Brian Smyth, a youth worker and Green Party councillor in North Belfast, put it simply: “We can’t keep cutting corners, then wonder why young people are getting sucked into disorder, when community infrastructure has been dismantled over years of austerity. We need to invest in our working-class communities, children particularly.
“I look at the opportunities I had as a working-class kid in the 1990s growing up in North Belfast, with a decent youth service and network around it. It let me meet others from different backgrounds, travel to places I never imagined. It broadened my horizons and gave me a sense of hope and optimism.
“I benefited directly from the peace process… as a young person, with the investment and funding that flooded into youth work. Without it, I could have ended up in a paramilitary organisation, in prison or dead.”
For generations, the mostly Catholic nationalist communities faced discrimination, banned by paramilitaries from jobs in the shipyards. And they responded by encouraging their young people into formal education.
Young people in working-class Loyalist communities, whose parents and grandparents had been rewarded with well-paid, skilled manual jobs, tended not to be encouraged in the same direction, community workers on the Loyalist Shankill Road explained to me in 2018. One in five Northern Irish adults has ‘very poor’ literacy skills, and that’s heavily skewed to Protestant communities, they said.
“The stranglehold of paramilitaries in working-class Loyalist communities is so strong, I don’t know how you get out of that. [Young Loyalists] are not being treated well by the people who represent them,” Ní Mhuirí adds.
Building the bonfire
And then came Brexit. Those same Loyalist communities had been encouraged by their leaders to vote for it. Fearing the growing Catholic population and an increasingly unappealing British state was making a united Ireland more likely, the Democratic Unionist Party had gambled. Leaving the EU was, they thought, a way to sever north from south.
But the English leaders who had campaigned for it had a different idea. It’s pretty clear that Boris Johnson and those around him hadn’t considered the challenge of the Irish border before the vote in 2016. When a friend raised the subject with one prominent Tory Brexiter before the election, he blinked and said, “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that.” Johnson was more than happy to resolve the difficulty by placing a customs border down the Irish sea.
There is a pretty strong argument for looking at the partition of Ireland through economic as well as identitarian lenses. One hundred years ago, the majority Catholic areas of the island were mostly agrarian, and wanted to protect farming from free trade and cheap imports. But the mostly Protestant area around Belfast was industrial, and so its leaders wanted unfettered access to the imperial market.