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Northern Ireland: Divided by religion, united by poverty

Set in Derry/Londonderry, aka “Stroke City”. I visited in 2017, an eventful year for Northern Irish politics. Power-sharing at Stormont had collapsed. Catholic republicans were mourning the loss of Martin McGuinness, the former IRA chief turned peacemaker. And Protestant loyalists were celebrating the DUP’s emergence as kingmakers in the snap general election, backing Theresa May’s limping Tories at Westminster. All the while, disputes over Troubles investigations and language protection rumbled on. And, of course, Brexit loomed …


Party politics being very much divided along sectarian lines in Northern Ireland, I wanted to find out how the two sides were getting along in real life. On the streets of Stroke City, I found that, as well as sharing a savage sense of humour (NI gives Scotland a run for its money on that front), these two communities still recovering from conflict waged similar battles against poverty and all its associated ills, many still looking to paramilitaries for protection. Here’s the story:


They say the war is over

Denis Gallagher, a 61-year-old former IRAprisoner, comes out of Expop, a service providing assistance to former political prisoners and their families, in the majority Catholic Bogside area. Gallagher served 14 years in the notorious Long Kesh prison, aka the Maze, for explosions and attempted murder.

Sitting in front, volunteers Bronwyn Adams (right) and Kellie McConnell (left) chat. Adam’s mum and dad met while active in the INLA in Belfast and have both done time in prison. McConnell, mother of a four-year old, does not believe power-sharing has changed much: “As soon as Sinn Féin go [into Stormont], their voice isn’t their own. They all become wee puppets. Nothing has changed. The cops and the English just got smarter.

“They say the war is over. You think: Give it a week.”


Photo ops in “the Bog”

Tourists in the Bogside, widely viewed as the birthplace of the Troubles. The 1969 Battle of the Bogside, a three-day riot that erupted after a loyalist parade passed through the area, sparked the longest British Army campaign in history – a marathon 38 years.

Today, ‘the Bog’ – home of the late Martin McGuinness – remains majority Catholic. The days of gerrymandering may be over, but the Troubles are still very much in evidence in the area’s politically-charged murals and signs. With current campaigns on prison conditions and policing on prominent display, it doesn’t always feel like the conflict is a thing of the past.

Amidst all this simmering radicalism stands the Museum of Free Derry, a commemoration of the city’s republican civil rights movement, now one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.


The paramilitaries protect us

Gordon (left), Dale (centre) and Johnny (right) are building a bonfire on the Clooney estate, an almost exclusively Protestant area, to celebrate the anniversary of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne. The victory of William of Orange established the Protestant minority as a dominant force on the island for generations.

Johnny, 25, sees himself as a mentor to the other two. He supervises them as they nail red and blue pallets together, the foundations for a tower that will eventually rise dozens of metres high. Irish tricolours, which the three call “the IRA flag”, will be draped over the structure.

People on the estate trust paramilitary groups like the UVF and the UDA more than the DUP he says. “The loyalist paramilitaries are protecting us. They are here for the community,” he says.

The bonfire will be lit on the 11th of July.


No Catholic friends

Dale, 17, on the Clooney Estate, located on the east side of the River Foyle. In the late 60s, thousands of Protestants fled the west bank after the Troubles erupted.

Like most people on the estate, Dale went to a Protestant school. He has no Catholic friends and never really ventures to the west bank. His pal Johnny says that if they went into town with Rangers tops on, they’d be “spat on and called names.”

Over 90% of children in Northern Ireland are educated at schools mainly attended by either Protestant or Catholic pupils. Only about 7% of the school population is taught in mixed schools.


We’re not hiding

Joe Barr, 29, is spokesman for dissident republican group Saoradh – Irish for “liberation”. He explains that the group is an abstentionist political party that “does not condemn armed struggle”.

“It is every man and woman’s right to take up arms to remove the British presence from this country,” he says.

Saoradh was set up in 2016, with the support of prisoners from the New IRA in Maghaberry and Portlaoise prisons. “That’s what the media would call them,” says Barr. “We just call them the IRA. There’s just one IRA.”

The group wants the Good Friday Agreementto be scrapped. “It papered over the cracks, but young people are now realising they have nothing and are starting to rise up. Each generation gives it a go,” says Barr.

“We’re not hiding. We’re out on the streets. Prison is going to happen anyway.”


I was very easy led

When he was 15 years old, Patrick Griffin got a tattoo of a tricolour, a harp and a shamrock. “I was very easily led. It was a way of showing what side I was on,” he says. Today the 58-year-old engineer is receiving laser treatment to remove the tattoo.

A resident of the mostly Catholic west bank of the River Foyle, he is on his way to the Protestant east bank with his wife for a coffee.

The two sides were connected by the £14m Peace Bridge in 2011. Initially, it was feared that the direct link between the two communities would lead to an increase in violence, but the opposite has happened, says Griffin.

“There’s a minority on both sides who will always be living in the past, no matter what you do. But it will never go back because there are too many good people on both sides,” he says.

“Before it was them and us. But Derry is a city for all the people now.”

Griffin would, however, vote for a united Ireland if given the opportunity. At the same time, he knows lots of Catholics who would remain with the UK to avoid paying higher taxes.


