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Column Northern Ireland and the dangers of the ‘mission accomplished’ narrative

Riots in Belfast during the 12th July overshadowed glimmers of hope shown in places like Derry. Either way, Northern Ireland will ultimately sink or swim based on the actions chosen in the months and years ahead, writes David McCann.

THERE GOES ANOTHER 12th July in Northern Ireland. We had the traditional marches by the Orange Order throughout the province and what sadly is becoming an all too common feature of the marching season: scenes of sectarian violence in North Belfast.

Instead of images of people celebrating the good weather and an important historic event in Irish history we were greeted to pictures of PSNI officers on the ground injured and a rioter flying through the air after being blasted by water cannon. This is what most people have seen of Northern Ireland over the last few weeks as the name of this province was once again trailed through the mud.

The ‘mission accomplished’ narrative

When I reflected on the 15th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement I warned about the dangers of the ‘mission accomplished’ narrative that had seemingly become the prevailing consensus in Northern Ireland politics. This notion that a relatively timid CSI strategy along with a few pats on the head from Barack Obama would help ease communal tensions is, I believe, hugely misguided and actually distracts from the real challenges that we face as a society.

As I walked around Belfast on 11th July I came across a bonfire near the city centre that had around 14 tricolours on the top ready to be burned. If this wasn’t bad enough, on other bonfires there was mockery of a recently deceased priest and an attempt to burn a statue that was stolen from a Catholic Church. It is truly hard to think that such blatant hatred exists that provokes some people to take part in and enjoy such provocative actions.

Yet, as we saw from the violence last week, such attitudes do exist in parts of society in Northern Ireland. For some people last week, they thought that the mere fact they could not march down a street gave them the right to attack the very same forces that they purport undying loyalty too. What those who were rioting did not take into account was that they had taken attention away from the more than 90 per cent of marches that passed off peacefully.

Hope in places like Derry

I watched the breakthrough in places like Derry as residents and the local Orange lodges came to an agreement that, for the first time in years, saw the parade extend its route and pass off without incident. This was a symbol of how people who are willing to engage with one another can achieve great things. When the necessary leadership is provided the wider community will respond positively.

Sadly, that same leadership was not on display in Belfast. What we saw were statements that encouraged people to protest without bothering to develop a plan just in case things went wrong. We also heard speeches from senior figures within the Orange Order that spoke about fighting wars. All this was followed up by an emergency debate in the Assembly that was big on blame game politics and delivered much less in terms of real solutions.

We must move beyond our traditional barriers

Often I’m asked why I am so critical about the current direction of Northern Ireland politics. The mix of paralysis within the executive in tandem with general apathy about the political process simply fuels these sectarian tensions. Instead of attempting to actually deal with Northern Irelands sectarian tensions, politicians appear to be all too comfortable parroting this ‘mission accomplished’ narrative which, while it might win plaudits from a visiting head of state, does nothing to heal sectarian divisions.

The key to breaking out of this mindless cycle of sectarianism is to move beyond our traditional barriers. Having a government that is based upon genuine power-sharing would be a good place to start. Actually conducting a debate that doesn’t degenerate into useless finger pointing at the other side might go some way in helping forge better relations. Should we not perhaps have a debate as to whether nationalistic symbols like flags on lampposts serve any useful purpose?

We can do better

I do not for a moment think that issues like this can be resolved overnight. But I do know that we are not putting enough serious thought into resolving them.

Northern Ireland can develop better traditions than sending its PSNI officers to A&E every 12th July. We can do better than the near benign apartheid situation that we have at moment. There is no point in expecting London and Dublin to do the job for us. Northern Ireland is our home and it will ultimately sink or swim on what we choose to in the months and years ahead.

David McCann is a PhD researcher in Irish politics at the University of Ulster. To read more articles by David for click here.

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