Brendan Hughes, the lonely archetype of what the Provos, for a while anyway, liked to think of themselves as, here explains, a little simply but with genuine sincerity, the meaning of Belfast’s laughingly named “Peace Walls”. This short piece is a part of a larger Sinn Fein produced documentary (Behind the Mask) from the late 80’s, that with hindsight is surely part of the formal Sinn Fein mixed-message of that era; overt and otherwise.
That video was shot about 22 years. 16 years into the cease-fires, 12 years post-Good Friday, 9 years into decommissioning, 8 after the first devolved Stormont Assembly, 5 years after the IRA decommissioned itself and 4 years after St. Andrews and the rule of the Chuckle Brothers. In the midst of all the “seismic shift’ in thinking and ‘historic decisions’ made about how to carve up power in the new dispensation, ensuring every sect gets a taste, not an equal taste to be sure, but a taste nonetheless. Sighted the world over as a model for achieving a certain type of brokered and brokeraged “peace process”, it takes not a scratch on the surface, but a stroll in the streets to give a lie to the claim that a sectarian peace would lessen sectarian divisions; quite the contrary.
On the ground all of the newly minted and abominable jargon, those pecae processia banalities, all of the platitudes about “equality agendas” and “parities of esteem” (yuck, gag, barf) are just exposed as bullshit in the daily lives of most of Belfast’s working class. This rot begins at the top where privileges of sectarian office are bountiful, nay manifold judging by the number of politicians who are simultaneously MPs, MLAs, Council Members and chairs of various development schemes and what not. Jeesh, a feller could get rich in that racket. The rot at the top has found fertile ground on which to every kind of mold and fungus to grow on the backrooms and chambers, boardrooms and, this being Ireland, too rarely the bedroom.
I could be wrong, but I have not heard of a single, proper public school, newly opened to integration 15 years into peace. To this day ’90 per cent of children in Northern Ireland still go to separate faith schools’. As for the “Peace Walls”; none taken been removed. On the contrary; in the early 90s when the war was still on- even if behind the scenes it was the peace that was on and bugger those who might die in the meantime in a war unbeknownst to them they that they weren’t really fighting – then there were 19 walls. Today, after the New Dawn has broken on the poor blighted province? 40 stretching over 13 miles. And housing? Here’s figures from a report a few years back, there are no indications the trend has changed:
‘In 1969, 69 per cent of Protestants and 56 per cent of Catholics lived in streets where they were in their own majority; as the result of large-scale flight from mixed areas between 1969 and 1971 following outbreaks of violence, the respective proportions had by 1972 increased to 99 per cent of Protestants and 75 per cent of Catholics. In Belfast, the 1970s were a time of rising residential segregation.It was estimated in 2004 that 92.5% of public housing in Northern Ireland was divided along religious lines, with the figure rising to 98% in Belfast. Self-segregation is a continuing process, despite the Northern Ireland peace process. It was estimated in 2005 that more than 1,400 people a year were being forced to move as a consequence of intimidation’
Work may be one the few places you might rub elbows with someone across the sectarian divide as a fairly strong push was made to open up the government jobs (which is the bulk of northern Ireland’s workforce) to Nationalists. That and other laws requiring open employments practices have also made work one of the least formally segregated areas of life in the north of Ireland (the same is true in the US). In years not too previous about 80% of workers labored in segregated employment. However, that doesn’t mean that sectarian politics, including intimidation, aren’t continued practice and, in some locales, prevalent. Take the situation at Asda in Belfast this year. As for employment, from the figure of the Northern Ireland office: “In 2005, Roman Catholics comprised approximately six out of every ten unemployed people in Northern Ireland with 19,000 Roman Catholics unemployed compared to 12,000 Protestants.Overall, a higher proportion of Protestants of working age (74%) than Roman Catholics (62%) were in employment in 2005, a relative picture which has persisted over time.”
To sum up: in working class Belfast 15 years after all of those historic shifts and earthquakes and stuff you grow up on a street with only your own kind. You got to school for the first 18 years of your life with your own kind, you go to the shops and pubs in your own neighborhood, at the point where you enter the workforce a Nationalist is less likely to get a job, but more jobs are open to her (the recession and coming cuts may alter this part of the picture a bit). There she might meet folks from across the way, but never far, how could it possibly, is the sectarianism that infests her sick society. Some might call it democracy, though not me. If so, I challenge you to find someone beyond the borders of that bat-shit crazy colony who might want to live under its regime (and no, you don’t get to interview Tea Partiers; science requires standards). A strange democracy that, with no one wanting to sign up for it and ministers (of Culture!) who think the earth is 3000 years old. Where Ulster Scots demands its ‘parity of esteem’. Where politicians on both sides of the divide cut hospitals and services while they seem to make out all right and then demand you cast your lot with them to ensure your community is represented. A racket, comrades. Sectarian government can’t help but breed corruptions light and loaded. Yes, certainly a failed peace is (mostly) preferable to a failed war, but that was never the only option. And how dare it is said by Sinn Fein and others in power that critics don’t have a credible option on offer when their option is an abomination.
Maybe those numbers attesting that greater numbers of workforces are mixed bodes well for the future. In this future where a tidal wave of austerity is about to be unleashed by the Government, the British Government, on Northern Irish workers it is up to those workers to defend themselves and that will be impossible on the basis of perceived sectarian privileges. I’m not optimistic about it, but the alternative is that the struggle against the austerity be waged in defense of this our that slice of the sectarian pie. Who knows what might happen in the meantime, sick societies (and despite the peace, that society is sick with sectarianism) can do sick things. At this moment would folks are seeking alternatives let us hope that the socialist tradition, north and south, too long buried can find its way to offering such an alternative. And pose it as seriously and boldly as they can, without which the field is left to the enemy and their alternatives are austerity and, lurking behind that as its engine, a Carnival of Reaction.
It will take more years for the walls Brendan rued to come down; there is no horizon I can envisage where a United Ireland comes into view under present circumstances. For Brendan it meant that the working class of that island might come together against their common exploiters, the most among them was the British presence which survived, in part, on their division. It sure won’t come the old ways, including Brendan’s ways, however much I may admire him. It has to come from that point where the working class joins together as a class and deliver themselves up to a struggle for their own needs, rejecting their sectarian assumptions and privileges in the process, including that most decisive and divisive of privilege; the Union itself. The enemy makes that so damned hard and, by and large, the left hasn’t helped. In the mean time; a Protestant State for a Protestant People is now a Sectarian State for a Sectarian People. How wonderful an improvement.