Northern Ireland is already spiralling out of control but no one is paying attention

Scenes reminiscent of the Troubles are already happening – even before a no-deal Brexit threatens to throw fuel on the flames

Ben Kelly
Friday 23 August 2019 16:29 BST
Boris Johnson: 'we believe in complete impartiality on Northern Ireland'

Anyone who has visited the Holocaust memorial in the centre of Berlin will have had the same experience. You are met with a vast stretch of concrete blocks, which are low to the ground around the edges, but gradually begin to get higher as you walk into it. When you reach the centre, you find you are surrounded by towering pillars which disorientate, and block out sound and light.

For me, it symbolises how something can begin subtly, barely noticed by some, but can then descend into something much greater, all-encompassing, and impossible to ignore or escape.

People may not have noticed three incidents which happened in Northern Ireland on Monday. That morning, a former member of the IRA was buried in Belfast. In a video which later appeared online, masked men were seen openly firing guns into the air over his coffin in a residential garden.

Closer to lunch time, Northern Ireland’s police service (PSNI) who were investigating a hoax device in Fermanagh were almost killed when a second device exploded nearby. It was evident that dissident republicans had attempted to lure police officers to their death. On Monday night, a prominent loyalist was shot dead in Down, in what appears to have been a gangland feud.

This was an alarming day of activity, but such incidents did not begin this week, or even this year – but the tremors are getting more frequent.

In April, the journalist Lyra McKee was shot dead by dissident republicans firing at police in Derry. In May, police were attacked with petrol bombs while investigating a suspicious device outside a polling station in the same city. In July, a bomb targeting police exploded in Craigavon.

In August, we have seen loyalist bonfires burning Irish flags and pictures of the late Martin McGuinness. Republicans resisted police in Belfast when they tried to dismantle another bonfire for public safety. During an Apprentice Boys march in Derry, a band from Larne marched through the city with shirts which declared their support for Soldier F – the British veteran facing prosecution for two Bloody Sunday murders. Placards with his name were later burnt by republicans in the Bogside.

All of this takes place against the continued absence of the power-sharing government at Stormont. In this political vacuum, it is hardly surprising that disorder and violence have begun to grow unchecked.

A tetchy TV interview with the DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein MP Michelle Gildernew this week dashed any hopes that an agreement was on the horizon. Attempting to put on a united front after the Fermanagh bomb, they disagreed openly about the reintroduction of a hard border, and when Gildernew mentioned a young man who had been shot dead by a British soldier on that border, Foster rolled her eyes and shook her head. Though standing side by side, the distance between them was enormous.

In an extraordinary plea, the PSNI appealed to politicians to lead society, and set out “not just our condemnation of these people, but to work collectively together”. But the police are also under pressure, as they face increased hostility from the extreme ends of both loyalism and republicanism, each of whom accuse the force of “political policing”, which is biased against their communities respectively.

Leadership is failing, trust is being eroded, perspective is being lost, and old prejudices are flourishing. Warnings of trouble on the horizon are not being sounded purely by alarmists and those who would relish a return to conflict. Increasingly, clear-headed, respected voices in Northern Ireland are becoming seriously concerned.

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Last week, 50 years on from the outbreak of the Troubles in 1969, the Irish News security correspondent Allison Morris tweeted: “I despair at what is to become of this place, we had peace and squandered it, took it for granted and are now ripping it and each other apart – if something drastic isn’t done to stop the slide we are heading in a very dark direction.”

This week, the columnist Newton Emerson tweeted: “If you don’t remember, this is already what the Troubles were like. Bombings and shootings on the news on what for you was an ordinary day.”

All of this comes before Brexit, and the looming prospect that the UK may leave the EU on 31 October with no deal, plunging Northern Ireland into political, economic and social chaos which it is wholly unprepared to withstand. “Operation Yellowhammer” documents leaked from the government this week suggested a hard border would have to be introduced in Ireland, something which senior police chiefs have explicitly warned will become a target for dissident republicans.

Despite the fact that Northern Ireland has become the central focus of the Brexit showdown, with our border being discussed at the top of news bulletins everywhere, it was with despair that I noticed the lack of interest in the three incidents which occurred on Monday. A bomb attack on police anywhere else in the UK would have dominated the news – but the Fermanagh incident barely registered.

This should be a wake-up call that despite the apparent national and international interest in Northern Ireland around Brexit, no one is coming to save us from the age-old problems we ourselves have left unresolved – around politics, policing and fundamental respect for other identities, traditions and victims.

We have to take responsibility for pulling ourselves back from the brink, because when the blocks really begin to close in around us, the people outside won’t really care. I am now afraid not just of renewed unrest in Northern Ireland, but that the rest of the country will barely even notice if it begins.

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