Tag Archives: civil unrest

Power is about to shift…

3 Mar

As I write this, 70 of the 90 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly Election for 2017 have been announced. And it makes for an interesting glimpse into a changing country. Sinn Féin hold the largest number of seats with 24, and the SDLP have 9. The DUP have 18 and UUP 9. Taking Aliance out of the proceedings that gives a nationalists a five seat lead.

Photo © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

Photo © 2016 Robert JE Simpson. All Rights Reserved.

Disappointingly the country appears to have shunned the opportunity to usher in a change in our country’s leadership – the embittered, stubborn, starkly green and orange parties Sinn Féin and Democratic Unionist Party are still on top. And its hard to see how anything is going to change while that remains the case. Northern Ireland is a shared country whether you like it or not. And the only way to move forward is through mediation and negotiation and compromise.

But then I’m a broadly liberal leftist long lapsed from a background of unionism, so its easy for me to say. I don’t hate my fellow citizens because of their religion or their politics or what language they wish to converse in or what way they define their national identity. But it matters to many others out there.

Without a change, I can’t help but wonder if the assembly will not just be brought down again? And if it does, then surely direct rule from Westminster is inevitable? And to do that would be foolhardy, because that will give many militant republicans the excuse they need to reactivate a campaign of violence against the perceived British threat in the country, and take us all back to pre-1997 times. Its not as if the leaders of the two biggest parties actually give a toss about the Northern Irish people anyway, and our democratic views. The DUP backed Brexit in spite of the majority of Northern Ireland voting to stay IN Europe, and Sinn Féin still refuse to sit in Westminster for ideological reasons, which means they aren’t actually helping to represent the people either. A right golden shower the lot of them.

And I’m sitting here thinking about something that I haven’t actually heard voiced yet. But what happens if Sinn Féin come away from this election as the largest political party in Northern Ireland? Ignoring their catalogue of cover-ups (notably with regards sex abuse cases) and their power-hungry control of republican ideology in Northern Ireland (there’s as many kinds of republicans as their are unionists), we’ve never had a republican party as the largest in NI. The balance has always (by design more often than democracy) lain in the hands of the unionist parties, and for decades the unionists and loyalists have been happy because they’ve benefitted in things like employment, funding, rights etc. The republican voice has been silenced (once upon a time, literally), oppressed, which in turn has only helped to stir up support.

Right now we’re at loggerheads, with both sides bashing each other where possible, positioning themselves as ‘us’ and ‘them’. They put down propositions made by the others because of the potential for small victories. They turn simple things into massive issues. They allow prejudice to dictate policy and propaganda does the rest.

Whats scares unionists is what will happen when the power finally switches. It seems rather improbable that a republican dominated political arena is going to sit back and allow loyalism to continue its triumphant marches and shouting and brow-busting. That call for a referendum on a united Ireland can’t be far away now, and that scares the unionists because it might actually go through. Most of us don’t want to leave the EU, and joining up with Ireland is a sure way to ensure we don’t. Britain doesn’t actually care about Northern Ireland. We’re a population of 1.8million out of some 64 million across the islands. We’re a massive drain on resources, particularly bearing in mind our habit of fighting on a regular basis, incurring vast policing costs etc, every time we have a “celebration”. Will the republican brothers and sisters treat the unionists with open arms, and remind them that Ireland has already embraced Protestant culture as symbolised in the orange on the Tricolour? Sadly, probably not. Instead, the sort of hostility that has been shown to many of them is likely to be returned. Its the way of the wild. Captive turns captor. Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you, not actually how you were treated…

I’m slightly scared for people like me. Those of us who sit somewhere between the ideologies. Not necessarily undecided, but who are aware of our backgrounds, and the complex web that we were born into without say. Northern Ireland is occupied – the politicians decided to remain as part of the UK, not the people themselves, and so a border poll would be interesting, to finally give all of us a say. We aren’t all going to get our way though, and as Brexit has most recently reminded us (and indeed the US elections), when voting is split, things can get nasty. I don’t want to return to violence. I don’t want to be scared of visiting friends across sectarian divides, or to be picked out because I don’t see eye to eye with official lines of whatever persuasion.

Its time to stop being complacent. Time to learn to moderate, to co-operate, and to stop wallowing in the past. Think about the people.

March to what exactly?

