Kevin Cullen: Northern Ireland Remains a Segregated Society





[Kevin Cullen, a Globe columnist, was the Globe’s bureau chief in Dublin and London, and covered the conflict in Northern Ireland for more than 20 years.]

For the men who killed Kieran Doherty a few weeks ago, it must have felt like old times. They bound his hands, stripped him of his clothes, and put two bullets in his head. Then they dumped his body on the Braehead Road, outside Derry, near the border, a border separating Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic whose existence has been used to justify murder for the last 90 years....

It could be the men who murdered Kieran Doherty look around and see that the supposedly new Northern Ireland looks suspiciously like the old one. It could be they see a society still so bitterly divided, still so deeply segregated, that they believe they can exploit historical animosities, that they can capitalize on an almost reflexive tendency among most people in Northern Ireland to view things along narrow sectarian lines, as “us versus them,” an “us” that remains largely defined by a combination of religion and national identity.

And they may have a point. While the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland have shown a willingness to not kill each other, they have been less enthusiastic about the prospect of actually living with each other. Northern Ireland remains very segregated, physically and psychologically. Most people live in neighborhoods that remain overwhelmingly populated by one of the two main traditions: Catholic nationalists, who aspire to unity with the Irish Republic, and Protestant unionists, who want to remain part of the United Kingdom....

In Northern Ireland, though, there is a lingering acceptance of widespread segregation that belies its role as a model for transforming historically divided societies. In 1971, Reginald Maulding, the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, cynically suggested the security forces could contain the IRA enough to create “an acceptable level” of violence. The new Northern Ireland seems depressingly willing to countenance an acceptable level of separateness....

With segregation the status quo, there is an enormous duplication of public services, such as schools, community centers, and health clinics. The Alliance Party, the only major political party that draws substantial numbers from both sides of the divide, estimates that duplication of public services costs more than $1 billion a year, this in a place the size of Connecticut with a population of less than 2 million.

But it’s more than money that Northern Ireland is losing. It is losing the very kind of people that might change things. Some are voting with their feet, others simply not voting at all. Voting participation, which surged in the optimism following the Good Friday Agreement, has slumped. The brain drain, which saw educated young people head to England and everywhere else, slowed after everything looked possible in 1998. But it has picked up again, as a new generation that grew up without widespread violence concludes that peace is nice but not everything. So much creativity, energy, and productivity, lost across the Irish Sea....

The reality is, despite the dramatic drop in violence and the disarming of the various paramilitary groups, most young people in Northern Ireland grow up apart from those of a different religion or national identity. There has been no attempt to dismantle the separate but equally funded Catholic schools run by the Catholic Church and so-called state schools run by secular civil servants, which are almost the exclusive domain of Protestants. The only trend that could be seen as remotely encouraging is more middle-class Catholics aspire to send their kids to the best Protestant schools. Integrated education, long touted as a way to bring the two traditions together at a young age, remains an idealistic option exercised by about only 5 percent of the population, the same percentage as when Northern Ireland was at war....

Twelve years ago, in the heady days after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, I sat down for a pot of tea with the Belfast poet Michael Longley, and we talked about peace, about what his friend Seamus Heaney described as a time when hope and history rhyme. Longley was as optimistic about the deal as Heaney was.

“Sometimes I feel Irish,” Longley told me then. “Sometimes I feel British. Often I feel neither. The agreement allows me to feel more Irish, more British, and, just as importantly, more neither.”

When I spoke to Longley recently, he was rueful over the staying power of what he calls “tribal dances” masquerading as politics.

“I used to say it would take a generation,” Longley said. “But it will probably take decades. Any peace is better. Even a fragile peace. But there is something of a social apartheid. I’d like to think this is the beginning of the end.”...

Later, at home, Longley got a shot of optimism when he turned on his television and saw one of those images that, just a few years ago, no one could have imagined. Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness, the former IRA commander, now the deputy first minister of the local government, escorted the Rev. Ian Paisley, the fundamentalist preacher and former DUP leader, down the stairs at Stormont, once the seat of Protestant hegemony, as Paisley retired from politics.

“McGuinness had Paisley by the elbow,” Longley said, “and there was a gentleness about the whole scene I found very moving.”

It was a different scene, altogether, from Kieran Doherty’s naked body, lying in the darkness, in the middle of the road, in such a position, one police officer told me, that it looked like a macabre question mark.


comments powered by Disqus
History News Network