Well, Wednesday evening’s videos of youths setting a double decker bus ablaze with petrol bombs – see below (courtesy of The Guardian) – seem finally to have got the current surge in violence in Northern Ireland on to at least some of the news channels.
Even so, Northern Ireland was only on 3 front pages yesterday morning – as the montage below demonstrates. As ex-MP Anna Soubry commented on Thursday night’s Sky News Press Preview, it’s almost as if much of the news media are determined to ignore the spreading violence – preferably in favour of heartening stories of winning the war against Coronavirus.
A frozen conflict
On Facebook this week I saw Northern Ireland described as a ‘frozen conflict’.
Initially I rejected that term. ‘Frozen conflicts’ were the ‘little wars’ Vladimir Putin’s Russia fought on its borders with Georgia – see Tribal War in South Ossettia – and Ukraine – see Hope from the Tragedy of MH17..? and The Madness of Pietro Poroshenko…? Frozen conflicts…wars, official in Ossetia and unofficial in Ukraine, in which the Russians had gained as much as they wanted to or could, in the face of international condemnation and minor economic sanctions. So they simply ceased offensive operations and held their lines in face of impotent opposition from the governments of the invaded countries. (Although it could be argued the conflict in Eastern Ukraine never truly froze and may be about to go hot again as Russian forces are building up again on the border as I write.)
But, as the violence has continued in Belfast – and has been getting worse – I realised that ‘frozen conflict’ was indeed an appropriate term. I reviewed some of my previous writings and found that, in The Trouble with Tribalism… (2016), I had written: “…in Northern Ireland the truce between the tribes is unsteady. And it is far more a truce than a reconciliation in Northern Ireland – how ever much people don’t want a return of the violence of The Troubles. There is little integration of the communities and the so-called ‘peace walls’ that separate Protestant Unionists and Catholic Republicans still stand 18 years after the Good Friday Agreement.”
And the trouble in Northern Ireland, as with so many intermittent conflicts around the world, is indeed tribalism, driven by the PURPLE vMEME. The motive of this vMEME is to find safety-in-belonging – belonging to those who are most like you and with whom you feel safe from those who are not like you. PURPLE distinguishes between those of-our-tribe and those not-of our-tribe. Colour of skin and mode of dress are 2 of the easiest ways to distinguish; but language, spoken accents, geographical territory, political views and the religion you espouse, even if only nominally – even the football team you support – can all be effective tribal markers.
It is a GREEN conceit to disregard tribalism, to think it doesn’t matter and that people will forget their tribal roots and merge into one homogenous society with a shared values consensus –“a great big melting pot”, in the words of the old Blue Mink hit. People can transcend their tribal roots through opportunity (stimulating the ORANGE vMEME) or tribalism can be suppressed through monolithic (BLUE) state apparatus as it was in Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. However, it never goes away. As the so-called ‘Spiral balloon’ shows, it’s there in the background all the time, even when the most complex and sophisticated vMEMES are dominating discourse.
There were many factors that led up to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998; but arguably the most important was a war weariness after close on 30 years of ‘The Troubles’. The Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom both being in the European Union enabled the border between them to be disappeared physically and the future of Northern Ireland – whether to remain in the UK or become reunified as a complete country on the island of Ireland – to be decided by democratic means some time in the vague future…well, not decided, really. “Kicked into the long grass” is a favourite expression of commentators when politicians want to put off making a momentous decision.
But Brexit has changed all that.
Land border or sea border?
That was always the conundrum the governments of Theresa May and Boris Johnson faced.
As the UK is not only no longer a member of the EU but has also exited the Single Market and the Customs Union, there has to be a border. From way before the actual referendum was conducted in 2016, the EU made clear that protecting the integrity of the Single Market would be always be a key priority in any Brexit negotiation process.
That means there has to be a border, to control immigration, facilitate exports and collect tariffs on imports, amongst many other things – as is normal with countries. Countries may have arrangements with other countries that make trading and/or migration easier but they have still have borders.
