Political Polarisation: The Dangers of Division Part II
‘Collective identity’ is imagined but not imaginary. Richard Jenkins
That afternoon I rested in my hotel room. The tour had lasted several hours and after what I’d heard, I felt weary. Leaning against the veneer headboard, I tried to make sense of it. I realised the peace walls, murals and flags I’d seen that morning were some of the most extreme demonstrations of social divisions across Belfast and I wondered how people felt in more neutral parts of the city. I also wondered if the passing of time had softened tensions between nationalists and loyalists, and what the views were of those born after the Good Friday Agreement. After twenty years, I hoped the young people there might have grown closer together, but still, I was unsure of the situation and felt wary of putting too much trust in my own desires. For, as Brexit has exposed, there is little distance between hope and denial.
Earlier that day, towards the end of the tour and after visiting the Mater Infirmorum Hospital on Crumlin Street, where people from both communities work together, I asked my guide about Brexit. Sitting in the front of the cab, he, who was unequivocally Irish (but not a practicing Catholic) and pro European, had said.
‘Everyone is worried. The British Government don’t know what they are doing and of course we are worried about the border. The people in the North voted to stay. It is the Government and Arlene Foster who want Brexit… I don’t understand it.’
He paused, pushing his glasses back up his nose.
‘The politicians are meant to represent the people right? So why would they not do what we want?’
The next day, I thought to visit the Botanical Gardens, and Queen’s University. Although it was the holidays, I hoped to find some students there. It was another clement and blustery day. I set off on foot heading south along College Avenue a broad, main road. Quickly I passed a heavily armoured police vehicle, then an American tour group gathered in front of the statue of Henry Cooke, and the gothic façade of the Assembly Buildings of the Presbyterian Church. Minutes later, as the road crossed Hope Street, I was a little taken aback, when I came across the Ulster Banner flying from a lamppost in the central reservation. One hundred meters on, beyond the Holiday Inn, Union Jacks flew from a housing estate there.
My visit to the green houses was brief. I found them uncomfortably hot. Afterwards I strolled through the gardens. In the Troubles Gallery in the Ulster Museum, I stood for sometime watching a slideshow of old photographs. They showed the Ulster Volunteer Force and Irish Nationalist Volunteers in 1913, the Irish Rebellion of 1916 and British soldiers behind a barricade, the Shankill Police Station after rioting and a parade celebrating the centenary of the United Irish Rebellion on the Falls Road in 1898. After studying the photos and reading the captions, I really began to understand for the first time, the extent and duration of the social divide there.
In the museum shop, after leafing through the books, I purchased a copy of ‘Hard Border: Walking through a Century of Irish Partition by Darach Macdonald. At the counter amongst the plastic toys and gifts the woman there, told me the exhibition had only been modernised the year before and asked me what I had thought. At that moment I also understood the peace process was still in its relative infancy.
Outside the University Library I met two young men sheltering from a passing shower. I had asked them their views on the political situation there. The more confident of the two, had looked at me quizzically and asked where I was from. Later he told me he thought the current leadership offered little choice.
‘The two main parties draw on past divisions and old resentments to ensure support.’ He said matter-of-factly. ‘There is no discussion on important issues such as health or education.’
In Northern Ireland 56% of the population voted remain, and when I asked about Brexit he had said.
‘It is being imposed on us.’ He told me the increased focus on the border, the only land border between the UK and the rest of Europe was concerning. That, the main reason people in England had voted leave was due to fears over immigration. But he also thought it wasn’t EU immigrants people were concerned about but refugees and asylum seekers from the Middle East. (That was the week Boris made his comments about the burqa).
He told me, he and his friend were both nationalists. They saw themselves as being a part of Europe and pointed out countries like Ireland and Greece had greater cause for concern about the EU than the UK, particularly after the crash, as they were a part of the Eurozone.
The man finished his cigarette. He seemed to be growing tired of my questions. But before we parted he said once more Brexit was being imposed on them. Then added, they had no input over what was happening on account of Stormont being dissolved and the nationalist MPs not sitting in Parliament.
I had known before I set off that Stormont had been dissolved since 2017, and that civil servants were running the various government departments. I also knew the collapse of the assembly had come about after Martin McGuinness resigned, just before he died, over the DUP’s alleged corrupt implementation of a renewable energy initiative. But it wasn’t until recently, several months since I returned from the island of Ireland, and after reading and listening to the coverage I began to appreciate the threat posed by Brexit and significantly the damage already done. For the DUP sees Brexit as an opportunity for closer union, while Sinn Féin have shifted their priorities from power sharing to reunifying Ireland. After the relative triumph of the constructive ambiguity of the Good Friday Agreement, Brexit has bought to the fore the conflicting agendas of the political polarities.
On my return, I stopped to photograph the rainbow banner attached to the student union building with the words ‘equality, love and pride’ painted on it. There were more rainbow flags flying from Lavery’s Ballroom as well as some of the pubs as I neared the city centre. I had wondered then if the flags represented more than gay pride. Having seen them in Dublin and knowing Arlene Foster’s objections to same-sex marriage, I supposed they probably also stood for republicanism.
Near City Hall, as I was thinking to find somewhere to eat, I met a young man, perhaps in his mid twenties selling bus tickets.
‘Brexit is a disaster,’ he had begun, when I asked him. ‘It was not scrutinised enough. People voted to have a different colour passport.’ He had said angrily. ‘I think it will lead to a united Ireland, and then we will have to pay medical fees.’ I tried to guess where his loyalties might lie, but I was still too unaware, and while his response was passionate his anger seemed directed at the political classes in general.
‘There will be a border until there is a united Ireland.’ He continued. ‘No one wants a hard border. No one wants direct rule. We don’t have a government at the moment. The MPs here are not doing anything to better the country. The political parties don’t represent our interests. The DUP are standing against the Good Friday Agreement. There is no parliamentary sovereignty… It’s aggravating!’ He had said.
 In addition to being compromised by the DUP propping up her government (calling into question its ability to deal with the parties in Northern Ireland equally as required in the Good Friday Agreement), Theresa May’s recent turn around on the backstop contravenes the condition the UK recognises that the status of Northern Ireland is a matter solely for the people of the island of Ireland.