Is Northern Ireland Spiralling out of Control?

There has never been so much consensus in Northern Ireland. There has never been so much discord.

The guy who cuts our trees thinks we’re Catholic, as we send our kids to the local Catholic school. We’re not (we’re Lundies). We think he’s Protestant, because of his name and the fact that we live in majority Protestant area. Last week, I was surprised to hear my husband drop a ‘Londonderry’ into the conversation – I assume to make the tree guy comfortable. And the tree guy comes back with a sentence containing five ‘Derrys’ – quite an achievement – to signal back that all is well.

This is Northern Ireland to me. The gentle, intricate and generous negotiation of difference. Using language, humour, silence – or whatever we need – to navigate the situation. Most of us do this on a daily basis. We’re pretty good at it.

But yet it’s been a long, damp summer of foul-temper in the north. To be expected perhaps, with the chaotic unknown of Brexit circling, and a local political vacuum.

It often feels like we’re on the verge of something leery. Settled parades are becoming contentious. Flags are tripling in size (where do you even get those?). Dissidents are stirring. The PSNI are struggling to police. Politicians are lobbing around loose lipped barbs and audibly sighing in frustration at each other’s points of pain.

On Facebook, Twitter and the Nolan show, there’s been little kindness or mutual respect. Being the school holidays, I’ve been making a lot of slime and lego models, and have found it impossible to keep up with the outrage du jour. But there’s a feeling of high anxiety in the air.

There are many reasons to hope that a return to violence is not the case. But it’s also not something to be dismissed when some of our most astute security correspondents are sounding concerned.

Allison Morris tweeted on 13th August 2019, “I despair at what is to become of this place, we had peace and squandered it, took it for granted and are now ripping it and each other apart - if something drastic isn't done to stop the slide we are heading in a very dark direction.”

Allison is usually right. She’s typically a calm player-down of tension, able to put things in context. It’s deeply worrying that this is what she’s picking up on the ground.

Ben Kelly captures the mood well in his article “Northern Ireland is already spiralling out of control but no one is paying attention.” He points out the string of security incidents over recent weeks and the complete lack of wider British interest. He is also spot on about the sicky feeling in many of our stomachs.

Meanwhile, however, there’s another story happening in Northern Ireland. A quiet stacking up of things that there’s a lot of agreement about.

In no particular order:

Identities are becoming more flexible. 50% people now see themselves as “neither” unionist or nationalist (NILTS 2018). Although people may ultimately have a constitutional preference, people are conveying an unprecedented political openness. This already being reflected in voting patterns, as demonstrated in the 2019 local and European elections with the rise of non-traditional parties.

The idea of two ‘tribes’ or ‘communities’ in Northern Ireland has always been pretty contrived, due to mixing and, you know, nuance. But if we are to persist in using these terms, surely the Others and neithers are now a third tribe. All of which overlap, and all of which contain newcomers who wouldn’t know Carson from Collins.

Young people are quite relaxed about traditional identifications and constitutional issues. In Naomi O’Leary’s words, the “swingiest swingy voters on Brexit and the constitutional status of Northern Ireland are the young… These are the real ‘you can’t eat a flag’ pragmatists.”

Naomi was referring to LucidTalk’s December 2018 tracker poll which asked people what their constitutional preference would be if there was a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Amongst 18-24 year olds, 37% said they were certain that they would prefer to stay in the UK if there was no deal, while 55% were certain they would prefer to join a united Ireland in this scenario. But if Brexit weren’t to happen, 72% of 18-24s said they were certain they’d prefer to stay in the union, and only 20% were certain about unity. These are massive swings, telling us just how politically flexible young people are.

In short, the future is bright. But it’s not necessarily orange, or green. Presuming we can find some jobs for these people to stick around, and don’t drive them away with our bitterness.

The last few years have also seen a significant debate on constitutional options for Northern Ireland open up. It’s not been easy, but conversations about how we imagine the future are now taking place. These are often practical discussions, with a focus on the economy, health, the accommodation of difference. And they are light-years away from the orange and green trenches of old.

We also mostly agree that London is making a dog’s dinner out of Brexit – 82.6% of us according to LucidTalk’s poll of August 2019. Even 60% of DUP supporters and 82% of UUP supporters think so. There is a long held view, amongst nationalists, others and many unionists that England does not understand the people or politics of Northern Ireland. And we certainly all agree that Karen Bradley could not organise a piss up at a garden party. We nearly all still want a peaceful open border on the island of Ireland, although clearly differ in our analyses of what this means in practice.

Importantly, there is a huge consensus that active paramilitary gangs are not wanted. 2019 has seen ordinary people stand up to dissident republicans in Derry, and the UVF in East Belfast, at considerable personal risk. While paramilitaries are certainly agitating at the moment, Sinn Féin are attempting to keep the dissidents in check, while community workers, the PUP and ex-combatant groups are attempting to do the same for loyalists. Albeit, in both cases, with mixed success.

According to PSNI data, in the year up until 31st March 2019 (just after the first Brexit deadline) security related incidents – bombs, shootings, killings, punishment attacks – were actually at the same level or down on previous years. There is no data yet released for the last 5 months. But it’s interesting to note that – so far – the tension on the ground here is not resulting in a spike in violence.


Meanwhile in workplaces throughout the north, people of all tribes work pretty unproblematically side by side. Social housing is still deeply segregated. And schools are not really becoming more integrated. But Shared Education, for all its flaws, is making an impact. My kids’ Catholic school was a giant poppy fest this year, as they studied the world wars. The PSNI visited when the topic was “people who help us.” People of different backgrounds are more likely to meet each other, be friends, fall in love, than ever before.

One thing the vast majority of people seem to agree on is that it is not healthy to have no government. All political parties are calling for the restoration for Stormont, albeit on different terms. While we wait, we’re missing out on vital changes of legislation, funding and salary increases that are taking place in the rest of the UK. We are also falling far behind the pace of economic and social change in the Republic of Ireland.

A lesser talked about fact, is that most people in Northern Ireland agree that it is long past time to liberalise our laws on equal marriage, abortion and a range of other social issues. 89% of the population of Northern Ireland now agree that abortion should be decriminalised, and 71% support a women’s right to choose more generally, while only 16% do not support it (NILTS 2018). 68% agree there should be equal marriage, while only 24% disagree (NILTS 2018).

Equal marriage and abortion provision will be implemented in January 2020 and March 2020 respectively, if the Assembly is not functioning by 21st October 2019. These issues have essentially been taken out of the DUP’s hands by Westminster, thanks to Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn. Should an Irish Language Act find a similar sponsor in Westminster, all the better.

Signs of class unity are also sprouting shoots. The Harland & Wolff workersshouting ‘Save our Shipyard’ in Irish, with Acht Anois campaigners by their side, sent a powerful signal. Because we are not just dealing with the narcissism of our own minor differences in Northern Ireland. We’re in the throes of late stage capitalism. With welfare mitigations coming to an end here, and Brexit set to shake the economy, relationships between workers and unions have never been so important.

So what’s the answer then? Is Northern Ireland spiralling out of control or not?

No and yes, of course. To rob a phrase from Tyler McNally, we’re in between worlds, and monsters co-exist with advancements.

Sometimes it definitely feels like a spiral. Community relationships are under serious strain. Violence feels close to the surface. Eamon Phoenix on Talkback recently described Northern Ireland after partition as having a “sullen peace.” Today the north feels both sullen and quick to anger. Especially for those with anonymous Twitter accounts.

All the data tells us that we are a very different society to 1969 though, with huge changes in social attitudes, identities and mixing. And it doesn’t feel like there is residual support for violence amongst any section of the population.

But nor does it feel right to have a peppy conclusion. A careless, self-interested Westminster, deep structural inequalities and a small number of people snapping have set the place ablaze before. Of course it can happen again. A no deal Brexit would be sure to set off some kind of chain reaction. How bad, we don’t know.

While the PSNI data shows that security related crimes are not – yet – increasing, it shows that other crimes are. Drug offences, for example. Also sexual offences. Cruelty to children has increased. As has online harassment.

How many people do you know that are struggling with their mental health? How many can’t get access to the healthcare they need? On 21st August the Andersonstown News tweeted that there had been 15 suicides in the previous 10 days in Belfast. And where is the outrage?

This makes me wonder if Northern Ireland is spiralling. But not in the way we might think.

Maybe the malaise we are diagnosing as tribal may be more universal to life in late stage capitalism. Maybe the only names we know for it are orange and green. Maybe continual media framing of our ‘opposing views’ amplifies one problem and ignores the others. Maybe the cuts run much deeper.

We are certainly not alone in our falling apart. Look at the world. But our old wounds open up so easily. We know just how to hurt each other when we feel angry or afraid. The words come so readily. On this day. Never forget.

But the increasing inequalities of late capitalism and coming environmental collapse will be difficult enough to cope with without a sectarian conflict layered on top. Whatever the outcome of Brexit and our constitutional future, it would be unwise to drag our green and orange chains along with us. They are slowing us down badly in a context of accelerated global change.

