Political Polarisation: The Dangers of Division Part III
My trip to the island of Ireland coincided with the summer recess. During the first week Boris made his infamous comment about women in burqas looking like letterboxes. I read the coverage in bed the following morning. I had got into the habit of scrolling through the broadsheets and noting down the headlines before I got up. It was around that time, I first noticed the papers often published contradictory articles on Brexit in the same editions. I assumed it was because they thought their readership was split – much like the country. But, the discussion around Boris’ comments over the next few days was unmistakeably polarising. That morning in the Telegraph Charles Moore had proclaimed his ‘shock’ at the Tory leaderships’ disapproval of Johnson’s liberal approach. The next day, the Guardian indirectly accused Boris of courting fascism.
In the busy hotel restaurant, sitting alone by the window was the Greek musician I had met the day before and I asked to join him. I was about to return to the grimy breakfast station to pour myself a cup of coffee, when his colleagues from the music and reconciliation project appeared. Ten years before I had worked for an anti-racism organisation and many of the ideas the group discussed were familiar to me.
Soon the Director arrived to give the men a lift. He sat in the empty chair next to me and while the others finished their breakfasts, I asked what he thought about Brexit. Like others before, he said it was a disaster.
‘It’s taken things right back.’ He told me. ‘It took us that long to open things up, to get rid of the last cone. Now everyone is talking about the border again.’
He agreed Brexit had brought about a hardening of divisions in Northern Ireland, but also stressed that racism had got worse since Trump’s election. He paused, then added, ‘even before Trump the referendum result had made people less afraid to be openly hostile.’
Looking back, it seems he was attempting to expand my understanding beyond sectarianism. He told me, young people in Northern Ireland had many more things to worry about other than if a person was Protestant or Catholic. He talked about the lack of opportunities, and quickly fired off the latest statistics on drug use, overdoses and attempted suicides. His tone by then was ardent. He said horrified, that in Derry/Londonderry, during the month of June, over 60 people had tried to kill themselves by jumping into the River Foyle.
He also spoke about paramilitary recruitment. Still trying to make sense of how the Troubles might inform the present, I had asked if the views of young people were influenced by older generations.
‘There are people who can’t let go,’ he had replied, ‘but it is not what young people are most influenced by. They are seduced by the promise of i-phones and trainers. It is poverty which is tempting them, not ideology.’
The image of the estate I’d visited the day before entered my mind, the green, the murals, the terraced houses. I mentioned the tour. He was dismissive. He said there was a lot of opposition locally to being ogled at by wealthy tourists, who photographed the neighbourhood, but never drank in the pub.
Before he left, he showed me a video of children singing in a concert. Afterwards he said, the way the Government categorised people by putting them into different camps didn’t help. He said when funders wanted feedback they only wanted to know how many Protestants and how many Catholics had turned up. But he said a person’s identity was more complicated than that.
‘I’m a protestant, but I’m not a unionist,’ he explained. ‘There are different scales. When I’m abroad I don’t correct someone if they call me Irish, but for others they would be British. It all comes down to the individual. My parents voted leave, I voted remain. The referendum divided families. We have got through that now, but now no one knows what is going to happen next.’
After working for the anti-racism organisation, I spent several years researching identity politics. I wonder now why it took so long to relate what I knew to Northern Ireland. Perhaps it was my own unacknowledged prejudices. But what he said was familiar to me. I knew that presumed divisions between people were not always clear-cut and labels used to describe different ethnic groups lacked conceptual sophistication. I also knew that within broad ethnic groupings different factions exist. That the idea of collective identity is not static, but constantly evolves, and it is only the reproduction of narrow and crude stereotypes, which serves to render a person’s identity as fixed.
I recall this basic summary for it is important to remember when thinking about Northern Ireland. But it is also relevant to the UK as a whole. For since, the referendum result, politicians and the media have treated the population as if it can be divided into two camps. No other, more positive alternative has been suggested. And yet, the ways in which Brexit has impacted on peoples’ sense of identity is complex. For the referendum result, cuts across political, ideological and class lines.
In Northern Ireland, I really began to see the limitations of our leaders. With my attention focussed on trying to understand the situation there, I realised that in Britain – with the absence of a coherent strategy and opposition – it was the brashest and most extreme voices that were given most coverage. People, like Boris, who were willing to tout and promote hatred to draw attention to themselves, or those eager to exploit the presumed split to serve their own ambitions. As a result from the outside Britain was being viewed as racist, while Brexit it was understood, had come about as a result of Islamophobia.
It didn’t help that few politicians offered anything other than a narrative which reinforced the idea of a divided nation. No one had imagined how they might be able to bring the country together on what is in reality a shared problem. Instead the politicians seemed more concerned about retaining their seats and party loyalties. But I realised when I returned home, that perhaps they’d rather missed the point. The possibility that rather than falling into two camps, we are all situated on a scale between leave and remain. After all we are a diverse nation and there are both advantages and disadvantages to the EU.
I want to finish by saying that Northern Ireland’s sectarianism is not comparable to the supposed Brexit split. The legacy of partition there is rooted in centuries of history, in British imperialism, the oppression of the Catholics, the Troubles, and more recently the declining ascendancy of the Protestants, who it is expected will be outnumbered by 2021. I realised while I was there that many of us in Britain, really don’t understand or know the situation in Northern Ireland, but we could learn valuable lessons from trying to understand it better. We would see the effects of division and at worst the impact of conflict on people’s lives. We would understand the dangers and consequences of a polarised leadership and a divisive media and how they can serve to reinforce hostility towards those whose experiences and hopes may in truth differ little from our own.
Later that day I visited City Hall. I had a cup of tea in the café and afterwards I wandered through the exhibition there. I stopped in one room where the memories and experiences of those who lived through the Troubles were written on the wall. I noted down the following quote. ‘I have witnessed some terrible atrocities and it has only gone to reinforce in me the need to live a non-violent and peaceful co-existence with one’s neighbour. And if this next generation is going to have any legacy, then it must be a legacy of working together rather than working apart.’ A message our politicians would perhaps be wise to listen too.
 Derry/Londonderry has a population of just over 100,000 people