Belfast and the poison of identity politics
I spent yesterday in Belfast, Northern Ireland, a city that nearly destroyed itself thanks to the embrace of identity politics. For three decades of the late twentieth century, physically indistinguishable Irish people slaughtered each other using terrorism based on their tribal identity as Catholics or Protestants. Terror bombings of pubs were a common tactic, as were kidnappings and torture.
It wasn't even a religious conflict, for the correct path to salvation or any religious doctrine at all was never a point of dispute. The Protestant terrorists identified as British and wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom, while the Catholic terrorists wanted to unite with their cousins to the south in a United Ireland. Despite common Irishness and Christianity, people in large numbers felt justified in slaughtering strangers in the name vengeance for wrongs of the past.
It was obvious, driving on Falls Road in the heart of Catholic West Belfast and Shankill Road in Protestant West Belfast – less than a mile away – that grudges are still deeply felt, despite a peace process that began in 1994 with a ceasefire, which continues today. A map of the religious enclaves in Belfast used by British forces during The Troubles, as they are known, shows that Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods are scattered all over. On this map, seen at the Museum of Irish Republican History in Belfast, Catholic neighborhoods are in green, and Protestant areas are shown in orange [i].
So far as I was able to discover, there are still no neighborhoods in Belfast that are integrated today, so deeply held are the grudges.
The violence in Belfast became so terrible that 13 miles of wall were constructed to separate enclaves. Along Falls Road, murals cover remaining parts of the wall, and today one sees how the radical partisans of the IRA side identify with other practitioners of identity politics elsewhere, united in (past – one hopes) terrorism used in the cause of Catalonian independence and Palestinian resistance to the existence of Israel.
One part of the wall remains as an actual barrier. This view is from the Protestant side. I was told that the additions to make the wall higher were done to prevent Molotov cocktails from being lobbed over the wall to firebomb residences:
The Troubles economically devastated Northern Ireland and affected the Republic of Ireland as well, driving out investment and stifling new economic activity. Belfast had been a major industrial center, with shipbuilding, heavy engineering, and linen production powering its growth. It was as badly devastated by de-industrialization as anywhere in the American Rust Belt, but with the added problem of terrorism. Today, Northern Island is dependent on billions of pounds a year in subsidies from Britain.
Today, all of Ireland is riveted over Brexit, with the issue of re-introducing a border and customs duties between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic a major concern. Both sides in Ireland want to continue the economic integration that has resulted from E.U. membership by both Britain and Ireland. The M 1 Motorway between Dublin and Belfast is full of heavy trucks carrying goods produced or imported to one side of the invisible border to the other, just as heavy trucks move across state lines in America. The only visible manifestation of the border today is a sign reading "Welcome to Northern Ireland" along the highway, with "Northern" spray-painted out and replaced by "United" by some vandal.
The conclusion that I draw from my brief experience is that identity politics is poisonous and ought to be shunned by all people interested in peace and prosperity. Alas, hatred of "The Other" is useful as a means of uniting one's own. In terms of American politics, President Trump often makes the point that we are one nation, that "we all bleed red, white, and blue." His opponents seem to be pushing us in the direction of our own Troubles.
Draw the appropriate conclusions and vote next month.
[i] The color coding dates to the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, when forces of Dutch-born Protestant William of Orange defeated those of Catholic James II, who had abdicated the British throne. July 12, when the battle concluded, is celebrated by Protestants in Northern Ireland and in past years was often an occasion for violence.