Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Northern Ireland

by Jackie_South on August 21, 2013

The Poles are coming to ArmaghAs I’m nearing the end of my fortnight in Northern Ireland, I thought I would share my top ten observations about the province. In no particular order of importance:

1. In Northern Ireland politics, identity trumps all
I have already covered this one, but it is striking how different the terms for political discourse are. That said, it is also recognisable that The Troubles meant that Northern Ireland was the part of the UK least troubled by Thatcherism: they even still have rates rather than Council Tax. The three largest parties in Parliamentary representation – the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) – all support high public investment.

2. All history is subjective
All telling of history has to be an edited version of events to make sense of it all. Choosing which events are ‘important’ and which get left out or distressed is a choice, however scientific and non-partisan the historian tries to be. In Northern Ireland, where you start in your description of The Troubles depends on your outlook: I have met Republicans who told me the starting point was when the British troops went on to the streets. But they were deployed there initially to protect nationalist communities from Protestant attack, which in turned happened as a consequence of the catholic civil rights movement, prompted by decades of discrimination in Northern Ireland, created to protect the protestant communities from Catholic persecution within a united Ireland … and so on. Back to the first pogrom in 1641? To the plantation of Ulster in the 1600’s? To the interference of English and Scottish kings in Medieval times?

3. Northern Ireland wants committed politicians deeply rooted in their communities
‘Career politicians’ are dying out in Northern Ireland. What was once the ultimate party of power in the province, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), has no MPs and is dying on its backside: indeed it has split over the last year as moderates have left to form the NI21 party. Similarly, the SDLP is in a probably terminal decline as it is eclipsed by Sinn Fein. What both the DUP and Sinn Fein have is a strong commitment to their communities: what you hear about their representatives in those communities is how down to earth and hard-working they are.

That is why when Jeffrey Donaldson left the UUP for the DUP in 2004, he took all his votes with him. Incumbency for a hard-working MP matters far more in Northern Ireland than in the rest of the UK.

It also perhaps sends a message to the parties on the mainland: the history of the UUP and the SDLP show that parties can struggle if they are not rooted in their communities and reflecting their values. As traditional loyalties break down, this is an important message for them to learn.

The downside is it means that Ulster’s politicians are constantly trying to balance the need for progress with the demands of the communities who put them into power.

4. Money is critical to keeping the peace process going
This is another one I covered in a previous post. The peace process is fractious, as events over the last fortnight have shown, but all the main parties want to see it succeed as they all see something in it for them, and that ‘something’ is largely economic growth. That growth will come partly from the private sector, but the engine is public money. Every town seems to have its big public project: the Strule Arts Centre in Omagh (where I am writing this post), Lisburn’s combined municipal and arts Island Centre, Derry’s Peace Bridge and its cultural boom to become the European City of Culture.

If English style austerity hits Northern Ireland, this will all get thrown into reverse. It is still far poorer than the rest of the UK (three bedroom houses in beauty spots on the Causeway Coast go for £115,000), but unlike England and the Republic of Ireland, its young people are economically optimistic.

The big questions are will this continue as the cuts continue in Westminster? And if it does, how does this affect the nationalist outlook: their communities need the money most but they will never be able to get this sort of deal from Irish unification?

5. Belfast holds the key to peace
In my previous post on Northern Ireland, regular reader Mike Killingworth commented that part of the problem for Northern Ireland was that it was a small place that its brightest and best emigrated from.

Whilst of course there are many talented people who have remained put, there is an element of truth in this. The only place big enough to meet the aspirations of those Northern Irish with itchy feet is Belfast. But Belfast has more than its fair share of problems.

The communities in the second city, Derry, have gone from the most difficult situation of all to one of compromise and moving forward (for example, this month its former IRA leader Martin McGuinness speaking enthusiastically about the Apprentice Boys march). Belfast is a long way from that sort of consensus, as the recent Loyalist riots have shown.

Belfast has the seeds of a solution, as its fantastic Titanic Quarter and the artsy Cathedral Quarter show. But much needs to be done to bridge the gap, particularly with the Loyalist communities who currently feel so excluded. Shankill ward is the poorest ward in the entire UK: it needs investment and jobs.

6. IRA men don’t die, they become tour guides
Being in Omagh is a powerful reminder that dissident Republicans are a very real threat. Omagh pretty much avoided most of The Troubles up until the Good Friday Agreement. Four months later, its high street was torn apart by the bomb that claimed more lives than any other incident in The Troubles.

But the threat of a wholesale reversal of republican commitment to peace is unlikely. There is something quite touching going to Belfast’s Falls Road or Derry’s Bogside to see old IRA men, now in their late fifties and sixties, making a few quid from the tourist industry, happily opening up their monumental gardens to their ‘fallen’ and showing visitors round the murals and sites.