17 Jul
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“Orange March”
image © 2013 Robert J.E. Simpson. All Rights Reserved

I try and avoid discussing my perceived political background and my personal religious and political beliefs in public. Why? Well, a) because they’re rather personal, and b) because I live in Northern Ireland, a country which has a terrible reputation when it comes to tolerance. Have you seen the news during the last few months? We went from that insane violence surrounding the flag issue in December and following (ruining business for many of the little players), and then in the last week, the riots have started again allegedly because some folk were told they couldn’t host a parade on the periphery of a sensitive community.

I’m not stupid, I’m well aware that both sides of this supposed debate are perfectly adept at playing dirty, winding each other up, insisting on respective rights while completely negating those of the other. Not even the presence of Ross Kemp and his documentary crew were able to diminish tensions last Friday.

Considering that the negotiations didn’t start until very late in the day, I personally thought the Parades Commission made a perfectly sensible compromise in agreeing that the Orange Order could march along the route (Ardoyne/Crumlin Road area of Belfast) in the morning, but would not be allowed to do the same coming home. I also thought that the nationalist residents made the right voices when they said, in light of this, they would be calling off their planned counter-demonstrations. That m’dears is compromise.

Hatred Of Orange Cult

“Hatred Of Orange Cult” – Orange Order parade, Dublin Road
image © 2013 Robert J.E. Simpson. All Rights Reserved

I also think its pretty shitty when the Orange Order stands back while one of the bands marching under its banner stops outside a Roman Catholic church (St. Patricks – where there has been trouble before), and plays the Sash (a song, played to a traditional tune, which is perceived by many Nationalists and Catholics as deeply sectarian and thus offensive) in a triumphant manner, when the compromise instructed by the Parades Commission was to play only hymns (which as universal Christian songs are offensive to neither side). But then we all know that the problem here isn’t really about religion, it is simply intolerance. Much better was those bands who instigated a gap either side of the church when the march got held up, allowing the bands to respect the space.

I also find it somewhat sad that a tune which originates in a song about sadness in failing to bring two communities together (Scots and Irish as Irish Molly O – http://ballads.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/view/image/7421/0) has become a symbol for emphasizing divide.

Let me avoid for now, getting into the flag debate too deeply, but I do find the idea of burning flags of the other community/nation on bonfires rather repulsive. It isn’t just disrespecting the Irish community when you do that, dear protestant brethren, it is also disrespecting this entire island and our ancestors. Need I remind you that the green is meant to represent the catholic population, the orange represents the protestants, and the white the hope for peace between the two. Unionists should embrace the tricolour alongside the UK flag… after all, you are at least represented on it, which is more than can be said about some of the alternatives.

To lay my cards on the table – I myself am from a largely protestant/unionist background. However, I spent a good deal of time in my youth in cross-community work, and with friends and work experience on all sides of the community (North and South), I’m far too liberal to be a bigot. Should I be ashamed of my ‘heritage’? I’m not sure – but I’m certainly ashamed of some of those who claim to represent me and who influence others’ perception of me.

I think there’s a place for the Hibernians AND the Orange Order in our society, but they need radical overhauling if they want to be accepted by us all. The PR around these organisations is a disaster. You CAN be pro-protestant or pro-catholic WITHOUT being sectarian – they should learn how to do that.

Unfortunately there are always going to be idiots – and they are probably the minority – who make things very complicated and unpleasant for the rest of us. But whatever I feel personally, nothing will change without proper dialogue and discussion with ground members.

I spent several days this last couple of weeks photographing various scenes relating to the Orange Order demonstrations. Unlit bonfires, bonfires, parades, riot squads, flags, debris… trying always to be an objective observer, and yet looking for images which intrigues or speaks in its own right.

There are some who will see the publication of these images as being a pro-Orange Order move. However I hope that the images of drunkeness, police forces, and loyalist troublemakers go some way to establishing my near-neutral stance.  For balance, I will have to photograph a companion set from a Hibernian march, or even some of the St Patrick’s day parades (which do get out of hand).

The images are available on my Flickr profile, with a few more to follow.

A specific album for the 11th night is here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/avalard/sets/72157634603919194/

and from the 12th July parades in Belfast: http://www.flickr.com/photos/avalard/sets/72157634616143544/

In closing, an addendum… The Orange Order isn’t just a protestant organisation, it is a (supposedly) Christian one. With Christians on both sides (Roman Catholics and Protestants), perhaps they should listen more closely to the teachings of Christ – didn’t Jesus tell us to turn the other cheek? Does violence and taunting really sit comfortably alongside that?

Altercation II

Altercation II. (Loyalists come face to face with the riot squad near Belfast City Hall).
image © 2013 Robert J.E. Simpson. All Rights Reserved