Northern Ireland's Not So Bad Now The Whole World's Gone To Shit
Throughout February, we’re getting people from all over Northern Ireland to contribute personal pieces in the run up to the election on March 2nd. 28 days in February for 28 different voices.
There are still a few spots left to fill so get in touch!
I was 4 when the Good Friday Agreement was passed, and I don’t remember a thing about it. I was 7 in 2001, and I remember watching the towers fall on TV at my grandma’s house in Finaghy. I didn’t really grasp what was going on.
The Noughties are a complete blur to me. My parents were both largely areligious, and to my eyes as a child, largely apolitical. I wasn’t raised into any particular “community”, but we were always closer to the loyalist side of things, geographically. I watched the Orange bands march past our house every year – I didn’t know about the Battle of the Boyne, but I knew we had to leave my granny’s house early on the Twelfth if we didn’t want to get stuck in traffic. We were a comfortable, lower-middle-class family. Privilege and ignorance are inextricably connected, and I was privileged enough to be pretty fucking ignorant.
We watched the news every night at dinner, because it was on before The Simpsons and we only had four and a half channels. I remember the general air of things, the bloodshed of the loyalist feuds, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but no details. I didn’t ask enough questions. My dad watched a lot of documentaries, about the rise of the Nazis and World War Two. I think he was trying to make sense of the time he was born into, like I’m doing these days.
He passed away in 2008, and I started paying more attention to things.
My mum and I watched Obama’s inauguration live on TV. I felt like I was actually cognisant of what was going on, and it seemed good – like the years of Bush and Blair were in the past and maybe America was cool again.
I visited Auschwitz with my history class in 2010. I asked the guide what the deal was with one lone structure in an otherwise empty section of the camp. She said it was a water-tower that the Nazis had to put it in because Allianz refused to insure the place otherwise – so many people packed tightly into wooden huts was deemed too much of a fire risk. The idea that someone could look at a death camp and come away worrying about their insurance policies has stayed with me.
In 2012, the Union flag was taken down from Belfast City Hall. For a brief, strange period, it seemed like loyalists were holding the country to ransom. Our history was repeating itself as farce, cars were burning in the street and a loathsome little sideshow of “community activists”, men beyond caricature, popped seemingly out of nowhere to gorge on the indignation of Northern Irish moderates. Willie Frazer denounced everything in sight as an IRA plot, as Jamie Bryson equated the treatment of rioters by the PSNI to the treatment of German Jews by the Third Reich. It felt like the rest of the world was slowly clawing its way toward decency, while we were backsliding into the bad old days.
A Tory MP came to our school not long after. He told us about political normalisation and how it was the future of Northern Ireland, but he didn’t have much in the way of real advice beyond “vote Tory”. The news, and a year spent studying British politics and Irish history, told me that was pretty shit advice.
In 2013 I moved to Scotland for uni. I was glad to put the mess of Northern Ireland behind me and, by comparison, Scotland seemed positively radical. I voted for Scottish independence, and I was in George Square the night of the referendum. The mood among Yes voters there was amazing. I wished that kind of solidarity, energy and civic-mindedness was something I could see back home. I’ve since realised it probably was, if I’d bothered to go looking for it.
The No vote won that referendum. The next year the Tories won the General Election. The Alliance Party lost its only seat in Westminster. By now the cool of Obama’s liberal America was old hat, leaving anxiety and outrage over mass surveillance, drone bombings and police brutality. Loyalists at home caught flak for flying a Confederate flag in addition to the usual Union, Orange and Israel flags. In response to the criticism, some other loyalists ran a swastika up there too.
In the summer of 2015, a graduate friend from Kansas took an internship in Dublin, and came up to Belfast for a visit. We’d met at uni in Scotland, and I showed him and his friends around. I explained the culture and politics of the place as best I could, he told me about Bernie Sanders and the upswing in socialism amongst young Americans. We had a great time out on the town – the Americans loved the place, despite having had the incredible, if somewhat dubious, dumb luck of booking into an East Belfast Airbnb on the 11th – 13th of July.