It’s hard to engage with the future in a political vacuum. We need to stay focussed. Continue to navigate our differences with generosity and humour. To ramp up pressure on our politicians to locate their leadership skills (although they are welcome to wait until October 22nd). We need the local media to stop amplifying sectarian tensions. We need to get our shit together before – to misquote my favourite Sunday School song – the rains come down and the floods come up, and the walls come tumbling down.

Originally published on Slugger O’Toole on 25.08.19

Can Northern Ireland Change?

‘You have to have hope,’ my friend always tells me.

Usually this is after I’ve been outlining the likely facts of my children’s future, on account of our great leaders trashing the planet and laughing all the way to the bank.

‘You can’t live like that though, you have to have hope,’ she says.

I like Frankie Boyle‘s take on hope. If you see a leopard, hope is not a good evolutionary strategy.

There’s no point in saying, ‘Is that a leopard over there? Maybe it’s not a leopard. Let’s all just really hope that it isn’t, eh? Those people were eaten by leopards.’

Instead, you yell, ‘Leopard!’ And run for your life.

Hope is not a feeling, it is an action.

And so it follows that hope is a choice.

These are the four words used by William Crawley to finish Talkback on 24th April 2019, the day that Lyra McKee was buried. The programme focused on whether Lyra’s murder would be a turning point in this chapter of our story, or if Northern Ireland is unable to change.

Brian Feeney and Alex Kane started off. Based on their experiences living through and reporting the Troubles, they felt that they’d seen it all before. Nothing would change. A view which is not to be dismissed lightly.

I thought of Alex Kane’s beautiful baby, whose photos he often posts on twitter, which always unite the mob in a moment of joy. And my heart felt sore.

Then a vanguard of women entered the fray. Fionola Meredith more or less agreed with the men. Bronagh Hinds, Goretti Horgan and Clare Rice disagreed. They reminded us how much Northern Ireland has already changed. Often catalysed by people who find themselves at the margins. Tina Calder and Susan McKay spoke about Lyra’s life, about how she was the embodiment of freedom in a new Northern Ireland. You can’t say it’s impossible, they held, because she – and we – exist. Existed. Exist. (The past tense still hasn’t sunk in – does it ever?).

Everyone agreed that we have huge potential in Northern Ireland. But, as Alex pointed out, it will only be realised if we do something different. And keep doing it, over and over. Hope has to be deliberately chosen.

A few weeks ago, I went for a drink with an old unionist friend. She had seen the Future Ireland series on here, and wanted to tell me why Irish unity would not work. I disagreed, hopefully amicably. She described how working with republicans makes her feel. I listened. I told her about my B Special relatives, who told stories of their violence in the other direction, and asked her how working with some unionists might make nationalists and republicans feel. And so we ploughed these sad little ruts. Getting stuck in the past and on the present.

But every time we got stuck we circled back to our children. Our kids cannot grow up with the same shit as we did, we agreed a hundred thousand times over.

Because this is the perspective that unlocks everything. That softens point and counter-point. That makes our hard politics yield.

It’s something that we heard throughout this week of mourning. Members of an older Troubles generation reflecting on how they did not want to pass this toxic politics on to future humans. Members of the younger generation reacting in horror to Lyra’s murder. This was never supposed to happen to the ceasefire babies.

So should we have hope? Can anything change?

Well, yes, we should, and of course it can.

But only if we look the leopard straight in the eye. And choose to go in the other direction.

Keep certain things to the front of our minds. Politicians, people, whoever cares about this place.

Appreciate the searing truth of the cliché – there is more than unites us than divides us. Take a deep breath and give thanks for Lyra’s brave friends, who showed us how to stand up to the hard-men with grit and heart. Give thanks for Ian Ogle’s family and community, who are showing us the same thing. For the people who have been dissenting from norms for all of these years. Whose furrows we walk in. The shoulders of giants and giantesses. Try to be brave.

Listen to the children of the ceasefire. Note their flexibility on the constitutional question. Read their words. They’re asking will they have homes, will there be jobs, what of the planet, our mental health? This generation will change politics anyway. Why make the rest of us wait?

Please go and vote, and think about your own children, your nieces and nephews, your neighbours and your friends’ kids, while you’re making your choice. I don’t care if you vote for the big parties or small. There are good people in most. Some more than others. Vote in a way that you can look these kids in the eye – whether they are Irish or British or both or gay or straight or brown or white – and know that you have voted for someone with a vision of a better future than this.

Do not spend precious time on this earth othering people. Remove unconscious phrases such as: all nationalists, all unionists, Shinnerbots, neanderthals, all Muslims, all Christians, they do this, they’re always like that. There is no ‘they’; no ‘all the same’. There are only complex humans. We need to erase these from our discourse in real life, and particularly online, and start treating people like we mean it.

Wake up. For God’s sake wake up. To the economic devastation all around us, even if you feel personally comfortable. Wake up to the fact that half of Belfast will be under the sea in our lifetime, and what will we do? That Derry is sinking now, just not under water. Realise that unless we’re trying to get a head start on the future, even on our puny shaky legs, there is indeed no hope.

Give way. Yield. Soften. Not on equality or human dignity. People are not bargaining chips. Grasp the nettle of the outstanding issues. Face the leopard. But surrender preconceptions of who is the enemy. There is no ‘enemy’. Only complex humans who have a different story than you.

I do not want us to just letsgetalong. I want our political leaders to dig down into their marrow and find more courage. To make painful changes to old patterns. Refuse to take no for an answer from anyone with a gun or a sash or any kind of extra-political hierarchy.

We are all tired. Our hearts are all heavy. I am 41. Lyra was 29. My daughter is 8. My friend’s next child is not yet born. There’s hard work to do.

We must not expect to wake up in a different world right away. These are daily lamentations and affirmations.

We do not need any wringing of hands. Hope is a future-facing series of actions. Hope is a choice. Please choose it.

Originally published on Slugger O’Toole on 27th April 2019.

Brexit at a Belfast School Gate

Brexit staggers forward like a whiskey laced fever, and nobody at the school gate says its name.

The mums are stockpiling cans of beans. Not because of apocalypse. But because they expect the price of food to increase. They’re a practical lot.

One friend had no money this week. Off to the food-bank. Straining to make polite conversation while trying, and failing, to hold back tears after pick-up.

Over 30,000 food parcels were given in Northern Ireland last year. Is it a nationalist food bank or a unionist food bank? Asks nobody, ever.

The place where I live, which I love, is angry. I scroll through local Facebook group pages. Videos attacking migrants pop up in my timeline. Thousands of likes. People I don’t expect to, share them. A Muslim friend spends the day weeping.

My youngest’s best friend, who is Polish, is intimidated out of his house. Again. He is five.

We don’t talk about Brexit much at the school gate. But we all exist in its venus flytrap.


I know lots of people who voted to Leave. They were fed up with the hamster wheel. Slipping down the ladder instead of climbing up. They are not racist. Although others were. They voted Leave out of despair, but also hope. To save the NHS, to feel some control.

I voted Remain. But inhabited that space in-between. Where the EU is not beloved, but a damn sight better than Britannia alone. Where being from Northern Ireland, and the fragility of our peace, trumped all other concerns. I cringed at the smugness of some Remainers.

But the distance between us all didn’t feel so wide in 2016. I watched my friends disagree well, on the same Facebook pages which now seem so bleak.

We could’ve had a proper debate about Europe, if the Tories hadn’t spaffed their internal feud up against the wall. We could have talked about sovereignty, about jobs, rights and standards, about state-aid and capital, about borders and peace.

But public discourse was threadbare. It was guided by a weird web and dodgy cash. Breath-taking complacency on the the other side. There was never a plan. Only the brief promised pleasure of kicking something over.


And in Northern Ireland, we’ll pay the hardest. We already are.

There’s the money of course. The fact that we’re already struggling. But also the politics. Our unresolved conflict. Our borderless border.

We’re using trade as a proxy for emotion. Raging over tariffs to mask our fears of the future. Most of us wondering how we’ll pay the bills.

And in this vacuum, services are receding, politics is circling, bitterness encroaching. 

God knows how, but this chapter of Brexit will of course pass. But its consequences are now embedded in our conflict. It has changed the future of this island.

And at the school gate, we carry on. But we’re not keeping calm. We’re just carrying on. Because there’s never been a time when we’ve had less control.


So what do we do?

We zoom out. We expand the frame. We realise, as C. Wright Mills says in The Sociological Imagination, that our private troubles are public issues.

We zoom out and see that we’re are living through seismic historical change. That Brexit is a symptom not a cause.

The tectonic plates of late capitalism are shifting. The climate is breaking downIncome inequality is risingInformation is dematerialising. People are revolting. These are connected.

Northern Ireland is a tiny speck on an endangered planet. Our traditional politics are barely relevant.

