Northern Ireland is quite hard to describe to someone that’s never lived there, for some people over here it’s where some bad things happened to people who didn’t get on and to others (possibly of the American persuasion) it’s where Guinness is made and where Bonos roam in their natural habitat. A vague idea of the ‘Troubles,’ hunger strikes and sectarian bombings, is drowned by foamy stout and With or Without You.
The state of politics and everyday life in Northern Ireland 16 years after the official end of ‘the Troubles’ and the Good Friday Agreement is one that appears at face value backward, sectarian and often plain silly. Stormont, the seat of Northern Ireland’s government, is constantly gridlocked on major issues like welfare. We still can’t decide whether one of our cities is called Derry or Londonderry: news presenters often say “this week in Derry slash Londonderry.” Half of our good football players go down south to play for the Republic of Ireland which reduces the Northern Ireland football teams potential to that of a very small ex-communist satellite state (if even). We’ve even managed to turn the Israel-Palestine conflict into a political football, taking sides seemingly just to spite each other; sticking Israeli flags up beside Union Jacks and Palestinian flags next to Tricolours. I can almost guarantee most of the people doing this don’t know where Israel or Palestine are.
A lifelong friend who used to live across the street from me went to different primary and secondary schools than me just because he was from one side of the Catholic/Protestant divide and I the other. Recently the decision to take down a Union Jack (or ‘our fleg’) from a public building in Belfast sparked violent protests, capturing ludicrous amounts of public attention in the media in a way that would seem bizarre here in England. To get an idea of the flag protests imagine the redneck guys from South Park who scream “THEY TOOK OUR JOBS” and substitute ‘jobs’ with ‘fleg’ and you get the idea.
When we take a step back however and consider how far we have come since ‘the Troubles’ the picture becomes a lot brighter.
The fact that our politicians are in stable consensus government at all is virtually a miracle. If you had told someone living in 1981 during Bobby Sands’ hunger strike that the politicians of the DUP and Sinn Féin would work together in government, politicians that fundamentally hate each other, they would have thought you mad.
Schoolchildren may still be largely segregated on religious grounds, but no longer do they need to pass through army checkpoints on the way to school. No longer is there a real fear that a bomb might explode in your town centre on a sunny Saturday afternoon. We can be thankful that when sectarian violence makes the news nowadays it’s for trivial things like flegs or someone beating a Lambeg drum too loudly.
We still have a long way to go but at least in 2014 we can sit back and have a good laugh about the ridiculous quagmire of Northern Ireland and reflect on how far we have come.