Remember that time the British army introduced internment to deal with the conflict in Northern Ireland? And it was one of the biggest recruiting incentive to the paramilitaries? Neither did Gordon Brown, it would seem, upon attempting in 2007 to push legislation through parliament that would enable ‘terror suspects’ to be held for up to 42 days without charge. Terror suspects who, at the height of ‘war on terror’ hysteria, were almost exclusively young British Muslims. The lesson – that alienating and denying people their basic human rights might exacerbate conflict – seemed to have been forgotten, again. How much (or little, depending on how convenient), is there is to learn from Northern Ireland’s recent history?
The same might be asked regarding revelations in the past decade of British complicity in the extradition and torture of terror suspects abroad. Had we not already experienced the abandonment of due process in Northern Ireland’s non-jury Diplock courts, and high-profile cases of police brutality and collusion?
During the ‘London riots’, otherwise sane, nice people rushed to condemn ‘mindless, ‘feral’ criminality of the ‘underclass’, with scant consideration of the social context in which the flare-up occurred. Despite the rapid dismissal of liberal apologists opining on possible explanations, it seems reasonable to suspect that massive (political rather than economically driven) cuts, the recent sting of bankers’ bonuses, and widespread public disillusionment such as that associated with ‘Hackgate’ may have had something to do with it. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Meanwhile, the speedy abandonment of due process in dealing with those accused of looting is a reactionary shock we are yet to see the repercussions of.
In Northern Ireland, less than a month earlier, the BBC had broadcast images of water cannon used on predominantly young, disaffected Belfast men attacking police. That is, that which they consider emblematic of oppression, expressed in an inarticulate and ugly form. In the decade since The Good Friday Agreement, government and media have clamoured about all the peace we’re having! How great the craic is! How you should spend your corporate weekend here! – at the expense of genuine political engagement with persistent social tensions, poverty and stagnation. It is one thing to celebrate the closing of a dark chapter and decades of arrested development, but it is another to turn a blind eye to an intellectual discourse that might actually make sense of and acknowledge the whys and wherefores of collective trauma, in the hope that something may be learnt and history not repeated. The presently popular, domesticated portrayal of Belfast is not an untruthful, but only a partial one – optimistic, if out of touch. Good for business, less so for change.
It may not be palatable or fashionable to dissect the almost casual portrayal of residual unrest on the streets of Belfast in a climate of hype and Big Society rhetoric, but persistent inequality will inevitably have a political consequence. It is at our peril that we ignore mistakes made. The fissure lines of Northern Ireland are socio-economic, albeit often expressed along sectarian lines. There must continue to evolve a fresh language and a voice with which to be heard, undistorted by entrenched agendas (even the naively well-meaning), in order to move beyond the systemic failing of a peace process that is fundamentally limited by its inability thus far to address the necessity of radical wealth redistribution.
Northern Ireland shares many of the commonplace concerns afflicting any other city across the UK; however, seen through an exacting lens, with intensity and scrutiny, a wealth of potential empirical lessons may be learned, that those in power would do well to consider.