The EU and the United States – the more so since Joe Biden was elected – have insisted there must be no border on the island of Ireland, in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement. That meant Northern Ireland would have to be partially in the Customs Union and Single Market – and, therefore, subject to certain EU rules. That, in turn, meant that, to protect the integrity of the Single Market, specified goods entering and leaving via Northern Ireland, would have to be subject to Customs procedures. That has meant Northern Ireland is under a different jurisdiction to the rest of the UK. Yet, as late as August 2020 minister Boris Johnson was reported by ITV News, amongst others, to have said: “There will be no border down the Irish Sea – over my dead body.” While Johnson was saying that, Michael Gove was negotiating the Northern Ireland Protocol which created economic barriers between the country and the rest of the UK across the Irish Sea.
No wonder the Unionists feel betrayed!
Anger has been growing amongst the Unionist communities since the beginning of the year when the Brexit transition period ended. Delays at the ports due to the extra paperwork and some empty supermarket shelves have only added to a sense of crisis on both sides of the divide. Graffiti threatening docks and Customs staff and politicians in the Republic soon started appearing on walls in Unionist areas of Belfast. Influential fringe Unionist activists like Jamie Bryson called for government in Northern Ireland to be made “unworkable” – as reported by Matt Mathers for The Independent.
The actual trigger for the nightly violence which began, symbolically, on Good Friday appears to be the 30 March decision of the Public Prosecution Service not to prosecute 24 Sinn Fein politicians, including deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill, for attending the funeral of a senior IRA leader in June 2020 and flouting Covid restrictions as 2,000 mourners took to the streets of Belfast to pay their respects.
Of course, if it had been decided to prosecute the Sinn Fein lawbreakers, the chances are it would have been Republican youth rioting on Good Friday. There is no easy route to justice in such a polarised community. However, the PPS decision plays into the growing narrative that Northern Ireland’s union with Great Britain is under existential threat. It only takes a few RED-led demagogues denouncing the Protocol as ‘sell-out’ and claiming the ‘Provos’ are taking over and PURPLE-dominated tribespeople are taking action to defend ‘their land’.
BBC News’ Michael Hirst suggests the spinning of this narrative may come partly from Unionist paramilitaries wanting to keep the police busy and away from further investigating their criminal activities such as drug-dealing. There is most likely some truth in this: the frustrations of Unionism undoubtedly play into the hands of the paramilitary groups, giving them a raison d’être beyond being simply rather nasty criminal gangs. However, their involvement accelerates the development of an embattled and bitter cause.
Of course, once one side starts, the other responds…and so on Wednesday evening Republican youths did respond, clashing with both the police and Unionist youths.
Under the Brexit bus
Despite the ludicrous claims by Michael Gove (BBC News, 2019) and other hardline Brexiteers that the UK held “all the cards” in the negotiations, it became clear fairly early in the withdrawal discussions that, in fact, the EU had a far stronger hand.
One of the cards it played was that, in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement, there must be no land border on the island of Ireland. Inevitably, that meant the border would have to be in the sea. Commentators have been saying that, for 4 years, yet the Government and, in particular, Boris Johnson have maintained the lie that there would be no border in the Irish Sea. Even after the transition period ended and a very time-limited ‘grace period’ came into force for some foodstuffs and goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain (to reduce disruption), Johnson kept up the lie that there was no border in the Irish Sea. Only in early February, under pressure from first minister Arlene Foster, with some supermarkets having empty shelves, did Johnson and Gove effectively admit there is a border by asking the EU to extend the grace period (Sam McBride, The Newsletter).
As the Tories are officially titled the Conservative & Unionist Party, it seems ironic that Johnson’s government has effectively sacrificed the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland for the vanity of the Brexit project.
It’s not my intention here to go into detail about what a proven liar Johnson is, how the Leave campaign spread lies and disinformation to win the 2016 referendum and how devastating Brexit is for the UK economy. These are now established facts. Verification of such facts is easily available from a wide range of political and economic sources outside of the group of hard right media conglomerates which act as propaganda mouthpieces for Johnson and his government and their funders in the Plutocracy and the Elite – see How the Plutocrats are waging War on the Bureaucrats…
Brexit, for Johnson was a route to the ultimate power of being prime minister. His impulsiveness, his compulsiveness, his ruthlessness and his obviously rampant sex drive indicate he is high in the temperamental dimension of Psychoticism. As such, he is acutely self-centred, selfish and truly narcissistic. For such a man, only one thing counts: him. Thus, he has tacitly encouraged racism, alienated the UK’s most important allies (to varying degrees) and trashed the British economy – all under the Brexit bus in his lust for power. So no surprise that the Northern Ireland peace process can go under the bus too.