The tectonic plates of the Union are shifting. We must recalibrate. Be flexible and practical.

Our neighbours are not the enemy. Not in the houses beside us, nor the borders across.

Migrants are not the enemy. Their taxes pay our pensions.

We realise that our pain, although differently expressed, comes from a common wound.

We focus our ire on unaccountable global capital. Which relentlessly pursues profit over people. We follow the money and ask who stands to gain.

We focus our ire on the British government. Not for their Britishness. But for prioritising party politics over our lives. English nationalism over the regions. For prioritising Ulster nationalism… oh wait, that was last week. For years of brutal economic policies which created the anger that led us to here.

There is an horizon beyond Brexit. But no time for a perfect solution. We must suck up a compromise. Pull off Brexit’s strangling ivy and focus on our people, our climate, our resilience to change.

And – if anyone can bear it – we can do more politics.

We can study up. Engage. We can try eating a flag with a knife and fork, and quickly move on to the other options. We can vote till we boke. Lobby our public representatives, because still, amazingly, this makes a difference. They are not ‘all as bad as each other’. We can act locally, understanding the global. We can look up to those in power to identify the source of our problems, not punch down to those who are struggling. This is where our power as citizens lies. 

We can stand at the school gate and keep being human. Share recipes for canned beans and hope that Deflatine is not rationed. Help each other navigate universal credit, talk to the new people, teach our kids not to hate. On difficult days, we can watch Derry Girls and drink the stockpiled Lidl wine.

We can try to hold this anger lightly – for our mental health. But also deeply – for our political health. And we can channel this anger for all that it’s worth. Not towards each other. But towards the disaster capitalists and the internecine careerists who have walked us merrily up to the brink.

Originally published on Slugger O’Toole on 30th March 2019.

Ards and North Down Declare Climate Emergency

On 27th February 2019, an eerily summery winter evening, Ards and North Down Borough Council passed Northern Ireland’s first Climate Emergency motion. Led by Green Party councillors Rachel Woods and Barry McKee, the motion was agreed without changes in a full meeting of the Council chamber.

This comes not a moment too soon for a region which is set to face major challenges over the next 10-20 years as temperatures, and sea-levels, rise. Parts of the Ards peninsula, along with much of the inner parts of Belfast, are likely to be underwater in our lifetimes. And perhaps a lot sooner than we expect.

A ground-breaking IPCC report in October 2018, amalgamating all the recent scientific research, found that on our current path, global temperatures will rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2040. It gave societies 12 years to take immediate and drastic action to keep temperatures under this level.

But immediate and drastic action is not being taken. Global carbon emissions are rising not falling.

As such, subsequent and cascading climate developments now indicate that the pace of change may be much faster than this, with a rise of 1.5-2 degrees being fairly inevitable – perhaps as soon 2030 – and a rise of up to 4 degrees Celsius more likely by the end of the century.

Even at 2 degrees, life as we know it will be forever changed. These infographics from the New York Times give a flavour of what’s on the way. Or take a whirl around the science at If you’re in rude mental health today and would like a more fleshed out version, check out David Wallace Wells‘ work, for example “Time to Panic”. Or Ron Meador on “near-term social collapse due to climate chaos.”

If that seems too abstract, you can enter your postcode in this map to see if you’ll be swimming to work in the near future (the image above is the projection for +2 degrees).

Ards and North Down Borough Council is part of a wave of dozens of councils across the UK, and many more globally, which have recently declared climate emergency.

According to the Climate Emergency Declaration website, as of February 27th, 38 UK councils have made a declaration. Ards and North Down makes 39. The pace of change is fast, with 10 declarations in the past week alone, and more motions on the way.

These declarations are significant because they commit Councils to action. The CACE website points to the nuts and bolts of this. But in short –

Emergency mode or mobilisation is when councils allocate all discretionary funds available to the council to the task of community education, advocacy for action by higher levels governments, mitigation or resilience building and could include funding or undertaking the planning and research needed to implement full state and national emergency mobilisations.”

This is the Ards and North Down Council motion, which gives a pretty good idea of what concrete steps will follow:

That this Council notes the recent IPCC report on the impacts of climate breakdown; agrees that drastic and far-reaching measures must be taken across society to try and mitigate the risks and declares a ‘Climate Emergency’. It requests an urgent report to assess the impact of the activities of Ards and North Down Borough Council on greenhouse gas emissions, exploring what mitigation measures can be put in place and establishes a working group to bring the issues of climate breakdown to the fore in the council structures and actions, local communities and businesses, as well as formulating a climate adaptation plan.

This could well entail taking practical steps to protect air quality, water purity, to address pollution, protect local habitats, increase biodiversity by re-wilding spaces, streamline borough energy use, maybe even consider local renewable energy co-ops, and to generally make future-focussed planning decisions based on realistic climate projections.

Ards and North Down are not alone. Derry City and Strabane District Council have been leading the way on practical climate action for some time. They will host the first ever Green Infrastructure and Climate Change Conference in Northern Ireland this spring (tickets here). With a focus on developing green infrastructure, increasing green spaces, encouraging resilience to climate breakdown – for the sake of people’s health and the local economy.

In Belfast City Council, the Alliance’s Emmet McDonough-Brown’s successful motion at the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee in February 2019 committed to reducing Belfast’s carbon footprint and making climate a priority. People Before Profit reinforced this with a climate emergency statement, which passed through Belfast City council on 5th March 2019.

This is even more important in the context of Northern Ireland, where, as Friends of the Earth highlight “we have the least protected environment in the UK and Ireland. [We have] no independent Environmental Protection Agency. No National Parks. No law to cut climate-changing emissions.” And where “the planning system leans heavily towards new development.”

Of course, local Councils have limited power to tackle climate breakdown, which is a global problem and demands a national, as well as international, response.

This is exactly the route being taken in the Republic of Ireland. Daithí McKay highlights the most important pieces of Dáil legislation as Bríd Smith’s Climate Emergency Bill, which would commit Ireland to leaving fossil fuels in the ground; Sinn Féin’s Microgeneration Support Scheme Bill, which would enable local communities – households, farmers, co-ops – to produce their own energy and sell it back to the grid; and the Green Party’s Waste Reduction Bill. All are moving slowly and painfully forward with much prevarication from the Irish government. Although upcoming EU fines, for failing to meet climate targets, may force the government into action.

What is also significant, is increasing public understanding and concern about climate breakdown. It’s hard to avoid. There have been winter gorse fires this week in the Dublin mountains. Even Winnie the Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood in Sussex was ravaged by fires this month. The fact that we’ve wiped out 60% of the world’s animal populations since 1970 and reports about collapsing insect populations, globally and across Ireland, are making their way into public consciousness. Ordinary people are talking about why there are no dead insects splattered on their windscreens anymore.

There’s a gnawing sense that paper straws and keep-cups aren’t going to cut it. That we’re on the cusp of something exponential.

This is reflected on the ground with school kids across Ireland and the UK joining their European counterparts, striking for climate justice, the civil disobedience of Extinction Rebellion, increasing calls for a Green New Deal

Even more locally, we see residents of the Sperrins opposing industrial mineral mining; community protests which have stalled a planned industrial pig factory in Ballyclare; Newry, Mourne and Down District Council and others passing a motion opposing the dumping of UK nuclear waste in the Mournes (a similar motion was opposed by the DUP and fell in Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council this week, but that’s another story); Green Party activists in Belfast measuring air pollution as it emerges that our air quality is almost as bad as London.

Across these islands and beyond there is a growing awareness that something has snapped, and that standing still is not an option.

On the same day as the motion was passed, MPs in the House of Commons debated climate breakdown for the first time in 2 years. This is better than nothing. But it was a quick and thinly attended debate, with no accompanying teeth. It is clear that Westminster is in no hurry to recognise the state of Climate Emergency that Caroline Lucas is calling for. Or indeed to do anything about it.

Local Councils are too small to solve global problems. We have top level calls to action from the UN and EU, and ground level calls to action from citizens. But, on these islands, we have a gaping space in between, where national action should be.

Given the heel dragging from both UK and Irish governments, perhaps Councils are one of the most effective political levers we currently have to begin the immediate practical work of climate action and regeneration.

Adapted from an article originally published on Slugger O’Toole on 28th February 2019.

The Dog Show

Everything has felt so heavy recently. Between the UN’s report on accelerated climate breakdown, their report on how the UK is actively choosing poverty, and ongoing Brexit insanity, it’s all quite overwhelming.

So here is something with jokes. It’s a story, told live at Tenx9, about the time I tried to pimp out my dog for money. It involves my partner and I disgracing ourselves at a dog show at the Avoniel Leisure centre…

It contains one of my favourite lines I’ve ever written:

“We had entered the Big Lebowski as a contestant in the Rose of Tralee.”

Which might give you an idea of how things went down.

