Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, January 14, 2013

Northern Ireland cleavages are not just historical

Recent events in Belfast seem to threaten a replay of the 1970s. Does the economy (then and now) have anything to do with the protests and violence?

Belfast long way away from solving sectarian struggles
Northern Ireland’s leader,First Minister Peter Robinson, is warning that the recent violence in Belfast is taking a heavy toll on the city’s economy and shows that the province is far from resolving its sectarian struggles.

“The peace process in which we are involved was never going to be some straightforward linear progression to peace. There were always going to be bumps along that route,” said Mr. Robinson. “And anybody who simply closed the chapter and thought that was the end of the story I think is wrong. There is still a lot of work yet to be done.”

Belfast has been gripped by almost daily protests for more than a month, with images of masked men throwing rocks and firebombs at police broadcast around the world…

The protests started after Belfast city council, led by Catholic republicans, voted to fly the British flag atop city hall only on 18 days per year instead of every day. Catholics argued the decision was a fair compromise because the Union Jack is a divisive symbol. But Protestants saw the move as a rejection of 103 years of history and a slap in the face. Many have been protesting ever since.

“I can understand that a lot of people [around the world] will be scratching their head and finding it difficult to understand,” said Mr. Robinson, whose position is akin to a provincial premier [in Canada]. “The flag encapsulates the identity of a community and we had a very peaceful Belfast city council for many decades.” A Protestant, he blamed republicans councillors for provoking the issue. “Nationalists and republicans decided to poke unionists in the eye by pulling down the flag simply because they could, and that has had consequences – consequences that you’ve seen on the streets.”

But he also acknowledged there are bigger issues at play, in particular the growing disconnect between working-class Protestants and their political leaders. Many believe Mr. Robinson and others are out of touch and too complacent. And some are turning to a new radical group called the Ulster People’s Forum that is leading the protests…

So far, there is little indication anything is quelling the fury. The protests have battered Belfast’s economy, which was already struggling with a recession. Business at some downtown shops and restaurants has been down as much as 40 per cent since the protesting started and foreign investors have started to become wary of investing in the city…

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