While it can sometimes be modified through environmental experience and epigenetic modification, temperament is largely stable. Unlike motivation which can change according to context, temperament tends to stay the same across all domains of a person’s life.
Thus, if Johnson’s temperament makes him a ruthless, self-obsessed narcissist who lies and cheats to get what he wants, that element of his psyche is unlikely to change.
In short, he is untrustworthy and Arlene Foster and her Unionist colleagues were unbelievably naïve to trust him – even slightly.
Where does Northern Ireland go from here…?
As Monica Bourgeau (2019) has found out, statistically the vast majority of people are not extremists but small shades to the left and right of centre politically. However, agendae all too often get hijacked by extremists who, as the Assimilation-Contrast Effect demonstrates, demonise moderates on their own side, labelling them as traitors to the cause and pressurising them to adopt more extreme views. Thus, they polarise debate into hardened either/or divisions, with little sense of a continuum and shades of grey between the black and white poles.
As Don Beck did in South Africa, the moderates on each side (led by Nelson Mandela and F W De Klerk respectively in South Africa) need to find and emphasise their common ground and seek to extend it. In this way, they isolate the extremists.
A highly-pertinent topical example of this is moderate Republicans working to elect a moderate Democrat (Joe Biden) to defeat the extremist Republican Donald Trump in November’s presidential election. It is highly doubtful those same Republicans would have supported the leftist Democrat Bernie Sanders.
Then there is the importance of uniting people around superordinate goals. From Muzafer Sherif et al (1961) onwards, behavioural scientists have recognised the power of giving different tribes unifying superordinate goals. After all, most communities want a lot of the same things: a decent income, affordable good quality housing, effective education for their children, access to good healthcare…and to feel safe in their homes and on their streets. If the communities can be persuaded not to compete – Realistic Conflict Theory – but that they are more likely to achieve their goals by collaborating, then is more chance of the communities co-existing peacefully.
However, as tribalism always lurks beneath the surface and is PURPLE’s natural default position when threatened, attempts must be made to monitor progress, anticipate problems and take corrective actions. This necessity is encapsulated in Beck’s vital signs monitor concept, first trialled in the UK during the HemsMESH project.
In truth, Northern Ireland needs a MeshWORK approach, to ensure all needs of all stakeholders are being addressed as far as possible in a way that is sustainable for the holistic health of society as a whole. Such an approach is not a quick fix but signals that progress is going to be made can be sent early on, giving the dissatisfied and the fearful hope that a workable resolution is on its way.
The young people throwing petrol bombs and stones in Belfast and Londonderry are too young to remember the horrors of The Troubles. It is all too easy for young people to get sucked into a narrative about defending the cause from the ‘enemy’. In the short-term, it is to be hoped that their parents and grandparents, with tales (and hard evidence) of how destructive and horrible The Troubles were, can dissuade them from violence. The mind-brains of these young people are memetic battlegrounds between the ideas (memes) of the extremists and the ideas of the moderates who know only too well the hell that could be unleashed by a full-scale return to The Troubles.
A burning bus will be nothing compared to a bombing and shooting campaign!
In the mid-longer term, the UK needs a government that puts the welfare of the people above the personal power of the leaders. Such a government would take a MeshWORK-type approach to the welfare of the Kingdom and its constituent parts, and its many diverse communities. The questions would centre around what is in the best interests of the people? rather what do I need to do to build my power base?
It’s unfair to blame Boris Johnson and his cronies entirely for the mess Northern Ireland is in – the so-called ‘Irish Question’ has been troubling UK politicians since at least the 1800 Acts of Union – but their lust for power via a hard, thoughtless and careless Brexit has ripped up a workable if fragile truce.
I wrote 98% of this post yesterday morning but held off publishing it to see if the death of Prince Philip would have an immediate and hopefully calming effect on the violence, especially as a number of signs notifying postponement of the protests – like the one above – had appeared in Unionist areas of Belfast. Unfortunately, this morning BBC News are reporting more violence – petrol bombs, rocks thrown and police officers injured. Possibly on a lesser scale than previous nights but enough to indicate this violence is not going to end just like that.
The problem, in part at least, is that once the PURPLE/RED beast of tribal warfare is released, it is very hard for it to be constrained.