Northern Ireland: an uncertain peace

In the week an election was called and Martin McGuinness quit as deputy first minister, a walk through Portadown reveals political and cultural changes that will radically affect the region’s political future

The church stands on a lonely eminence on one side of the valley. Across the brook, on the town side, the hilltop has been built up with executive-style houses.

Every Sunday a small delegation of increasingly elderly men, in Orange Order regalia, marches down the hill from the church to the brook. They ask permission to continue along this route into town, from a policeman stationed on the bridge. The policeman politely refuses. They hand him a letter of protest, and then they march back uphill again.

Sometimes the people on the new estates watch this free entertainment, but mostly they never bother. The houses largely comprise young families, barely aware that Drumcree Church was once one of the world’s great flashpoints, and the annual march there from the centre of Portadown was a significant symbol of the power of Northern Ireland’s Unionist majority. The church, imposing but not beautiful, is, of course, Protestant; the houses, overwhelmingly, belong to Catholics.

The annual July march still takes place, but since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the organisers have been barred from using their traditional route back to town. Ulster has had two decades of what outsiders call peace. The world’s media no longer descends on Drumcree; the neighbours feel no fear. But this indicates only an absence of conflict, which is not the same as peace. “A truce?” I suggested to Richard English, professor of politics at Queen’s University, Belfast. “A sullen truce,” he said.

But time is changing the nature of that truce, and the sullenness. The ratio of Protestants to Catholics in Northern Ireland has fallen dramatically: once it was 2:1; at the 2011 census only 48% declared themselves Protestant, with 45% Catholic, creating the near-certainty – maybe in four years’ time – that the long-standing majority will cease to exist.Craigavon district, which includes Portadown and has long been regarded as part of the Protestant heartland, is now a dead-heat: 42.1% for both sides. This does not mean a united Ireland is imminent, but it totally changes the dynamics of Ulster politics.

This is the inescapable backdrop to the grubby little scandal – “cash-for-ash” – which was ostensibly responsible for the fall of the power-sharing administration this week. Indeed, the combination of incompetence and corruption suggests the Belfast and Dublin governments may already be in step with each other: the Irish Republic has always been a grand place for the elite to cut themselves in on shabby deals; in this case, using well-intentioned environmental subsidies to turn a nice profit.

Corcrain Road and one of five peace walls in Portadown.
Corcrain Road and one of five peace walls in Portadown. Photograph: Paul McErlane/The Guardian

There is another factor threatening the Protestants’ control, which was obvious to me within minutes of walking up Portadown’s high street for the first time in nine years. There are no longer two parties to the unhappy marriage that defines Northern Ireland: there is a third. The once overwhelmingly white streets of Portadown are full of immigrants: a place in which the problem was that everyone knew far too much local history now has a cohort (thought to be nearing 10%) who know none of it. On the banks of the River Bann, a young Romanian man was fishing. He had never heard the word “Troubles”.

They come from all over, and are not easily categorised. There are highly qualified migrants working for the pharma firm Almac. Others work at the Moy Park chicken factory. There are South Africans and Filipinos at the hospital. Portadown’s halal supermarket has food that ranges from Moroccan to Indonesian; it leaves East European goods to the specialists. Almost next door, Saturnino Neves, the Brazilian barber, cuts all comers’ hair. “Everything good in Ireland,” he says.

That is not a universal experience. It was a Yorkshire-born Pakistani who told me with horror about how three locals had barged into a Lithuanian on the street the other day. Locals blame the Portuguese for knife crimes; the east Europeans in general for hoovering up practically every fish in the Bann to sell; and the Romanians for pretty much anything. There is much talk that the migrants slip in through lax Dublin, and cross the border by mini-bus.

In many ways, Portadown (population 22,000) is much like a similar-sized English town of the 1950s: the big chains have not driven the local shops off the high street; property prices are charmingly old-fashioned (four-bed detached with a fine view of Drumcree Church: £185,000); the choice of restaurants is also rather 1950s – less charming.

I got chatting to a grey-haired lady at the bus stop. She complained there were already too many chain stores. “Anything else changed?” “There are a lot of new faces about,” she said, chuckling at her own discretion. How do the established communities get on with each other these days, I ask. “Well, you just go about your business, so you do.” And then the bus came to her rescue.

‘Everything is good in Ireland,’ says Brazilian barber Saturnino Neves, who runs a business in Portadown.
‘Everything is good in Ireland,’ says Brazilian barber Saturnino Neves, who runs a business in Portadown. Photograph: Paul McErlane/The Guardian

In Portadown the word “community” is laden with ambiguity. The most prominent charity shop is called “Portadown Cares … for our community”. That means what it would mean anywhere else. But in normal conversation the phrase “our community” is not necessarily an inclusive one. It means ours, as opposed to anyone else’s.

In the early 1970s, especially, Portadown was rife with explosions and shootings, some the result of internal feuds between different Protestant groups. Even now, the town still has five “peace walls”, which is what you erect when you really, really hate your neighbour. Memories of murder have that effect.

Six months ago, the last Loyalist paramilitary mural left in the town was removed from its prime site along the Corcrain Road and replaced by one memorialising the Ulster forces at the Somme. A government press release hailed it as “a turning point for good relations in the area”. Not everyone might see it that way. The new mural is beautifully done, but its subtext is fundamentally aggressive and sectarian in a manner that is classically Ulsterish.

