It’s not the likes of Jamie Bryson, Willie Frazer or even the Republican dissidents that are holding back Northern Ireland. As much as it’s nice to believe the popular narrative that if we could just somehow do away with these people and their supporters, the rest of us would march together toward some shared utopia, the reality is that Bryson, Frazer et al are not the architects of this failed society, they are merely products of it. The flag protests are another example – they are not the cause of NI’s economic and social woes, they arose from it.
An oft uttered moan – or variations of it – is that flag protests and other such identity issues distract us from the important things like Education, Health and Housing. Nonsense. We weren’t paying attention to them beforehand. The only difference is people were distracted from those issues not by protests and civil unrest but by jobs, active social lives and a relatively peaceful existence. Does anyone really believe that the issues we face on Education, Health and Housing didn’t exist previously?
I’d happily wager that had the decision to restrict the Union flag flying to designated days been taken a few years prior, when we were reaping the benefits of buoyant economies in the UK and Ireland, there would have been much less unrest – if indeed there was any unrest at all. Obviously the decision would always be contentious but contentious decisions tend to have less consequences when the people that contend them are relatively comfortable with their lot. When they’re already angry, miserable and feel life has limited hope, then having something to fight for is an attractive option.
So who is holding us back?
Well, we are. It’s us – as a collective – that want our kids in segregated education, our housing in segregated areas and our body of government to be formally segregated by legislation. There is no great desire for any of this to end, much as people may profess otherwise. If there was, it would have. What I imagine most people actually desire is for us to just go back 5 or 6 years where most people had the economic freedom to enjoy the status quo. I mean, really, isn’t that the limit of the ambitions of the people we elect?
We’re not voting in parties that are threatening to deliver great change or even promise it in the first place. We’re voting in parties that will do as little as possible in order to not risk destabilising things. While it’s certainly admirable to keep things stable, it’s not such a good idea if that stability is utterly dependent on things you have no real control over – such as the economy. Let’s not pretend that NI has its own economy because it doesn’t, no more than the North East of England has its own. And so, when the economy of the UK or the ROI (yes, it’s important to us too) takes a dive, our government in NI are powerless to adapt because adapting means changing the status quo – the exact opposite of the agenda these parties follow.
I would dearly love to eat my words if, after the local elections in May, we see a massive rise in voting and a significant swing to parties such as NI21, the PUP, the Greens etc but I sincerely doubt that will happen. I am confident, sadly, that things will pretty much stay the same. The same parties will be in charge, with the same majorities and the same agendas. The people will bemoan the lack of change and instead of blaming themselves will look to place that blame on someone else - the troublemakers. After all, if they would just pipe down, we’d all be fine wouldn’t we?