These are men who believe that in some way they have contributed towards the new Northern Ireland, that their sacrifices and those of the lads who didn’t make it have helped build a better nation. Whilst that continues, dissident republicanism will be very much a sideshow and not the main event.

7. The Unionists need a narrative
Those former IRA volunteers illustrate that they are being far more effective in telling their side of the story. Go to the Falls or the Bogside, and you will see a few Irish tricolours but you will be more struck by the murals and the attempts to link their struggle to those in Catalonia, South Africa, Palestine or Central America. Go to any protestant area that feels slightly under threat and all you see are a profusion of union jacks and bunting. Rather than telling their story, the unionists are satisfied with just waving a flag in your face.

That’s what they have always done, and that is what they feel entitled to continue to doing. Why did the removal of the union flag from outside Belfast City Hall upset them so much? Because it told them that they were becoming less dominant and areas that were once ‘theirs’ are no longer unambiguously so.

They are on the back foot, and will continue to be unless they tell their side of the tale. Go to the Portadown Bridge, site of one of the worst acts of genocide on the island: the 1641 massacre of over a hundred Ulster Scots Protestants by Catholics that was one of the sparks for the English Civil War – and there is almost nothing telling you the story. Go to the Shankill and you see murals, but little that can connect an outsider to their background.

This is uptight Ulsterism against loquacious nationalist Irish tales. If you want more support from the world outside your borders, learn to tell your tale as well, in an accessible way.  Where is the story of the Ulster famine of 1740 that drove so many Scots Irish to America? Why did Unionism feel so threatened by Irish independence?

8. The Polish are coming
If it ever was, Northern Ireland is not just a place of two communities as loggerheads. It would be an exaggeration to think of it as truly multicultural, but there are far more non-white faces in the province than in many parts of provincial mainland Britain.

Most striking is the boom in Eastern Europeans. Every high street has its Eastern European food shop (see the photo above from Armagh), and you hear Polish spoken by young families regularly.

This has important consequences for the balance of the communities. Most of these Eastern Europeans are from Catholic countries – the pace of change of the balance of Catholic versus Protestant is accelerating as a result and parity will occur sooner than previously projected.

But of course, there is no guarantee that these new Catholics will be nationalists. Will they take sides? Will they see the value of UK investment (public money in particular) and opt for Unionism? Will they be persuaded by the stronger nationalist historical narrative to back them?

9. It is the most beautiful part of the UK
Charlie East-West, who is currently holidaying in Scotland, recently sent the rest of the All That’s Left team a photo from the Highlands to boast of his homeland’s beauty.

Well sorry Charlie, beautiful it is, but I would contend that square mile-by-square mile Northern Ireland beats Scotland easily. From the Giants Causeway to where the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea in Newcastle, it is simply spectacular. Looking over Strangford Lough and Belfast from Strabo Tower, walking the old town walls of Derry or the castle ruins in Antrim town or standing on the headland at Portrush  are hard to beat, as are travelling down the County Londonderry Coast (with the mountains of Donegal across Lough Foyle) or through the Sperrins. And then there are the small cathedral cities of Armagh and Downpatrick, the shores of Lough Neagh with its mountainous backdrop and the lakes of Fermanagh.

Tourism though is under-developed: there are resorts like Portrush and Newcastle but they are very much for the local population. Only Belfast and Derry seem geared up to take money from tourists from beyond the province.

If you haven’t been, go soon. Just remember to pack an umbrella.

10. The Irish love their Chinese
Curry houses are few and far between, but every town has a Chinese restaurant. However, there are some differences to those on the mainland. They all seem to have as many white staff as Chinese. Dishes come with a choice of rice or chips. And the Northern Irish don’t mess about with chopsticks: it is strictly knives and forks.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

George_East August 21, 2013 at 10:40 pm

Fantastic post. Fascinating view of the province. My experience is limited to Belfast and a wedding in Newry. I found the former a city trying a bit too hard to pretend its recent history hasn’t happened (quickly dispelled by a walk down The Falls or the Shankill – their closeness geographically still a revelation to me) . The latter in reality a part of the Republic – tricolours everywhere, Euros accepted in the shops etc.


Jackie_South August 22, 2013 at 8:05 am


I only spent an hour or so in Newry, but saw few (one?) tricolour – perhaps it was a time of the year issue.

Having now been to Enniskillen, I might qualify my comment about food: they had India, Thai and Chinese restaurants! Pretty good for a small town: they obviously like their grub in Fermanagh. Enniskillen also has two independent record shops, both small but pretty unusual for a town of its size. One was just for country music!


George_East August 22, 2013 at 11:33 am

I think you can always judge a town by its independent record shops. If they are viable it tells you a lot of good things about the population.


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