Future Ireland: Alternative conversations about unity and the union

Over at Slugger, David McCann and I are running a series of articles on the topic ‘Future Ireland: Alternative conversations about unity and the union’. The gist of the project is here.

We’re trying to think about the possible constitutional futures of this place in a more imaginative way. It’s about creative problem solving, honest reflection and data-driven knowledge creation.

Many of us will take positions on unity or the union, but the overall body of work is wide open. We want to know how the future looks and feels as a mother, a farmer, a migrant, a loyalist, an atheist, a small business owner, a Dublin renter, a born-again Christian, an Irish speaker, someone with a disability, a GP, a worker…

The aim is to engage in a different way with a difficult topic. The only criteria is that articles have to look to the future, not just the past.

If you see this before 15th November 2018, there’s a writing competition.

Ideas and pitches still welcome after this date. Just email me at or David at

If you want to keep up with the conversation on Slugger, click here.

Future Ireland: Where Can The North Thrive?

Originally posted on Slugger O’Toole, 4th September 2018.


Future Ireland: Where Can The North Thrive?

For some masochistic reason, I feel umbilically connected to the soil and the soul of this island.

Especially this messed up northern corner of it.

But there is no point in drawing borders in the soil, and driving flags into it, when it only has 60 more years of harvests left to give.

It occurred to me recently that the best case scenario for Northern Ireland, as things stand, is to have a mediocre Brexit, for Stormont to limp back, for orange and green politics to trundle along – outraged, binary, stuck. To ditch the petition of concern, squeak through equal marriage, and get some kind of limited abortion rights. To keep passing on cuts with a two year delay.

Surely we can do better than this?

My kids will be in their 60s when the soil packs in, unless something changes. They’ll have lived lives very different to mine. Digital, virtual lives. Entwined with artificial intelligence. They may not go to university like I did – who could afford it? Their work may be even more precarious than mine, if there is much work left for humans to do. Many of their friends will be refugees, or refugees will live behind a wall. Because that is what our current geo-politics and climate tipping-point suggest. 

I see my job as training my kids up to navigate this brave new world, to help the heart of it beat, or at least not to be the assholes. 

Literally the only question we should be asking in Northern Ireland right now, is how can we face this uncertain future best? How can future people live well here?

I am taking our overlapping identities and relationships here as given. We, as people, are so much less divided than our politics would have you think. Most of us actually like each other. We want to know each other better, and want pretty similar things for our kids’ futures.

I know it may not always look like this. That it benefits political parties to play identity politics. And that we’re numb to it now. But we actually don’t have time for it.

I’ve always been an armchair Dissenter. A Protestant who feels Irish and who wants Irish unity. But something has shifted. I now feel the need to say it out loud.

It’s not for unity’s sake. Or because I think Irishness is a superior identity. Or Brits out. Because there are many things I like about Britain. And part of me is that Brit.

It’s because this place of Northern Ireland has ceased to make sense to me. We are terminally neglected, happily corrupt and economically sinking. Our divisions have been artificially frozen by our governance. We exile many of our young, our creatives, our queers, our entrepreneurs, our thinkers. And who could blame them for going?

My politics is shaped by a desire for grassroots decision making. And so a lot my hope for Irish unity is about having a smaller unit of democracy. People being bigger fishes in a smaller pond. Inside a state that vaguely gives a damn.

It’s rooted in observing how Ireland has learned to have civic conversations with itself over the last decade. Its openness to changing its mind.

Some of it is environmental – seeing the island of Ireland as an ecological unit in a likely future of food and energy insecurity.

Some of it is Brexity. I want my EHIC card dammit. To be part of something outward looking rather than inward.

There are deep problems and ironies embedded in this kind of argument for unity. The Irish state is as broken as other European states. Like the UK, Ireland is big on corporate tax breaks and riven with deep inequalities. Climate chancers. No-one I know can afford to live in Dublin. Every air punch for an Irish success is followed by a face-palm.

But Ireland is changing. It’s a small open democracy, economically nimble, capable of grown-up civic dialogue and rapid cultural adaptation, as its current disentanglement with Catholicism shows.

There is people power afoot. The Citizens’ Assembly, referendums, the water charges movement, housing activism, divestment from fossil fuels. Successive Irish governments may not like it, but they’re slowly being forced to respond.

There are also positive things happening in the British left, that could change a lot of lives. But if there’s one thing we agree on in Northern Ireland, it’s that we’ll never be a priority for Britain. Brexit – estrangement by a thousand cuts – makes this clearer than ever.

But there is no point in talking about the future of Northern Ireland if we are not having a conversation about why we want unity or the union. If and how things could be better. We need to shape a conversation that places Ireland in the future not just the past. To talk about industrial strategies, ageing populations, renewables, housing co-ops, automation, mental health, food security, privacy and surveillance, universal basic income…

At this crossroads, unity makes sense to me. But ultimately we need to decide what will help future people thrive.

We can talk about who owns the soil all day long, but I’d prefer to know if anything will actually be able to grow in it.

What should I tell my kids about the 12th July?

Published on Slugger O'Toole, 13th July 2018. Talkback followed up with an hour's discussion on 16th July. It was an interesting debate, with plenty of depth.

If I had to write this again, I think I would focus a little more on the Catholic (and indeed Protestant and Other) exodus on 12th week. The fact that I have some Catholic friends who can never bear to be in town at this time of year. And I would push the critique of the Orange Order further.

But this is what got written in the moment, during the slightly dazed, tense, confusion of 11th & 12th nights.


What should I tell my kids about the 12th July?

My kids always ask me what the flags are about. They find the black ones scary. But this year they were very impressed by the bunting and fresh Union Jacks in our area.

‘It’s making me feel very British’, said my five year old.

‘Me too, it makes me proud to be British’, added the seven year old.

‘That’s interesting,’ I said, thinking about their Irish passports in the drawer. And the fact that they tried to turn bath water into holy water last night.

‘Do you feel British?’, they asked.

How to make friends and influence people, Northern Ireland style.

‘A little bit’, I replied, ‘I mostly feel Irish. But it’s great that you feel British. And the good thing about living in Northern Ireland is that we get to be two things, Irish and British, whatever you want.’

A few days later, they asked to go to the 12th July parades.

I’d only been to the 12th, outside of work, once before when I was little. I remember my mum ate the face of my granda for taking us, as she was attempting to bypass the Troubles somehow, keep us out of harms way. It was the early 80s. I’d have probably done the same.

But, as a kid? Great craic. I was disappointed that future expeditions had been vetoed. Then slowly, over the years, I forgot it was quite fun. And this gave way to the idea that the 12th was pretty sinister, to be avoided. A sense which I carried around until I worked with loyalists, and saw how much of this was based on stereotypes and fear. And more than a little snobbery. Social class is as much as a division in this place as religion.

So this year, I decided, we’d go. I wanted my kids to absorb something of the ordinary 12th. To see loyalist culture as part of the warp and weft of life here. As texture and colour. Not as something to be avoided. I was pleased to learn via Facebook that we might bump into some friends from their Catholic school, who are in mixed marriages and had family in the bands. The Woodvale Festival, Greater Shankill Alternatives and Greater Shankill ACT were putting on great events. I was feeling the small ‘c’ in community.

And then it was 10th of July. And the Bloomfield Walkway bonfire, whose smoke I dutifully inhale every year, was too big and too close to the houses. So it was burned before it could be lowered. And the police vans came. Vans upon vans upon vans. And on the 11th July, the bomb scares started. And the Cluan Place bonfire was too close to the houses and had to be dismantled. By private contractors from outside Northern Ireland wearing balaclavas. And not because they admired the locals’ style.

Then the 11th night. A hijacked bus burning. The airport on shutdown. More bomb scares. Chaos all over Belfast, Newtownards and Bangor. Not to mention Derry, this time at the hands of dissident republicans.

I’ve spent too many summers feeling trapped by the 12th. The one where they stole a JCB, and bulldozed the local shop for its ATM. Which stayed closed for 6 months. The ones where you sleep on your mate’s sofa because you can’t get home. Or crap yourself rolling down the car window for random dudes to decide if you can get past or not, while cars around you burn.

And that’s just the tales of a cosseted middle-class Prod. It’s not like it’s my face on the election posters being burned. Or I’m a Catholic looking up at a banner saying ‘Kill all Taigs’. Or a nationalist hemmed into my house, listening to the heavy, steady drum beating outside my door.

I’ll never be at peace with the sectarian aspects of 12th July. Or the violence it often brings. There is no excuse in 2018 for illegal or dangerous bonfires. For people’s faces and effigies to be burned on them, like some messed up voodoo. No place for threats and intimidation. For criminal activity and inciting hate. For hijacking an Ulsterbus ffs - a scarce enough resource in a semi-rural area. One of the lowlights of the year was a tweet (now deleted) of people at the Sandy Row bonfire singing ‘We hate Catholics’, bizarrely to the tune of Tiffany’s ‘I think we’re alone now’. 