Northern Ireland exists as a unit for one reason alone: as a haven for a Protestant community that a century ago was traumatised by the prospect of being absorbed into a Catholic-dominated Ireland. Loyalist, it likes to call itself, though its loyalty to the Crown has always been more transactional than deferential.

Out-competed by the larger size of Catholic families and the arrival of the migrants, the Loyalists find themselves bewildered by political developments. Following the resignation of Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister on Monday, they face an unwanted election, widely expected to end in a further stalemate and quite possibly the resumption of direct rule from London.

When McGuinness, visibly ill, retired from politics on Thursday, late-night viewers had to endure a fulsome tribute from Ian Paisley, son of the late Rev Ian – McGuinness’ former deadly foe and then his partner in government in the power-sharing deal that led to them being called the “chuckle brothers”. One had to pinch oneself to remember that McGuinness is a man believed by everyone in Northern Ireland, except perhaps himself, to have been not just an IRA member but, in the Irish Times’ words, a “ruthless commander of an organisation responsible for some 1,800 killings”.

And so no wonder the Orangemen feel disorientated. Many put their faith in Brexit. On a Radio Ulster phone-in this week, I heard elderly listeners exhibiting a version of the East German östalgie, improbable nostalgia for a dreadful past. One caller was demanding the return of the border and those happy days when Northern Ireland was free from guns, explosives and drugs. Oh, yeah.

Brexit may also mean an independent Scotland, the Unionists’ most natural ally in the UK, which would leave Ulster as an even more isolated appendage than ever. And hemmed in to the south. In such circumstances, the case against a united Ireland might seem absurd.

But what about the young? Twenty years on from Good Friday, the education system is still largely segregated, and friendships across the traditional divide rare. Noella Murray is the enthusiastic principal of Drumcree College, an old Catholic-run secondary, which is being revamped into St John the Baptist’s College – a junior high school for up to 14s.

This is partly because the old school had been getting indifferent results and partly because parents were put off by the name and the location. In the old days, kids had to remove their ties to get home safely. In the summer, the army would take over the school as their command post to control the march; they are remembered kindly for being fastidious tidiers-up.

Martin McGuinness, who stepped down this week.
Martin McGuinness, who stepped down this week. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

The newcomers, with their blank-slate memories, have no qualms, and on Thursday a Syrian girl proudly received her new blue uniform, adding one more element to the rich racial mix. Murray is proud of the school’s outreach to Protestants, too. It hosts a multi-faith group for drama and has a curricular link with a state-run (ie mainly Protestant) junior high school for sport, health and well-being classes. They have been away on residentials together; social media, she says, allow them to stay in touch. It is no use, she says, to have one joint trip and just get back on the bus.

But she also believes passionately in Catholic education. “Sharing is about respecting difference as well as celebrating what we have in common. I hate the word ‘tolerance’. I don’t believe shared education should be about compromising your ethos and your values.”

On the other side of the divide, Darryn Causey is a Democratic Unionist councillor and a youth worker at the YMCA in the Loyalist district of Brownstown. This has never been considered a safe space by traditional Catholic teenagers. But the incomers are not cursed by inhibition. “We have one French kid, he’s 16, he’s very questioning and doesn’t understand how it works in Northern Ireland. He said to one boy: ‘What do you mean, you’re Protestant? You don’t go to church.’ So he says it’s not religious, it’s political. It’s a fair point.”

Martin McGuinness ‘not physically capable’ to run for election

At Stormont, the dizzying early years of power-sharing created ridiculous expectations. The system is necessarily clunky, but with the first minister and deputy yoked together, effectively equal, like a pantomime horse. Day-to-day power-sharing has often meant maximum grind for minimum co-operation.

“The structures of society remain deeply sectarian, educational, political and social,” says English. “This is not to undermine all the cross-community work that has gone on.” Perhaps that means that the progress on the ground, though horrendously slow, might just have more solidity than Stormont’s failings suggest.

David Armstrong was editor of the Portadown Times from 1967 to 2007, a span that encompassed all of the Troubles: terrible years, brilliant for journalism. Armstrong is now 74 and retired. He spends much of his time at the local U3A branch. He loves the cycling group and on a Friday morning more than 100 turn up for bridge. When he sat in his office preparing yet another horrific splash, such cross-community groups were less visible. “Now you wouldn’t know who you were sitting next to. More than that, you wouldn’t care.”

By the river I met fisherman Maurice McIlwaine, who came here from Belfast 40 years ago and thought then it was lacking in spirit. It’s better now, he thinks: “You have to look a bit further for the bad man. He used to be at the end of your fingers. Now you’d have to reach out and find him.”

“The future’s bright. The future’s Orange,” the advert used to go. Forecasting a bright future for Northern Ireland would always be a triumph of hope over experience. But there are tinges of brightness.

Meanwhile, as the sad men of Drumcree make their weekly protest, the orange is starting to fade. Protestant Ulster withstood the bullet and the bomb, but it now faces the inexorable power of demography. In other words, it may be overthrown not by violence, but by sex.


Matthew Engel

The GuardianTramp

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