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Violence in the north: unlike the political parties, the ‘most deprived’ areas have gained little in 23 years

In the week that marked the 23rd anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 1998, the loyalist violence in Belfast underlined the fact that little has changed regarding the fundamental nature of society in the north of Ireland.

It is unlikely that many of the people taking part in the violence have even the vaguest notion about the Northern Ireland Protocol. The UDA, which is alleged to have encouraged the rioting, found all of that a convenient means of hitting back over the recent crackdown on the real business of many erstwhile loyalist paramilitaries, which is not loyalism but drug dealing.

The anti-social elements who otherwise look and act no differently to disruptive elements in any urban society have the atavism of centuries of settler hatred to add to the mix. The unlikely threat to their “culture” and “employment” is not of course the EU, or “Dublin” or even Boris Johnson. It is as it has always been since the “economic migrancy” began in Ulster 500 years ago – them ‘uns’. Fenian Bastards.

Them ‘uns’ in Belfast have had to put up with this for a long time. The loyalist death squads were stood down after the IRA ceasefire, but just to be on the safe side, the “peace walls” remain. Which is just as well.

Not surprisingly, Catholics living close to where the loyalist violence was taking place were apprehensive and aware of the need that, given the past history of such things, that they might once again be thrown back on their own resources. They also have a well grounded lack of trust in the police to provide any protection. Historically, the worst assaults on their communities were often led, or facilitated by, members of the police force.

So there was understandable scepticism when Sinn Féin leaders told them to place their trust in the Police Service of Northern Ireland to deal with the threat posed. More than that, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald met with the PSNI Chief Constable last Thursday and assured him of her party’s support as “the police work to ensure communities are kept safe.”

Fair enough. This is what you expect of any party that is part of government. As Sinn Féin are, in coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party in the north as a regional administration under overall British control. It is noteworthy that almost a quarter of a century after the ceasefire there has been no change to the constitutional position of the six counties.

The organised violence has ended and that is a good thing. Anyone on the loyalist or republican side seeking to revive all of that is either an idiot, or has ulterior motives. The ceasefires leading to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) were welcome and right, but apart from the changed political landscape, the basics structures as they were in 1998, remain in 2021. Set in aspic even, if the events of the last week or so are any indication.

It is no secret that British strategists believed that the GFA and the “benign corruption” of drawing anti-system organisations into the institutions of the state, would eventually neutralise the appeal of a united Ireland. Or at the very least persuade sufficient numbers of people within the Catholic community that it was something that could be placed on the long finger and achieved eventually – although this was sold as “within ten years” back in 1994 – through politics.

The political parties that administer the north have certainly benefitted from what followed. It would not seem that the people whose communities were at the centre of the conflict have gained much from the “peace dividend”, however.

These are the places which are dominated by Sinn Féin on the Catholic side, and by the DUP on the Protestant side. Although in Protestant working class areas there is a parallel criminal culture run by loyalist groups whose payoff was not political power, but generally a blind eye turned to their drug and other enterprises.

Pretty vast amounts of money per capita have been pumped into working class Belfast through the mediums of “community groups” dominated by either Sinn Féin or the UDA or UVF. NGOism clad in retro-paramilitary chic.

Like much of the money that goes into the bottomless pit of the NGOs, the northern peace buck delivers little bang. No bang at all of course in conflict terms, and negligible impact in terms of bettering the communities it is supposed to benefit.

So compounded with the fact that Sinn Féin and the DUP have been totally useless in bringing real jobs to the places that elect them, they are not even efficient at making things better for their dependents, on whose behalf they mediate with the state.

Every study of deprivation within the United Kingdom (which includes Northern Ireland no matter what the subsidised murals tell you) since the GFA was signed has shown that the places represented by these parties preform the worst of any other electoral areas in the entirety of the UK.

A study of all constituencies published in December 2019 underlined that once more. It found that 3 of the 10 most deprived of the 650 Westminster constituencies were in the north of Ireland, and these were the predominantly Catholic and predominantly Sinn Féin voting West Belfast, North Belfast and Foyle.

Within those constituencies – as measured in an index of the 20 most deprived local election wards – are 15 overwhelmingly Catholic areas such as the Brandywell, Creggan and Ardoyne. In addition, four of the areas are the similarly overwhelmingly Protestant working class wards of Woodvale and Shankill – the latter being where most of the loyalist violence took place.

Meanwhile, it is reported today that it will take 20 years to clear the housing waiting list in the north at the current rate of builds. Sinn Féin hold the Ministry for Communities which is responsible for this mess. Rather than blaming someone else, or claiming that it is not their fault they should do the decent thing and clear their desks.

But hey, let’s be realistic here. There will be losers in the Ireland of Equals. Some day you might get to work for a non-union minimum wage paying Comrade on whom Peace and Equality has beamed kindly. Or if you are really good, you might get a job with some community group doing community stuff, for the community. The Community of Equals.

Interestingly, while throwing in the gratuitous reference to “a future no longer defined by partition”, people like Comrade Declan Kearney make no reference whatsoever to anything regarding the economic and social realities of the places that elect his party’s MLAs, MPs and councillors.

Oh sure, that would be nothing to do with them Boss.  They’ve just run those places for 50 years, 20 of them as part of the state. Just imagine the faux outrage of Sinn Féin if some Government TD or minister in the south was to make out that endemic unemployment, high suicide rates, anti-social behaviour, drug dealing, housing shortages and so on in Moyross or Knocknaheeny or Tallaght had nothing to do with them?

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