But when you’ve seen so many loyalists, including former paramilitaries, busting themselves to stop all these things, and provide viable alternatives for the kids in their areas, the picture starts to get complicated.

I have a knee-jerk reaction to the Orange Order, as a religiously exclusive organisation, but appreciate the structure and mentoring that the bands can give kids and young adults.

I also know the difference between ordinary loyalists and active paramilitaries.

The news said that half a million people were expected at the 12th. How many people orchestrated the 11th night’s violence and intimidation? 100s? How many more thought it was a good idea? 1000s, 10,000s? I don’t know. But it’s not half a million.

So that’s why, despite the horror of the 11th night, and a strong reflex to stay away, I took my five year old to see the parades on 12th.

He liked them.

And I was glad we went. Because it was kids and old people and friends meeting up. Twirling band members and embroidered banners. People letting off steam. Long before peak drunk. And it reminded me that this is how most people, including loyalists, want to experience the 12th.

Indeed it’s mainly loyalist areas that get wrecked by the shit stirrers. Whose asthmatic kids breathe in smoke from burning tyres. Loyalist teenagers who will get criminal records as a result of it all. One taxi driver told us he left a guy home to an estate on the 11th night after a major brain operation, people jumping on his bonnet and shaking the car.

Like or loathe the politics, loyalists are a largely structurally abandoned bunch. Brunt bearers of our broken legacy of mental health. Test cases for austerity. Thrown SIF money as a panacea, so no-one important has to feel bad about watching loyalist areas slowly drown. Wash our hands, let the lads sort it out. 

This is no excuse for violence. But it is context.

And here I have these tiny people, unaware of the pain of politics in Northern Ireland. In the relative safety of the daytime, they’re loving the flags and the flamboyance. They’re identifying this as a love of Britishness. And I’m up for exploring this with them, even if it’s not my cup of tea. I want us to know our neighbours, of all traditions.

But my kids will soon discover the news, and they’ll see the contradictions for themselves. They’ll see the dark side of the 12th. We drove past five burning cars on 11th. That’s why my seven year old refused to come to the parade. They’ll soon be able to identify that sound overhead as a police helicopter.

They’re blank slates now. But soon they will fill the category ‘Britishness’ up with meaning. The flags won’t just seem festive; they will demand a response.

So I look to the Orange Order, the DUP and UUP, and even the paramilitaries. And I think, what are you going to do about this? Does the leadership we saw this year from John Kyle, Gavin Robinson and Doug Beattie show the way? The silence from most others was deafening. Would it be rude to suggest that having a chaos button is handy? Or that silence works well for not losing votes?

Are your organisations going to lead your people out of chaos and sectarianism? Or turn a blind eye? Or throw twitter petrol on real life fires? What’s the long-term plan?

Because this 11th night bullshit does not represent, or serve, the loyalists I know. It will win no friends and influence no-one. It is simply an act of self-harm, inflicted on an already precarious union.

I voted for peace, and all I got was this lousy culture war

I posted this on Slugger last week, and was surprised how few people were angry with me this time. There is an edgy, awkward air in Northern Ireland at the moment. It's not going to be a conflagration. But everything is changing politically. And we haven't even found words for it yet. This article seemed to tap into the confused frustration that so many of us are feeling at the minute. It's hard to be patient.


I voted for peace, and all I got was this lousy culture war

I found this week’s 20 year commemoration of the Agreement quite surreal. Maybe it was because I was sick at home in my pyjamas and missed out on the bling of the big events. No basking in the glow of disgraced elderly politicians for me…

Instead, I was more struck by how sad and stuck everything feels right now. It feels like we voted for peace, but all we got was this lousy culture war. By culture war, in this context, I mean this current mud fight between green and orange, ussuns and themmuns, my morality vs your morality, my symbols vs your symbols… Ad infinitum.

How exactly, I wondered, do you commemorate a peace accord on life support?

But then I realised… We’re not all actually engaged in this culture war. Only some of us are. Other stories are available. If largely unreported. I’ll return to this.

The structural reasons for our culture war are well known. Green and orange were built into the architecture of the 1998 Agreement. Designating as unionist or nationalist was incentivised by dishing out jobs and having cross-community votes and vetoes on that basis. Cultural goodies were handed out to each side, scrupulously ignoring the nothings, the neithers and the in-betweens. The green became brighter and the orange became deeper as each side shuffled towards the outer ends of the seesaw to keep the other in balance. The binary became frozen in time. 

But there was probably no other way to get the ball rolling. The two-community model was probably a necessary medicine.

And violence has plummeted. A vote for the DUP or Sinn Féin does not now mean what it once did. It’s not necessarily an endorsement of the past, or even the policies of the present. Some of them even still like each other. Just like we do. Surveys consistently show that regardless of our politics, we still want to mix more, and get to know each other better.

However, here we sit, many draped defensively in our flags, middle fingers up in the polling booths. Some awkwardly voting for parties they never thought they could. Whilst others shake their heads in bewilderment, seeing no way out. Some days it feels like our stereotypes of one another are worse than they have ever been.

What the hell happened?

Or maybe a better question is – what the hell didn’t happen?

For a start, we “forgot” to integrate all the things, as promised in the Agreement. After 20 years of peace, just 7% of schools are integrated. Which is ridiculously low. There must have been some serious resistance to this on the ground.

Oh wait… there wasn’t? 80% of the population would like more mixing in schools, 67% saying that they would specifically prefer a mixed religion school. Hmm.

Similarly, only a tiny handful of shared housing estates have been established. Timidly promoted, and barely protected from paramilitary threats. In contrast, 91% of housing estates in Belfast are classed as single identity. But again, that’s probably because there was no real appetite for mixing?

Nope. 77% of us would prefer to live in a mixed religion neighbourhood.

Isn’t it just as well our political leaders knew we were fibbing in surveys and didn’t want to mix after all. I dread to think what might have happened if they’d made a different call.

Or maybe our leaders just lost their courage? Or maybe the big parties simply realised that keeping people apart was a much cleverer politics. Dwindling resources could be hoarded into two big piles for two big ‘communities’. Some might say that this benefited certain people enormously.

Another thing that didn’t happen, is we didn’t deal with the past.

At some point we seem to have settled for our politicians being able to make eye contact in the same TV studio. We threw up shiny buildings, and thought we could maybe shop our way to normality, whilst ignoring the effects of the cuts in the areas most affected by violence.

And in our desire for normal life, we brushed the pain of the conflict under the carpet. We said we’d look after victims. But we didn’t. We thought we might look at narratives of the past, to explore finding empathy with people whose views exploded our brains. But we didn’t. Not you, community workers, you did. But our politicians didn’t. While Westminster whistled and looked the other way. Some might say that this benefited certain people enormously.

Do you remember the late 90s and early 00s though, when we gave it a try? That febrile moment at the start, when we tried to imaginatively get inside the shoes of people born on the other side of the wall, whose experiences differed radically from our own. Do you remember the painful honesty of BBC’s Facing the Truth in 2006? I’ll never forget sitting on my living room carpet, right up close to the TV, mouth gaping open as Archbishop Desmond Tutu brought victims together with their perpetrators, to hear each other’s stories. Can you imagine that now on mainstream TV? I can’t.

We were getting somewhere.

But it was sore. Very sore.

Too many political consequences.

So we just stopped talking about it.

And then we began to fill the silence, and the terminal neglect of our political health, with superstitions and stereotypes and yelling on twitter.

And because we don’t have mechanisms to talk about the past, many of us reverted to familiar stories, handed-down truths, the ones we know are true because we experienced it ourselves. But we’re not hearing from the other side of the wall. From people whose experiences are radically different. Opposite things that they know are true because they experienced it themselves. Both stories are real and true to the people telling them. But without process or catharsis, they are, at this current political moment, irreconcilable. 

But, as previously stated, other stories are available.

Paddy Kielty told a different story last week in his incredible documentary ‘My Dad, the Peace Deal, and Me’. His dad was killed by loyalist paramilitaries in 1988. But there wasn’t a whiff of culture war in that film. Instead Paddy instigated difficult conversations. Everyone’s pain was laid bare. Narratives clashed and were challenged. But people looked each other in the eyes as human beings and tried to push through their pain to get to somewhere deeper.

I hadn’t heard anything like this in a long time.

My friend Gail McConnell told a different story this week too. Gail watched as her prison governor dad was shot dead by the IRA when she was three. She talked about it in a Belfast Telegraph interview last week. And then she read her staggering poem ‘Type Face’ on Thursday night, at an Agreement-related arts event Just For One Day. You must read it in full, if you dare. Here’s a fragment, pulled unforgivably out of context –

Who did what to whom and why’s not for us to ask.
Act normal. Act as though the forty death masks
spelling HOPE at Short Strand/Albertbridge
are incidental. History’s tectonic drift, a moving ridge.
The word I’ve tried hard not to use is murdered
(it puts people on edge and sounds absurd
in my own mouth). Verbs downplaying agency
are best – diedwas killed and, most recently,
lost. All those Lost Lives. To lose one’s a misfortune,
two looks like carelessness. It may be a distortion
of Wildean proportions to say I lost my father
cos we’re all, you know, like part to blame and too far
into the future now, post-’98, to turn (again),
to see, in this decade of centenaries (dot com)
the terrible state of chassis still unmourned.
‘The whelming flood’. I was forewarned.

