at a peace wall in Belfast? The answer is it doesn’t, and nor does the minutiae of goods regulation. But tearing at the seams of political reconciliation between Belfast, Dublin and London has revealed how far we still have to go in offering not just symbolic reconciliation, but real hope. Working-class children are being preyed upon by criminal gangs with a vested interest in division. That really should be unthinkable for everyone.