Northern Ireland has been the site of the most significant US FDI investment in Fintech outside of the US and an emergent world leader in cybersecurity and cultural production. Since 1998 conflict-related offences have declined by over 90% and sectarian crime declined by over 60%. In 1972 the security forces seized around 20,000kgs of explosives, nowadays it is around 1kg per year. In identity terms the growth in plurality and cultural hybridity continues. More workplaces and social arenas are mixed and ‘barbed wire love’ is now socially less painful and increasingly common. Inter-community campaigns for choice, marriage equality and anti-war have verified the less binary nature of agency for a changed society. Irish language on the Newtownards Road, inter-community leadership to remove violence and social economy projects across the lines which once demarcated risk and murder runs apace. This was truly the people’s process that reflected a desire for violence to end and recovery to begin. Undoubtedly, grinding and relentless effort was applied but it paid dividends – greater security, more jobs, skilled employment and public space now marked by new traditions such as PRIDE, carnival and Diwali on the Shankill Road.
In mapping and surveying those changes since 1998 the data records a movement away from bleakness. In 1999 around 28% of neithers, unionists and nationalists believed that all sectors in society were legacy victims. Today, that stands, for each identity, in the high 70s. Questions on who benefitted most from the Good Friday Agreement showed belief in nationalist achievement. Most young people now do not even comprehend what the question means and are likely to answer ‘do not know’. The reforming effect of fair employment, equality and economic opportunities removing the embeddedness of resource competition. Most now are middle income, have kids in subsidised grammar schools and just coast along. Embedded poverty remains and healthcare bears crisis. We have a process in which we created an ecology of positive change paralleled by the remaining wicked problems of class and austerity.
Surveys after 1998 were a study of fear induced immobility between communities. Minded of Eilish Martin’s evocative poem Behind Enemy Lines and the memory of how we expected our silences when walking through unfamiliar territory to ‘… lead us back to safe houses’. Many of those journeys are now taken without doubt or hesitation. People now transverse the sectarian interfaces and in places like Derry Waterside Protestants shop and engage in cultural activity in the Cityside as the norm not the exception.
The mainstream media
Yet, despite facts the doomsday brigade of 1998 ‘haven’t gone away you know!’ Those who never thought agreement would be reached, Sinn Fein would never accept the principle of consent and that the gun would never be removed from politics now trade in the business of nothing has changed – all is doom-laden. Wrong then as they are now the gloom, traders who simply cannot see through the fog of despair and grievance. One would assume when listening to the local media that everyone lived at an interface and traded daily insults across the barricades. In essence, we have a new crisis framed by the media and commentators who refuse to present or engage in proven positive change. When Goebbels coined the term the mainstream media with the warning to ignore fact in favour of hyperbole and exaggeration his failure was based upon an emergent consensus in presenting facts differently and agreeing to differ. Within the Trumpian/Johnsonian mendacities and deceptions we are now confronted by forms of media delivered in such a manner that boots, that wear truth, are rendered useless when chasing lies as those who cast them are not concerned with truth and fear it not. Northern Ireland, well accustomed to rhetorically-led propaganda devices such as ‘Our Wee Country’ and the harsh re-writing of victimhood that denies the facts of responsibility is commonplace. The media who draw commentators on a ‘one of them’ and ‘one of the other sort’ play into such dismal spaces and cull acknowledgement of the GFA’s achievements.
It is within competing British and Irish nationalisms that the direst denial of facts remains. In the trope of Protestant decline republicans, continue to assert their rise socially, politically and economically. In fact, of the 100 most deprived places in Northern Ireland the majority of wards are Catholic and Protestants remain more likely to live in more affluent places. Unionists depressingly allege the rise of a Catholic middle class has undermined their socio-economic position without any supporting evidence. Commentators contend that unionists are more socially conservative even though data shows they are more pro-choice than nationalists with majority support for marriage equality. Furthermore, it is the unionists who favour integrated education and who would mind less if a relative married beyond the sectarian fold.
The perpetuated myths that all is doom and identity groups are opposed on all matters misses the facts of greater inter-community sharing of values and societal commitments. Majorities recognise a more reconciled place, have friendships across the divide and wish for political leadership to build reconciliation and healing. Unheard positives that are silenced by the energy and heat of competing nationalisms and their un-evidenced claims and assertions.
The realities of emergent pluralism and a more reconciled present does not bear witness but it does have impacts. The political classes ‘success’, at present, is its failure to map onto such realities by playing traditional games. Unlike the electorally more attractive Alliance who embrace them. Oiling the wheel of tradition and imagined grievance as opposed to nurturing those with more smoothed post-GFA experiences has led to nationalist stagnation and unionist decline. Unionism will not bear recognition of transformation as it smacks of an social ecumenism wrapped in liberalism whereas republicans cannot admit to realities of a less sectarian statelet. The positives are unobserved as they complicate the deliberately narrow presentation of identity that forbids nuance and shade. But not doing so is risk-laden. It is these identity shifts which mean that Sinn Fein and the SDLP remain, despite demographic shifts, on the same vote share today as they did in 1998, and why fewer who are pro-union now vote to keep the other side out. It is why, support for Irish unification has generally stalled and disinterest in the constitutional question grows.
Plus ça change
Despite change and some emergence of less traditional voting the politics of the constitution rumble on within archaic and century old fealties and diatribes less relevant in an identity shifting age. Census 2021 showed a significant decline in the birth-rate which probably means that demographic stalemate has arrived. That most in Northern Ireland are middle income, with children at elitist grammar schools and a yearly holiday in the sun seems to be irrelevant when it is in fact pertinent to how people understand their well-being and futures. As with positive post-GFA outcomes, demographic stalemate and social mobility are virtually nowhere within debate.
Nationalisms are circuitous. United Irelanders point to higher wages in the Republic which is met by counter-arguments over house prices, the cost of living and free prescriptions. Essentially both jurisdictions fail as much as they succeed and to claim otherwise merely delivers tortuously ill-defined binary politics. The Orwellian two legs versus four legs of competing nationalisms has little traction to gain as each are incompatible with evidence based arguments capable of persuasion beyond the fold. In effect, trampling over facts and data and dealing in suppositions is based upon binary understandings of identity and a failure to commit beyond populist belief systems. In reality Northern Ireland is within a demographic and electoral stalemate, the very position unionism and republicanism never envisaged. There is no ability within either to deal with the realities of the positive and neither had or have the capacity to understand that the GFA would drive new labour markets, new forms of consumption and more integrated working and social lives. As positives grow and inter-community attitudes to social and economic issues merge political Emperors may have to consider being clothed in a genuinely different way.