How is it that our political parties refuse to deal with each other, but that Paddy and Gail and Alan Black are the ones making us stop in our tracks? Forcing us to engage as human beings instead of peddling cultural certainties.

We need to pull our weight a little more. To push back against this lousy culture war. To realise if it’s politically constructed, it can therefore be politically de-constructed. To realise that if we want to hear different stories, we’re going to have to tell them ourselves. Loudly. Often.

But it’s not all on us…

The best thing the Agreement gave us, was permission to overlap. We agreed that we would try to live well together in a contested space. That Irishness and Britishness would be of equal value. We could even be both if we wanted. We agreed that all constitutional preferences were legitimate, and either constitutional outcome is possible. We agreed that the Irish language should be supported and represented. And that this should be in the context of respect for all cultural traditions, including Britishness and Ulster-Scots. All of these remain the right call.

But between refusing to integrate any of the things, making no institutional space for neithers, failing to look after victims or to have any catharsis, not following through on the Agreement’s promises, abusing community vetoes, it’s all gone quite wrong. It’s turned into a nasty fight. With many unionists fighting a psychological battle against Irish culture as a proxy for Sinn Féin and their own past pain. When I’m not so sure it’s really about Irishness at all. And many nationalists despairing that unionists will ever be able to grasp their perspective, because the DUP have so rarely had ears to hear the pain of nationalists or republicans, and seem in no hurry to enact the equality that was voted for.

As a result we’d vote for polarisation again tomorrow. Understandable. But the real mistake we’re making is to think that the most insensitive versions of the DUP and Sinn Féin are representative of all the people in those parties, never mind the people who vote for them. When they’re really not. They’re just ordinary people backed into the same shitty corner as you.

All that said, I’m actually not depressed about the future of this place. Not about us, the people. As far as I can see we’re lashing on with life. Most of us are getting on with each other pretty well. We’re making lemonade. There is no will to go back to violence. Most of us were biting back tears during that Madonna song in Derry Girls – remembering, galvanised, resolute. When a new dissident republican group launched this week, rather than freaking out, we collapsed in laughter at their choice of lilac gloves.

So this is not really a note to you, long-suffering people of the north. It’s a message for the top table. Integrate the things. Let the neithers in. Tell the truth. Have ears to hear different truths. Stop broadcasting division on a feedback loop. Stop stirring shit for votes. Rediscover your spines. We’re waiting.

Take Back Control – of our Ulster-Scots histories

This was on Slugger O'Toole yesterday. For 24 hours now people have been sending me stories of Protestant cultural diversity. Free Presbyterian tracts being handed out in Dublin as Gaeilge; unmarked dissenter graves of blacksmiths and ordinary workers; a Gaeilgeoir film-maker who made a doc for TG4 about Ulster Scots; The Wolfe Tones song 'Protestant Men' which confused the life out of drinkers in a Dundalk pub; stories about openness and generosity between communities. 

I love every single one of stories. We need to keep talking like this. Closing the gaps. With every story we chip away at the power of the DUP and Sinn Féin to define us. Or, put more positively, we offer them a different way to understand us.


Take Back Control – of our Ulster-Scots histories

A friend of mine was sacked from the civil service for saying that Ulster-Scots was a made up language. Unfortunately he said it in the newspaper. But lots of us have said it in private, right? LOLed at the dafties whilst railing against the DUP. Or for unionists, awkwardly pushed it forward as a political issue.

I’ve been thinking recently about how radical the Scottish legacy in Northern Ireland is. And how uncomfortably this sits beside our understandings of Ulster-Scots today.

There’s so much anti-establishment Protestant history to digest. The Protestant Irish, the non-sectarian Presbyterians, the weaver poets, Labour Protestants, socialist loyalists, the evangelical reconciliation movement. Histories very far removed from British and unionist elites. We’re talking communists on the Shankill Road – like my husband’s grandad. Manual workers at the big house – like my own forebears.

But we seem to have developed amnesia about all of this. Conflict has polarised our interpretations of the past. It’s painted Protestants into a corner, which many are struggling to step out of.


All of this started a few weeks ago when I visited a a little exhibition about the Plantation in Bangor museum, with its many Ulster-Scots Agency booklets.

The usual bristling happened first. Montgomery and Hamilton “acquired” the land, did they? Those are the rent books, are they? The feckers. And so on.

I texted my friend, whose sister had helped put the exhibition together, and told her that it was very good, but that Planters were feckers. She texted back to say that there was a bit of Scots in us all, and not to self-hate. I’d had a few beers at that point and was half way through a Billy Connolly documentary, so I was open to the suggestion.

The Plantation of Ulster was a brutal colonial act. A subsidised land grab by a British elite. All of us in Northern Ireland still live with its scars.

But, a test:

a) who did the grabbing?

b) who was swept along by the tide of colonial history?

c) who rebelled against the unfairness of it all?

The answer to all of these questions is Protestants.

And obviously Catholics for the being swept along and rebelling bits.

Today though, Protestants often get tarred by a) whilst c) has been forgotten.


The first thing that made me challenge my instinctual ‘feckers’ narrative was, strangely, an Ulster-Scots language test. In one little booklet it asked if I knew these ‘hunner words’? Usually any mention of Ulster-Scots makes me do an elaborate eye roll any tween would be proud of. Frank Mitchell’s recent challenge to Roy, a caller to his radio show, to speak Ulster-Scots for sixty seconds, whereupon Roy simply switched into a Ballymena accent and culchied it up, is a Northern Irish comedy classic. No question.

But the hunner words were lovely. All eejits and oxters and things that are footery. Blethering and guldering. Being scunnered because you’re a mingin slabber who boked when you were steamin. Words that make me feel rooted to this piece of our island.  Ordinary people words. Words that reflect our black humour and grit.

These words aren’t ours or theirs (whoever ‘we’ and ‘they’ are). They’re pretty universal in the north. Like veda bread. Or frostbit boy (aka Ruarí McSorley, who isn’t far off speaking Ulster-Scots himself).

I don’t think I ever appreciated the richness of Ulster-Scots before. Not that it is a language, or even a distinct cultural tradition. But it’s a gorgeous part of our heritage in an increasingly MacDonaldised world. It’s been hauled into a bitter political argument, to score points against Irishness. Which is weird because it overlaps with Irishness. A fact which even the Ulster-Scots Agency underlines. It’s almost too ironic to bear.


Another rock and roll hobby of mine is trying to find United Irishmen’s graves. The United Irishmen were mainly Presbyterians of Scottish descent who made common cause with Catholics against the Anglican elite. They rebelled against Britain in 1798. And mostly got executed for it. I haven’t had a huge amount of luck finding their gravestones. Partly because 1798 was a long time ago and they’ve eroded or been destroyed. Partly because a small child is usually dragging me away for an urgent wee. And, crucially, because only a handful of dissenters, mostly Presbyterian ministers and the occasional doctor, were important enough to be commemorated in any style. History is written by the victors. Or the vicars in our case.

This history of the victors is reflected in the Ulster-Scots Agency’s booklets. It’s Viscount this and Laird that. It’s enough to make the blood of any good socialist, never mind Gael, boil.

But when I come to trace my own (mostly Protestant) family tree, I don’t find any Lords. Just lackeys and peasants and lumpen proles. Catching fish, sewing britches and digging up spuds for their betters. A yachtsman for a Lord, on the posh side of the family. People who came, or were brought over, from Scotland with the promise of a better life. To work for the 1%. Grappling with it in these terms, I start to redefine who I am annoyed with and why I am annoyed.


Modern unionism is still heavy with this tension. There’s an affinity with the common people, mixed with a paradoxical loyalty to a remote English elite. Which explains how Sammy Wilson and Boris Johnston can sit on the same Westminster benches, but understand little of each other’s lives. It’s an uneasy relationship. And to steal a line from a wise friend (who I won’t tar by association), the ‘iconoclastic edge still simmers in the unionist unconscious. It feeds into the sheer “no” of even the DUP’.

Outside of unionism, anti-establishment strains of Protestantism have expanded and contracted over time, in relation to sectarian conflict. Despite our current polarisation, I see them everywhere. Like the Irish identifying born-again Christians, of which I used to be one. Like Rev. Steve Stockman who runs Paddy’s day céilis in his Presbyterian church and writes articles on reconciliation for An Phoblacht. Like the loyalist councillor who is helping sort out parking for our local Catholic school. Like the Irish language speakers of the East Belfast Mission.

