Every year thousands of people take to the streets to celebrate the 12th of July in Northern Ireland. Under Orange Order, United Kingdom and Ulster flags they march around the streets of the Northern Irish capital and towns to commemorate the victory of William of Orange (Protestant) over James II (Catholic) troops in the 1690 Battle of Boyne.
On the eve of the 12th the celebration begins: dozens of bonfires up to 40 meters high are lit all over Belfast, bonfires on which the Irish flag is flown on the summit, and occasionally the European flag.
However, what is an Irish flag doing waving in a Protestant celebration?
Northern Ireland is both psychologically and physically divided between those who consider themselves Irish, Northern-Irish and those who see themselves as British. It is the latter, or a section of them, who have occupied the international headlines in recent months. In 2012 one of the Protestant parades passed through a Catholic community (Ardoyne) and was accompanied by days of rioting which led to the decision of the Parades Commission to abolish its passing through the same streets in 2013. Since the day of this decision there has been riots focused in the East and the North of the Northern Irish capital, in places where the boundaries between Catholic and Protestant communities are almost touching (known as flashpoints).
This has resulted in police officers being brought in from other parts of the UK, who were trained in the same Northern Irish territory only a few months previously in order to police the G8 Summit. Northern Ireland, or its representatives, wanted to show the world (using the G8 event) that it is a safe region for tourism and investment, and that it had left behind a period of history that had dispelled both. However, what was perceived during the Summit was that Northern Ireland was a wartime region escorted by hundreds of police units once again.
This was true in so much as only a few months prior the Belfast City Council had taken the decision to fly the British flag for 15 days instead of the previous 365 that it had been flown until December 2012. Following this decision there were riots in several parts of the city (mainly the North and East) for several weeks that would be silenced during the G8 Summit due to the government’s strategy to stop any act that made it seem as if Northern Ireland had not resolved “the troubles.”
During the G8 Summit B. Obama appealed for the demolition of the peace walls of the country’s capital. In Belfast there are 99 walls which have been built since 1969 (the beginning of “The Troubles”) which aim for the separation between the Catholic and Protestant communities, a situation which is supported by up to 68% of those living near them. However, these walls are unevenly distributed throughout the city: 44% of these walls are found in the North and 30% in the West of Belfast.
It is a widely held assumption that there is this separation between the Protestant and Catholic communities however, there are two factors to be taken into account: that 74% of the separation barriers are located in the North and the West of Belfast, and according to the Institute of Statistics for Northern Ireland it is in these areas where the risk of poverty is higher. Both areas are full of images of martyrs in every corner with painted murals and flags that leave you in no doubt that you have just crossed the border between Ireland and the UK but you are still in the capital of Northern Ireland.
Being able to choose British or Irish nationality, having a high level of self legislative governance and a developed welfare system do not seem sufficient in a society where over 90% of the population has been and is educated in schools affiliated to Protestantism or Catholicism. An education in which, according to the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, the underachievement of the working class is still the norm, (especially this the children of the protestant working class), and this seems also to be related to the current conflict in Northern Ireland.
The disturbances, associated with the belligerent Protestant sector, are closely related to that sector of Protestantism who perceive a loss of identity embodied in the increase of the Catholic population, the removal of the flag by the city council, the modification of their parade route on July 12th, and ultimately, the ghost of a Northern Ireland governed by the Irish.
However, this is just the tip of the iceberg: It is not really a question of flags (in the last seven months the number of British flags in Northern Ireland has grown exponentially on the facades of houses, streets and roads) or parade routes (on July 20th the Orange Order tried to parade again breaking the Parade Commission decision), but a question of representation.
While it is true that the greatest generator of tension is the British-Irish assignment, it is also true that what we have shown in this article highlights a new situation that transcends the conflict surrounding Protestants and Catholics and that crosses through its base. It is those sectors of the population with fewer resources, with limited access to education, and ultimately lower social classes, who show their faces on the battlefield in the struggle to assert their nationality to those who see it from the other side of the barricade. Ultimately, it is in these places called “Flashpoints” where the Northern Irish working class faces the Northern Irish working class, working class who due to their family background and maximised by the educational institution they perceive that those who share the same living conditions are their undisputed enemies. Meanwhile, in Stormont (Northern Irish Parliament) they are discussing a nationalised conflict that maintains and nourishes the British-Irish division between those who eat the same bread and drink the same wine.
No transition is easy, nor in Northern Ireland have they achieved a representation of all sectors of society in parliament. There is no doubt that there is a conflict of nationalities, but now, more than ever, there exists a class conflict.