The man to get things done

Gary Donnelly, an independent district councillor, gives housing advice from a squat in the Creggan, a Catholic estate. “If the cops came in, we’d be out the door,” he says.

Donnelly, 46, is a well-known dissident republican, who has fallen out with Sinn Féin. “You leave Sinn Féin, you become the enemy. They undermine you, destroy your credibililty, demonise you,” he says.

He votes with DUP if it is in the interests of his community. “You think I’m sitting here saying we’ll be okay when the Brits are out? There’s no time for that. People are having trouble eating and heating,” he says.

Two women come in to complain about their council house, which has so much damp, the door is rotting. The local housing authorities told them the problem was caused by “putting clothes to dry on the radiator”.

“Gary Donnelly, he’s the man to get things done,” says one of the women.

In January 2018, Donnelly was arrested, questioned and released without charge for a second time in connection with the murder of British MI5 agent Denis Donaldson, a key figure in the rise of Sinn Féin. The Real IRAclaimed responsibility in 2009.


Building bridges

Jeanette Warke, 73, works with local kids in the Cathedral Youth Club on The Fountain estate, a tight-knit Protestant enclave surrounded by Catholic areas on the west bank of the River Foyle.


Something of a local legend, Warke has been bringing kids from both sides of the divide together for almost 45 years. During the Troubles, she took her life in her own hands. “If you said you were working with Catholics, you’d have got your knee capped,” she says.


Recently, Warke brought Protestant and Catholic kids to Dublin for the centenary of the Easter Rising that led to independence from Britain. But money is tight – and expected to get tighter after Brexit.


Nearly 20 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, The Fountain’s gates are still locked at 9pm each night to prevent outbreaks of violence. Often it’s bored kids with nothing else to do.


“There are kids looking for glory. But they just want jobs,” says Warke.


“Drugs are everywhere. There’s a high suicide rate here. There are mental health problems. What’s bringing it on?”


I’m scared of the DUP

Eamonn McLaughlin, 27, is walking over the Peace Bridge to the Protestant east bank. Though from a republican background, he is apolitical and has lots of friends on the loyalist side.

The recent deal between the DUP and the Tories worries him. At stake is the UK government’s neutrality regarding the situation in NI, he says. And any signs that the DUP is channelling more funding towards Protestant communities could create instability.

“A lot of my friends would go back to the Troubles if the DUP did that,” he says.

Eamonn’s friends on both sides are also “freaking out” about the DUP’s hardline views on gay rights and abortion, worried that the party’s ideas will gain traction now it is a power player at Westminster.

“I’m gay so I’m scared of the DUP,” he says. “Sinn Féin is extreme too. But at least they stand up for human rights.”


Now we are kingmakers

Gary Middleton, a DUP member of the NI Assembly, at his office in the Protestant Waterside area. Middleton is jubilant about the outcome of the recent snap election, which saw the DUP agree to prop up the beleaguered Tory Party after the latter gambled and lost its majority at Westminster.

“For a long time, nobody was interested in the DUP. Now we are kingmakers,” he says. As part of the deal, NI will receive £1bn for roads, broadband internet, health reform and poverty reduction.

The DUP was set up by fundamentalist Protestant preacher, the Rev. Ian Paisley, and is known for its socially conservative views on abortion and same-sex marriage.

Middleton claims that the DUP has significant support from the Catholic community in Derry. “Traditional, worshipping Catholics support us because of our views on abortion,” he says.

“Relations between the two communities are going well.”


We are the underdogs these days

Billy Moore stands beside a monument to the Apprentice Boys of Derry, a society commemorating the Siege of Londonderry in 1689, when 13 Protestant youths slammed the city’s gates against the approaching army of the Catholic King James II.

A frequent target of attacks by local republicans, the plinth is splattered with paint. “It will take a long time before old wounds are healed and people learn to respect each other,” says the 60-year-old general secretary of the Apprentice Boys.

He believes that Protestants are still under siege. “Many protestants have left Londonderry. They feel insecure about shopping, going to church and socialising in our own city.

“We are the underdogs these days.”

According to Moore, Protestants’ attachment to Britain is largely pragmatic. “Many protestants would not fight anyone to remain British. But most would fight to remain out of a united Ireland,” he says.


The war is over

Tony O’Hara, 61, in County Donegal, a 15 minute drive over the border from Derry/Londonderry. A former INLA man, O’Hara spent five years in the Maze. His brother, Patsy, died on the 1981 hunger strike led by Bobby Sands.

Today he believes that armed struggle was a waste of human life. “The war is over,” he says. “The Real IRA are wasting their time.”

In party politics, sectarianism is alive and well, he says. “Sinn Féin and the DUP foster the sectarian divide. That’s how they get votes. In a tribalist society, your comfort is with your own.”

But he believes people on the street are tiring of the old divides. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic or Protestant, you want to go and study in Glasgow or Manchester, then work abroad,” he says.

In hindsight, he’d have done things differently. “If we knew then what we know now, we wouldn’t have said ‘Free Ireland’, we’d have said ‘A Socialist Ireland for everyone’.

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