Friday, September 30, 2005

The perils of a political vacuum

Recently, I tuned into South African talk Radio 702 over the Internet. To my surprise, I was greeted by a Northern Irish accent or, more precisely, a Belfast-based academic trying to explain the recent riots in Protestant loyalist areas in Belfast to a bemused South African presenter. The interview reminded me of my attempts to explain cricket to Americans: by definition, the conversation goes nowhere. It is no surprise that someone living on the other end of the world would find the situation confusing. What is more surprising is that people here seem equally perplexed.

In the days following the rioting, a bewildering array of explanations was offered. Spokespersons for the affected Protestant areas say they are being shortchanged in the peace process. They argue that Catholics have got more resources and concessions (such as the release of politically-motivated prisoners) as part of the process. Others blame high levels of socioeconomic deprivation and lack of educational opportunities in Protestant areas. Other commentators counter these claims by pointing out that two-thirds of the 20 most-deprived areas in Northern Ireland are Catholic and Catholics are still more likely to be unemployed than Protestants. That said, inner-city deprivation in some Protestant areas is acute by European standards. Still others blame a generic feeling of alienation and insecurity that somehow started with the peace process. Dire socioeconomic conditions can cause feelings of alienation and make people feel powerless to do anything positive, opening the possibility for violence.

But alienation in itself does not result in violence. It is the political context that does that and mainly the rhetoric of politicians. In a normal society, if faced by harsh socioeconomic conditions you first express your dissatisfaction to your political representatives. They express these for you in the public democratic space of government. If you have no success you may vote out your representatives or resort to peaceful protest.

And that is the problem. The Northern Ireland Assembly, which was the product of the 1998 peace agreement, was suspended in October 2002. Power still rests with the UK government. Unionist politicians, who largely represent Protestants, currently refuse to participate in the Assembly. They claim distrust of Sinn Fein (the largest Catholic party and so-called political wing of the IRA). So, without any normal political channels to air grievances, the media have become the sole vehicle for expression and analysis. But using the media in this way is risky. The media are easily manipulated by politicians who want to stoke the flames of hatred and division. Also, the bigger the protest, the more airtime you get. This feeds the illusion that protest, particularly violent protest, pays.

Ironically, while some Protestants protest about there being no peace dividend, the IRA continues to disarm and disband. The society is economically more stable than ever. Politically-motivated killings across communities have all but stopped. So one can forgive outsiders like the 702 presenter from struggling to understand just what the problem is.

In reality, the explanation for recent turbulence in Belfast probably lies in a combination of these factors. This is compounded by the inclination of unionist politicians to focus on what has been lost, rather than gained, in 11 years of ‘peace’. Combine these perceptions with the absence of a local democratic forum in which issues can be raised and dealt with and the powerlessness this causes, and Belfast’s loyalist areas become a tinderbox. This will remain a problem as long as the political vacuum, for which politicians are to blame, remains. As for socioeconomic deprivation, it is part of the same problem. Surely, it is obvious that, in a globalising world, the only possible option for this tiny island is for all to learn to pull together to get more for everyone. And if that is not happening at a political level then what chance is there of it happening within communities?

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 30 September 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.

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