Northern Ireland is routinely voted one of the happiest places to live in the UK. A few weeks ago, a survey revealed that Belfast was the best city to raise a family in Britain. The Province is in the top ten digital economies of the future. A world-class film production industry is transforming it into the Hollywood of Europe adding tens of millions of pounds to the local economy. It’s a stark contrast to the ugly scenes from over the Irish Sea flashing across our screens this week.
Working-class loyalist communities are in a dangerously mutinous mood that is hard to square with this parallel world. Alienation and opportunity often exist in the same postcode, literally a stone’s throw away.
Outrage at the apparent collusion of Sinn Fein with the police service to put on a show funeral for a high-profile IRA terrorist during the Covid crisis is a handy explainer. The imposition of a post-Brexit trade border in the Irish Sea, dividing Great Britain from Northern Ireland, is another source of contention, leading to the five nights of mayhem that has left dozens of police officers injured. Footage of Catholic and Protestant kids, separated by ‘peace walls’ over a few lines of liturgy they’ve probably never read, trading petrol bombs and stones adds to the drama.
But these recycled media tropes are merely the accelerants on tinder that has been drying for years. Loyalist communities are suffering a dangerous crisis of morale that is, on the face of it, hard to fathom. IRA terrorists, having failed to murder loyalists out of their British identity, surrendered their arms. Now their political proxy sits in place in a devolved UK administration; it’s about as far away from the IRA’s 32 County Republican socialist utopia as it’s possible to get. Yet the imminence of constitutional peril remains central to the psyche of Protestant tribes who venerate the historic blood sacrifice in defence of Britishness written across war memorials in every Ulster town and village.