The zombie peace: Calls to save Stormont—yet it fails every test
For most of 2017 the Irish peace process has been in crisis and the northern assembly collapsed. There are frantic calls for restoration and both Sinn Fein and the DUP proclaim that their one desire is to agree a new executive.
Yet the most recent example of sectarianism, where four Catholic families were expelled from Cantrell Close, an area specifically constructed as an area free from sectarian division, both explains why the peace process isn't working and explains why it would be better to wind it up.
The banner of the process was "equality of the two traditions" and it was argued that the policy would lead to a gradual lowering of sectarian tensions and lead to a normal democratic state.
As part of the new ideology the new assembly funded the construction of two shared housing schemes in south Belfast that would encourage Catholic and Protestant families to live together. In reality most people need little encouragement - housing outside ghetto areas is at a premium. Only a constant background intimidation from loyalist paramilitaries and state collusion with that intimidation keeps housing apartheid in place.
The idyll of shared housing received a sharp shock following the 2017 Westminster election, when UVF flags went up in the area. No-one believes the blather of "Protestant culture." The flags were seen immediately as a challenge to the idea of shared housing, as a territorial claim by the paramilitaries and as a threat to the inhabitants. After all, the Protestant families there had supported shared housing and could be treated as traitors, equally despised with their Catholic neighbours.
The 2017 Westminster election was one of the most sectarian ever. The DUP vote had fallen to just above that of Sinn Fein and they responded with a call for Protestant unity and a promise to tear up the power sharing agreement if the unionist position came under threat. To underline their message they called out the loyalist paramilitary groups as part of their election team.
One of the gains of this strategy was the South Belfast seat, won by Emma Little-Pengelly. She had been known as Emma Pengelly before the election, but the addition of Little reminded bigots that her father had been a loyalist gun-runner.
Pengelly was one of the architects of the Social Investment Fund (SIF) used by the DUP to funnel £17 million in "community" funds to the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), an illegal (and still active) paramilitary group. One of her first acts on election was to tour the shared areas under threat and ask residents for their views. This is rather like Al Capone touring Chicago bars to find out if they minded paying a small sum to the mob for protection. The results of the unofficial survey, according to Pengelly, was that no one wanted a public fuss. She also observed that "flags that went up would also come down." They are still flying.
The loyalist paramilitaries have never been able to garner significant support. They are, however, made much more virulent by the long-standing sponsorship of the DUP. That virulence gains one thousandfold when we add in the level of impunity afforded by the police and the silence acceptance and silence of the mass of civic society. The police have evolved a unique policy. Loyalist intimidation is a cultural issue and a matter for community discussion and not for the law. In practice this means that loyalist flags and emblems are untouchable and the only way to remove them is to bribe the loyalists (who rarely stay bribed).
At Cantrell Close the police role was to arrive at the homes of the Catholic families shortly before midnight, tell them they were under threat, and leave again. Not surprisingly, the families fled. As one Sinn Fein member bitterly commented, the police spent £25 million protecting a derelict caravan during the Twaddell Avenue Orange protests and were unable to find the resources to protect these families. They then claimed that they were unable to identify the source of the threat, even though it was detailed enough to justify issuing a warning and even though the estate is bedecked in Ulster Volunteer Force flags
One should not forget the local media. Most incidents of intimidation are not reported. When they are the word "loyalist" is usually avoided. As in this case, the story quickly drops off the news agenda. In fact paramilitary eviction is an almost daily occurrence. Housing authorities plan to "solve" the problem by removing the extra housing points awarded to those forced out.
The main protests come from Sinn Fein. They however are a broken reed, having helped set up and operate the social investment fund that bankrolled the loyalist paramilitaries in return for their own share of the slush fund.
The Cantrell Close situation is unusual in that there were public protests by the victims of the intimidation and their allies, but the evictions serve to show up their isolation. Like a set of Russian dolls, the loyalists are embedded in layers of impunity and collusion, with the structures of political and civic society silently averting their eyes.
The idea of a peaceful, democratic and non-sectarian future held out in the Good Friday Agreement has turned out to be a chimera. The Cantrell Close project was a practical experiment to show that society in operation. All the participants, both Catholic and Protestant, have been betrayed and now live in a climate of fear.
This local failure is reflected in the ongoing failure of the local assembly. All the parties and the British and Irish governments are struggling to revive it. Yet its revival will not lead to a new Northern Ireland but to something very like the utterly corrupt and sectarian Northern Ireland of the 1950s. It’s time to pull the plug.
It’s time to accept that the existence of the partitioned state is a barrier to the peaceful and non-sectarian society that most people yearn for.