Conal Parr sets some of these alternative Protestant histories out beautifully in his new book, Inventing the Myth, which examines Protestant playwrights and thinkers over the last century. Protestants who disrupted traditional unionist narratives. Regularly emphasising social class over tribe. And who often paid the price for it. Because conflict pulled people into sectarian binaries, and suffocated alternative voices.


And the greatest irony of all? Present day Scotland. It’s the only place on these two islands that now pulls towards left of centre politics. From healthcare to welfare to tuition fees to renewables, where Scotland has devolved authority, it makes more forward thinking decisions than the rest of us.

It’s also the part of the UK that could provide northern nationalism with the best template for the future, with their imaginative, inclusive imagining of independence. Upon which any future Irish unity movement would do well to draw. Putting civic, not ethnic, ideals at the core. And, whatever happens with independence, Dublin and Edinburgh will be surely close allies in any future configuration of post-Brexit relationships.


Piecing all of this together – the gritty, funny humility of the Ulster-Scots vernacular, the lesser-recorded Protestant histories of dissent and radicalism, the progressive pulse of contemporary Scotland… it feels like, as usual, we’ve been missing a trick. We’ve allowed our political troubles to commandeer our Protestant heritage – a lot of which we have selectively misremembered. It’s not simply the conservative unionist monolith it feels like today.

All culture is invented. A Gaeilgeoir baby and and an Ulster-Scots baby, if abandoned at birth in a chicken coop, would not be able to distinguish Liam Clancy from Willie Drennan, or a hurley from a hockey stick. They would peck like chickens in equal measure. Which is to say that Ulster-Scots culture is socially transmitted, not genetic. It’s stories we tell about the past to make sense of the present. We’ve let the present binary frame our understanding of the past. And shape our desires for the future.

So I have a suggestion. Let’s tell a different story. Let’s take back control of the Ulster-Scots layers of our identities. By thinking, writing and talking about them more. By separating out Protestantism from unionism. By appreciating the variety of Protestant culture in Ireland. Its paradoxical anti-elitism. How evangelical religion has informed reconciliation as well as conflict. To appreciate our radical secularist parts. The Irishness that overlaps with Britishness. The positive ways that Scottishness has shaped our northernness, for Catholics as well as Protestants. 

And while we wait for segments of unionism to adjust to new realities, maybe the rest of us Protestants and ex-Protestants can elbow our way into the debate. To shout loudly. We exist. We are ready and waiting to help shape the new Ireland. Whatever that might be.

There's a Bishop in My Bedroom, Review

Review of Richard O'Leary's stunning one person play, There's a Bishop in my Bedroom, published HERE on The Last Round yesterday. Produced by Tinderbox as part of the Outburst Queer Arts festival.

Richard is a friend, so I knew this would be good. But I didn't realise it going to be one of the best bits of theatre I'd ever seen. An hilarious, visceral but tender play about love in a divided Ireland and a homophobic church. If attendance was compulsory for all clergy and politicians, we would go far.


I've Got a Message

'I've got a message' is a true story about my misadventures as a teenage evangelist, told at Tenx9 a few weeks ago.

My son, age 4: 'what would happen if you thought your story on the podcast was good, but the people thought it was bad, and they threw fruit at you? Haha. Fruit-face'.

Not sure what to say about that. In any case, you can check it out here or on itunes (episode 014).

Check Your (unionist) Privilege

This article, posted on Slugger O'Toole last week, is being translated into Turkish. The translator asked me what does 'break some Northern Irish eggs' mean. I tried to explain that it means we must say some uncomfortable things before our politics can move forward. This is one of those uncomfortable things...


Check Your (unionist) Privilege

Northern Ireland has been such a pasty white place until recently. So much so, that in my teens I worried that I’d accidentally be a racist when I finally met some brown people. Thankfully there was a website for this - a university had set up a test, flashing images of white and brown people on the screen, asking quick-fire questions to test for unconscious bias. I passed. Not a racist. I thought I was off the hook.

But as the years passed, and debates around white privilege deepened, it became clear to me that I have lots of it. I didn’t discover that I was actually a racist. I just came to recognise that I have a lightness and ease of moving through the world because I’m white. From negotiating airports to finding hairdressers, my skin colour makes my life less complicated.

Sometimes you hear people say that the debate has swung too far the other way. That it’s about giving white people a kicking. It’s not their fault they were born white/male/insert privilege. Which is true. But then you look at political leaders and boardrooms and you see that this is of course the way it needs to swing, to begin to grasp at an equilibrium. Which to be honest, still feels like a distant horizon.

So, to break some Northern Irish eggs... Who is privileged, and by how much? Well, unionists, historically, by a lot. Unionists in contemporary Northern Ireland, by a significant degree. No shit Sherlock, say nationalists everywhere. But it’s clear that many unionists don’t agree, and in fact feel under attack, so let’s try to untangle it a bit. 

We could start with the Plantation. But let’s not. Battering people over the head with the past doesn’t usually get us very far.

Let’s start with St. Patrick’s day 2018. The Nolan Show focused on this the other day. Unionist representatives and callers were complaining that the St. Patrick’s day celebrations in Belfast did not feel inclusive, that people were liable to break into republican song at any given moment. I sat there slack-jawed, listening to the parade’s organisers having to insist that it was inclusive and that, whilst they can’t micro-manage everyone, it was a day for all. I have heard the same said about the Twelfth, and I admire all moves towards outreach from both events. But I have also heard a lot more insistence from unionists and loyalists on the right to march and wave flags and burn things. Most people have given up pretending that it’s simply a day for cross-community family fun. 

A few weeks ago I was at a gig at the Mandela Hall where the crowd (spurred on by a terrible warm up act) sang ‘Ooh ah up the RA’. Somehow, in 22 years of dedicated pint drinking across Ireland, north and south, this was the first time I’d heard it sung. I was there with Catholic friends, who were fabulously uncomfortable. I didn’t like it much myself, but I was also feeling quite anthropological about the whole thing. I kept thinking of how many more times I had heard the Sash or ‘do you want a fish supper Bobby Sands’ sung around Catholics. How every summer of the fourteen summers since I moved back to Northern Ireland, I’ve heard loyalist band tunes carried by the wind up to my house - six different houses in fact - and walked the dog through the charred remains of the park the next day. 

It’s quite taken for granted that most of Northern Ireland will lie low on the Twelfth, get their groceries in beforehand, won’t go out in the car, get out of town. Nobody is asking for marching season to stop. But it’s worth reflecting how we rearrange our summers around unionist and loyalist traditions, when thinking of how to respond to nationalists’ and republicans’ cultural requests.

But hang on. Loyalists living in neglected estates across Northern Ireland - are we saying they are privileged? As Gina Crosley-Corcoran’s brilliant article ‘Explaining white privilege to a broke white person’ explains, you can be privileged in some ways (e.g. white or male) whilst not at all privileged in others (e.g. social class). Academics call this intersectionality. Loyalists have largely been screwed over in the class structure of Northern Ireland. But they have been able to offset this with a range of cultural privileges. So it’s possible to appreciate their pain as well as their advantage.

But back to unionism as a whole. Let’s think about the Britishness of our built heritage in Northern Ireland, and how this forms another hugely taken for granted imbalance. Sinn Féin’s Pat Sheehan said it well when speaking on the View recently (about 11 minutes in), exploring whether the ‘curry my yoghurt’ days were over or not. When challenged about nationalists trying to assert their own cultural supremacy with an Irish Language Act, he said,

“The issue of cultural supremacy is laughable. I can walk down through my constituency past the Royal Victoria hospital down to the Sinn Féin office at the bottom of Sevastopol Street, maybe over to Queen’s University down to the City Hall and see the monuments of the British monarchy or the British military. [In West Belfast] Crimea Street, the Kashmir Road, Lucknow Street, scenes of British army battles in their imperial past, and there’s not a word about it”. 

I do wonder if unionists ever think about this when they think about bilingual road signs? 

There are too many examples of the institutional and cultural privileges of unionism in Northern Ireland to note here. The Queen on our money, royal insignia on our tax bills, Carson’s statue up at Stormont etc. You can extrapolate. 

And I have some of this unionist privilege too. I’m a ‘no religion’ political ‘other’ of Protestant descent. I have an Irish passport, lived in Dublin for 10 years, and consider myself somewhat literate in Irish nationalism. But I only learned how to type a fada last year. It takes a micro-second. If we start the clock as an 18 year old undergraduate, that’s 21 years writing about politics without being arsed to type Sinn Féin or Fianna Fáil properly. That’s shocking. It’s not the end of the world. But it does speak to a laziness, even a casual disrespect, that I would never have considered myself to have had. It assumes a neutrality of the English language that is not real.

