16 April 2021 No Comments by The Northern Standard


The bad news on our doorstep as a Border county of the ongoing violent disturbances on Northern Ireland streets provokes tremors of unease even in these more insular pandemic times when everyone’s world has grown smaller and even happenings a relatively short distance away can seem somehow remote and not of pressing relevance to our own concerns. True, there is something about the footage that has appeared on news channels each evening, of rioters in clumsy disguise hurling petrol bombs and rocks at vehicles and police personnel that seems anachronistic and somehow surreal, as if we had stumbled across a documentary about the Troubles rather than a newsfeed of contemporary events. But there is within that sense of unsettling throwback a powerful warning of a clear and present danger which, is not defused, threatens to weaken the always fragile framework of peace and poison the environment for the sort of collaboration and co-operation which our island will require if we are to successfully emerge, economically and socially, from out of the debilitating shadow of Covid-19.

Condemnation of the violence has been widespread. One of the most distressing aspects of it has been the involvement of minors, with some of those arrested as young as 12 and 13 – minds still in formation bullied or brainwashed into embracing violence and vandalism as a means of expressing grievance and asserting identity. The Northern Ireland Children’s Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma has not overstated the case by branding this manifestation of the disturbances as child abuse. One of the hopes held out for the strengthening and maturing of the peace on our island was that, as generations began to pass, young people would no longer find themselves growing up in environments saturated with enmity for opposing traditions.

Those not born into the Troubles would hopefully never know what it was like to experience them. Alas, it seems that young people in some places in Northern Ireland are still being taught at a very young age how to hate. Those who teach the hate message hold sway, perhaps, because of the lack of consistently strong competing influences. Strong, calm and consistent leadership at both community and political level is being only sporadically delivered, creating the sort of vacuum in which insidious forces thrive.

When those in leadership positions do speak out, their language often adds accelerant rather than retardant to the flames. The nuances of the Northern Ireland Protocol and some of the other complex outworkings of Brexit that have impacted on life in our shared Border region are surely lost on the ringleaders of the current agitation, but there has been much simplistic rhetoric from the mouths of those in positions of political responsibility for the rabblerousers to draw some sort of warped justification for their actions.

Without a doubt, sections of the community in Northern Ireland have genuine grievances and concerns that have coalesced around how the Northern Ireland Protocol will be operated. Disruption in aspects of trade and the supply of goods were inevitable as the ramifications of Brexit began to make themselves manifest but, while their practical impact could be anticipated and made provision for, their psychological impact on those of unionist disposition in particular has perhaps been gravely underestimated.

Brexit as promised by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Brexit in practice are turning out to be very different animals, and the longer it takes the British and European lawmakers to finalise how the trade rules of the Protocol are to operate, the more threatened and let down people are likely to become – and the more fertile the ground for the demagogues and the agitators to make hay, with the always volatile marching season just around the corner. In a timely intervention, Irish church leaders this week asked political leaders to “treat Northern Ireland’s fragile peace with care”.

One of the most compelling points made by the senior churchmen in their open letter to the leaders of the UK, Irish and European administrations is that the Protocol presents challenges not merely to the flow of trade but to “the flow of goodwill across and between these islands”. Reflecting on all the Brexit bruhaha of recent years, it is striking how little was said with conviction about the human implications, and the human cost, of what would flow from the United Kingdom’s decision to part company with the European Union.

From Mr Johnson’s vista in Westminster, it would have been hard to glimpse, or conceive, of any human casualties – attentive lookouts at the outpost of Stormont would have told a different tale, and perhaps they did but did not get sufficient heed. But, as the church leaders urge, it is not too late to address the human factor in all of this. They argue compellingly for a united approach from the Northern Ireland Executive to the UK and EU to have the issues of Brexit and the Protocol addressed in the context of “the protection of the common good across the whole of Northern Ireland”.

The churchmen are right. One powerful voice from the Executive, not a cacophony of conflicting ones, that spoke with sincerity and conviction on behalf of the entirety of its constituency, articulating the common good principles of the Good Friday Agreement, would compel attention from the Westminster and Brussels lawmakers. That voice would also surely drown out the evil whispers in the ears of those being marionetted into making the night-time streets of Belfast and elsewhere a nightmare landscape at the current time. It could quell the tremors that are testing the foundations of our island’s peace.

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