Surprisingly, I really enjoyed myself too – since I’d left, Belfast had a hell of a lot more going for it. The old bullshit was still there, of course, but everywhere you looked there was an abundance of new stuff, in bold defiance of the provincial, sectarian Belfast I grew up in. For the first time, I thought seriously about moving home. I remember sitting in my room in Scotland later that year, when one of my flatmates came in to tell me that David Cameron fucked a pig, and then again to tell me about the Paris attacks.
Last summer, I was sat up at 2am in an Ayr Travelodge, watching the EU referendum results coming in live. I’d voted against leaving, and I was glued to the telly with morbid compulsion until Glasgow swung it back round for Remain. I woke up again at 5am to find out Leave had won, and in a state of groggy despair took a £40 taxi to Turnberry. I was there to cover Donald Trump’s press conference for a Dutch internet news company.
I was standing in a crowd of 200 journalists from all over the world as the news of the day just kept on breaking. I tried to get a word in edgewise about my Brexit worries for Northern Ireland but the cameramen I was talking to – a furious German from Reuters and an ambivalent Aussie from Fox – were far advanced in both years and experience and, quite understandably, didn’t give a shit about me, my DSLR or my podunk little country.
I watched Trump invoke the worries of his “proud German friends” over supposedly unchecked immigration, as swastika-emblazoned golfballs littered the ground around his feet courtesy of stunt comic Simon Brodkin. Trump was gently booed by the Scottish members of the press when he congratulated Scotland for voting Leave (they didn’t). Then some alleged journalist asked him about his golf swing, and he fucked off back to the airport in a private helicopter while I walked six miles to the nearest train station cuz none of those hacks would give me a lift.
A few months later, I came home from a night out in Glasgow. My girlfriend, from Larne, is an American citizen and she’d voted for Clinton. We watched the results come in together till she fell asleep. Trump won, of course. I was a little surprised, but I wasn’t all that shocked.
The RHI thing felt like it came out of nowhere. I hadn’t been paying enough attention to things back home, and “cash for ash” seemed like one more noxious drop in the ocean compared to the news from across the Atlantic. My girlfriend and I had already decided to move to Belfast this summer and get involved back home. Now that McGuinness has stepped down and the vote’s come up, I feel like that’s a good place to start.
My whole life, Northern Ireland has felt like a regressive little backwater, a stagnant sectarian state full of exasperated people who deserve better, but seem resigned to the fact they won’t get it. Political normalisation was bandied about as the answer – we were meant to grow out of our constitutional anxieties and start voting for the grown-up mainland parties. To put aside our identitarian quarrels and fall in line with the laissez-faire centrism that let things get the way they are now. Instead, we sat tight until things boiled over, until the Brits and the Americans voted for the same kind of monstrous bastards that we’ve been electing for years. Until the kind of cruel demagoguery the DUP peddle became the new normal everywhere else.
But now we have a choice, and a chance for something much better. In the shadows of a Brexit Britain and a Breitbart White House, what kind of Stormont are we going to elect? Will we let the DUP continue their reign of banal evil, or will we hand the reigns to a disinterested London so they can dictate terms at this most crucial juncture? Or, please God, will we finally give someone else a shot?
The other day I saw an ad for Amazon’s The Man In The High Castle. It showed the Statue of Liberty throwing up a straight-armed salute, draped in an ersatz Nazi sash. The tagline above it read “the future belongs to those who change it.” I don’t think I’ve seen another piece of media so simultaneously mistimed and timely.
Thousands of people in America, Britain and Europe are resisting the rise of right-wing, white-supremacist reactionary populism. People are trying to stop history from repeating itself. We’ve been doing that with our own history for a while now.
This election could be a chance for us to move forward, even as those supposed grown-up countries around us slide ever further back. We aren’t a world power, a major player, and nor should we be – heck, our very existence as a nation hinges on a particularly convoluted quirk of regional history. But there’s absolutely no good reason that Our Wee Country™ couldn’t be a decent, compassionate place that actually concerns itself with the welfare of the people living there.
These days, we might have a better shot at it than most.
Here's a full-sized image of Andrew's illustration, and you can find his cartoons in our Gallery: