A letter from Doug Baker in Northern Ireland
December 13, 2012
Some of those who receive our PC(USA) Mission Connections letters and our periodic updates about Northern Ireland have expressed concern about recent violence in Belfast and also asked questions about what is behind it. We appreciate your interest and concern and would value your prayers at this time for a peaceful resolution of this particular controversy and for commitment on the part of politicians and civic and church leaders to seeking a truly positive shared future for this deeply divided society.
Although the peace process in Northern Ireland does continue to move forward, we are currently experiencing a very bumpy period in which underlying tension about differing national identities and conflicting long-term goals has resulted in significant disturbances on the street. Ten days ago the Belfast City Council voted 29-21 in favor of restricting the number of days in the year when the British flag (Union Jack) flies over the City Hall. For decades it has been flown 365 days of the year. However, many nationalist (Pro-Irish) citizens do not find such prominent and constant presence of the British flag appropriate in a city whose citizens are divided as to what national identity they hold. With changing demographics in the city, nationalist parties for the first time have the larger number of city councillors. Sinn Fein brought forward a motion in a sub-committee to not fly the Union Jack on any days. Their preference would be either no flag or both the Union Jack and the Irish Tricolour. The Sinn Fein motion was supported by the SDLP, the other nationalist party on the council and opposed by the DUP, Ulster Unionists, and the PUP, the three pro-British parties on the council. Neither block has an absolute majority on the City Council. Therefore the balance of power and determining vote was up to the Alliance Party (a cross-community party). They promoted a compromise motion—that the flag would not be flown every day, but would continue to be flown on 15 key dates during the year. This is the same pattern already being used at Stormont, the Northern Ireland Assembly.
While this would appear to many as a sensible compromise arrangement in what is a nearly 50/50 divided city population, many unionists view it instead as yet another significant diminishing of their Britishness and something that will increase their sense of Belfast becoming "a cold house" for unionists. Prior to the vote being taken by the full Council unionist activists distributed thousands of leaflets blaming the Alliance Party for supporting a change. These and statements by various politicians further stirred up passions. A unionist/Loyalist crowd gathered outside City Hall to protest on the night the final vote was to be taken. When the result was announced elements in that crowd became violent and a number of police officers and Council staff were injured.
For nine nights now street protests about this issue by elements from within the unionist/Loyalist community have deteriorated into violent clashes with police both in Belfast and in some provincial towns where unionists are in the clear majority. Alliance Party offices have been attacked in Belfast (including our local one), death threats issued against the one Alliance MP from Northern Ireland, and paint bombs thrown at Alliance councillors' homes in Bangor and Carrickfergus. Perhaps the most serious incident occurred three nights ago, when a petrol bomb was thrown into an unmarked police car outside our local Alliance office—while a policewoman was still in the vehicle. She escaped unharmed, but the incident is being treated as attempted murder.
Shopkeepers are reporting a dramatic downturn in footfall as people avoid going into the city center during what is the busiest shopping period of the year and the bad publicity going worldwide does nothing to help tourism or inward investment.
Politicians from all parties have condemned the violence and stated that no politicians should be targeted in a democratic society. However, very few voices from any of the unionist parties or in wider civic society have taken the line that what was decided by the Belfast City Council was a legitimate democratic decision by a democratically elected body.
Alliance—and some community leaders—are now saying that these violent protests are not an attack on just one party but on democracy. Church leaders have been clear in stating that the rule of law should be observed, but few have said much to give support to the actual compromise decision introduced. However, some lesser-known church leaders from new/nondenominational churches are organising a prayer for peace time surrounding city hall this coming Saturday to give many the opportunity to show their desire to find ways of dealing with our differences that do not degenerate into violence.
For further background on this story check: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-20651163.
Coincidentally, the results of the 2011 census were also published this week. When Northern Ireland was established in 1920 the pro-British/unionist/Protestant population was roughly 70 percent and the pro-Irish, nationalist/Catholic population was roughly 30 percent. Northern Ireland now has just over 1.8 million citizens. When asked for their religion or the religion in which they were brought up, just 48 percent stated Protestant, while 45 percent stated Roman Catholic and 7 percent none or other. When asked how they define their identity, respondents were able to tick as many boxes as they wished; 40 percent ticked British only, 25 percent ticked Irish only, 21 percent ticked Northern Irish only, while 14 percent ticked either more than one of those three boxes or “Other.” That is quite a change in the religious makeup and political identities of the population—and the balance of power—in just under 100 years.
Many here feel Sinn Fein has a share in responsibility for what is happening now in terms of violent reaction by pushing for a change they knew would be highly emotive when the timing for such a change was not good. There is undoubtedly truth in that. However, this dispute has also uncovered the fact that many unionists and Loyalists have not yet embraced an understanding of what it means to have to share a place (Belfast or Northern Ireland) with those who do not consider themselves or wish to be British. Finding ways of recognizing differing national identities and aspirations and granting parity of esteem to them was a key aspect of the Belfast Agreement in 1998. But listening to the radio call-in programs, one continually hears objections from callers from a unionist/Loyalist background to “them” (nationalists and Alliance) “removing OUR flag, from OUR city Hall” or “the city hall in OUR city.” Coming to terms with the notion that it is THEIR city also is a painful process for unionists—who once were truly dominant—particularly when statistics about changing demographics do not bode well for them in a contested society. My prayer is that both they and Dissident Republicans, who on the other side still revert to violence as well, can see that finding ways to move beyond a contested power struggle to sharing power in a shared space is far preferable to further clashes. (Note: This is not a challenge limited to Northern Ireland!)
All of this current strife in council chambers, on the streets and on the airways points to the continued need for all kinds of work toward reconciliation. I have been working with a group of church leaders for over four years now toward a new initiative involving the four largest denominations (Catholic, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist), working on a common agenda across Northern Ireland and the southern border counties to promote good relations, reconciliation and peace work. After many delays, external funding has been secured and job descriptions for nine positions will be advertised at the end of this week. The initiative will promote sustained cross-community dialogue on contention issues, offer professional support to local interchurch groups developing initiatives that will contribute to a lasting and stable peace, and develop protocols and mechanisms for the churches to more frequently speak with one voice on social and political issues—thereby modelling cooperation across historic divides. This is another part of the story of what is happening here, but it is not likely to make headlines locally or internationally! As well as praying for a resolution of the current violence, I invite you to pray that the right people will be found for these posts and the churches will rise to the challenge of using this opportunity to contribute to a lasting and stable peace here.
We are grateful for your partnership in the ministry of reconciliation in this place.
Grace and Peace,
5 Ormiston Park, Belfast BT4 3JT, Northern Ireland
+44 28 90652487
or from the U.S. use 1-502-413-6165 and you will not be charged international rates
The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 268
The 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 278
Read more about Doug Baker's ministry