This is what Irish language activists are trying to tell us. It’s not about domination or humiliation. It is a request for unionists to reflect on how taken for granted their cultural expressions are. And a request for some redress, to institutionalise and protect, and yes, fund, Irish cultural expressions too. This request, polite at the beginning, has become noisy and insistent. Because, well, it’s fair dos. And it’s not an Ulster-Scots Act that is needed to ‘even things up’ with an Irish Language Act. It’s an Irish Language Act that is needed to even things up with the pervasive Britishness of our institutional culture. 

The fact that unionists seem to have a cloth ear about their still favoured cultural position is worrying. They say that ‘neutral’ issues like the cost of an Irish Language Act, or the higher priority of health-care are the stumbling blocks. Or that it’s just republican agitation. All worth discussion. But these are the veneer, not the root, of the impasse. I wonder if the root is many unionists’ inability to even conceive of their continuing privilege, never mind being willing to concede some of it.

I understand completely that Sinn Féin and the DUP are having a parallel conversation right now. One about power and strategy. That they are playing the Irish language in a wider poker hand. But they don’t own this debate. We need to talk about it too. Whether it’s deal or no deal. And we get to talk about it in our own terms.

These are my terms: Nobody is saying that unionists are bad, or that they need to be sorry for being unionists. White privilege is not the same as racism. And unionist privilege is not the same as bigotry. In both cases it’s often very nice people simply assuming that the world they move through is neutral. When it’s just not.

I think it’s probably too much to ask for unionists to become radical intersectionalists overnight. But I do think it’s reasonable to suggest that more unionists might consider choosing not to be offended. To question their humiliation. To give an inch, because they have more inches squirrelled away.

We are all Mongrels

I popped this article on Slugger O'Toole the other day. 377 comments so far, some of which would make you weep into your cornflakes, but many more of which show a real willingness to talk about the difficult stuff. Only one person said it was 'the biggest load of shite [he'd] ever read in [his] life', so I'm considering that a win.


We are all Mongrels

We are all mongrels, to a greater or lesser degree. British-Irish-Northern Irish cross-breeds. Not to mention the fact that if we did ancestry DNA tests we’d probably be 20% African. We live in a divided society and in a contested state.

So to hear Foster and O’Neill playing Punch and Judy at the Tory party conference this week was frustrating. ‘Northern Ireland is British’, ‘Oh no it’s not’. etc. etc.

I was studying and teaching Northern Irish politics in University College Dublin when the 1998 Agreement was negotiated and ratified. An academic industrial complex soon emerged around it. There were the consociationalist writers who said (I paraphrase) ‘hooray for power-sharing, it’s the only way to get from a to b’. And the sceptics who said ‘hang on a minute, this just institutionalises sectarianism’.

They were both right.

And nearly 20 years on, we’re still living with this duality. Staggering political progress. And   a groundhog day of stagnation and polarisation.

But what our politicians seem to have forgotten is that the rest of us live with our mongrel identities every day. And that most of us have worked out pretty good ways of negotiating the British, Irish and Northern Irish bits of our lives, and the Catholic, Protestant and secular dimensions of our relationships.

Take me - unionist family tree, Irish passport, ex-Protestant evangelical, agnostic, kids in Catholic school. Today I feel 50% Irish, 40% Northern Irish, 10% British. But these ratios change on a regular basis. Despite feeling only a little bit British, I spend a ridiculous amount of time pondering British politics and am utterly invested in its outcomes. More than this, I’m a left, green feminist. I’m a ma, and nail-biting member of the gig economy. I’m a muddle of complicated identities. And I’m utterly at ease with this. 

But maybe the binary fits for everyone else?

Well, not really. Identity for a lot of people isn’t clean cut. Have a look at this, from the 2016 Northern Life and Times Survey. Only 53% of Catholics say they feel Irish with no sense of Britishness and 41% of Protestants feel British with no Irishness. Combined with the no religions who are even less willing to categorise themselves as exclusively one or the other, that’s the majority of people in Northern Ireland having some kind of hybrid national identity.

And consider that this question simply asks about Irishness and Britishness, without even getting into Northern Irishness, which overlaps with both, and complicates things further (and which about a quarter of people actually choose as their top national identity when it’s included in the question). 

Also consider that this question doesn’t ask people to explain what kind of way they feel Irish if they struggle to articulate the differences between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Or to ask how does it feel to be British if you suspect that your love for the mainland is unrequited. I think most people here have a keen sense of their northern strangeness. And that the simple words ‘British’ and ‘Irish’ mask a wealth of complexity and contradictions for us all.

And I see this glorious melding every day in the town where I live. I see a generosity between traditions at the school gate (yes, at Catholic school). I see it in my friends’ relationships and marriages, many of which are mixed. I see it in the way our kids dip in and out of different traditions, Brownies at the Church of Ireland on Tuesdays, every third Wednesday at mass with school. I see it in some older unionist family members who love Gaelic history and place-names. I see it in nationalists who sit under the Union Jack at their Protestant neighbour’s church funeral. I see it in workmates who take care how they speak to one another. Or better still, who have learned the art of cross-community banter in the pub (an advanced skill). Most of us don’t talk to each other as if we’re on the Nolan show. And this civility does not make us feel humiliated. Or backed into cultural corners. It makes us feel human.

I know this is not everybody’s experience of Northern Ireland. I don’t live in the shadow of a peace wall. I haven’t been threatened out of a shared housing project. I know that there is still much resistance to integration. And I’m not saying that this melding is easy, or without anxiety at times.

But look at it another way. Here is a question from the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey in 2001 (the last time it was asked). People were given a load of identity options, including Irish and British, but also other categories such as woman/man, working/middle class, mother/father, wife/husband. And using this wider frame of reference, so many more people chose gender (19%), family relationships (28%) and social class (22%) to define themselves than chose a national (9%) or religious identity (8%). We are so much more than British and Irish.

None of this will be news to you. Because this is how most of us, even the most passionately British and most passionately Irish, live our lives. We quietly negotiate the complexity and move, sometimes fluidly, sometimes awkwardly, through Catholic, Protestant and neutral, Irish, British and Northern Irish spaces. 

But when it comes to politics, we’ve begun to lose sight of these nuances. We’ve started to believe that we need to vote in big ethnic blocs to keep the other side in line. In one sense this is the logical conclusion of power-sharing. It reduced violence and brought the extremes together. But we have institutionalised and incentivised being orange and green. Austerity and the resource competition of late capitalism more generally have left us fighting over crumbs from the table, closely monitoring how much themmuns are getting, without questioning why there is not more to go around. Polarisation also feeds on the stagnant, uncreative leadership of the big parties. At some point we seem to have stopped trying to imagine something better.

Our politics doesn’t have to be like this though. We have a huge playbook to draw upon. The long tradition of Protestant Dissent, not to mention the unionists and loyalists, from Ian Paisley to David Ervine, who have appreciated the Irish parts of their identity. Brian John Spencer has some interesting pieces on this site about this. Linda Ervine and the Protestant Irish language speakers keep this fire aflame. And there is a long tradition of Irish nationalists acknowledging how they are shaped with and by Britishness. From the Irish soldiers who fought for Britain in the wars, to the creative nationalism of John Hume. Never-mind that niggling affection for the NHS.

But current political arrangements have squeezed the space in which these conversations can happen. And we desperately need to start having them again. Is it time to replace mandatory power-sharing with voluntary coalition in Stormont? Probably. But there are pros and cons. Domination via the back door, in the form of the Petition of Concern, certainly needs to be revised. Because I do know that no good can come from this gaping political vacuum. Or this hardening of the culture war. It is a false binary upon which fear and hostility feed. And it doesn’t reflect the messy tumble of identities that make up most of our lives and relationships. Nor does it reflect our national identities, which are way more nuanced than our politics. 

Any future for Northern Ireland, in the context of the UK or Irish unity, will need to make space for both Irish and British identities. But maybe we can learn from the consequences of institutionalised sectarianism, and can perhaps now begin to find ways to amplify our hybridity. For us to learn to live well in this more open and interesting space, we must be able to talk about it. We must go out of our way to mix and meld. Swipe right on people you wouldn’t usually. Take your kid to a youth club in a church you don’t go to. Switch to RTE or BBC news for the day. Tune in to Radio Fáilte even if you don’t have a word of Irish. Go and see the Red Arrows even if it makes you feel weird. Pick an event in the West Belfast Féile if you live in the East. Check out the Newtownards Road if you live in the West. Maybe write a different kind of comment on a blog. All of this will involve putting our foot in it and sometimes feeling uncomfortable. But that’s ok. It’s surely better than what we have now.

Oh, and one last thing. We need to stop voting like eejits. Because it’s the big parties which benefit from polarisation who have the least incentive to change the record.

Beginning again

Kid no. 2 starts school today. It feels like time to decide what to be when I grow up. 

So I sat down and wrote these lines. And I made a website to put them on.

I used to be a writer. I never stopped really. In private. But I’m going to try to write in the world again. Maybe about politics in Northern Ireland. Maybe about myself. Hopefully other people will tell me their stories and I can write about those too.

I’ll update this with something fabulous, should anything fabulous happen.