October 28, 2018

The “Ghost of Christmas Future:” America As The Next Northern Ireland

On Sunday, October 21, I visited Belfast, Northern Ireland, for the first time, in advance of my Board meeting in Dublin, which began two days later.  In many ways, Belfast’s center city area resembles Dublin and other Republic of Ireland cities.

There is no border control between Ireland and Northern Ireland, although there may be one after the Brexit effective date, March 29, 2019.  How the border and governance issues will be addressed is still uncertain.  A fragile two-decade-long peace agreement is at risk, as this article points out.


The legacy of the long conflict between those who want Northern Ireland to be united with the Republic of Ireland, mostly Catholics, and those who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, mostly Protestants, is painfully obvious.  I felt that when I began the Black Cab tour on October 22.  The driver-guide told me that the Europa Hotel, where I had stayed, had been bombed 33 times during its history, making it the “most bombed” hotel in history.

Because we do not regularly read or hear about the violence that dominated the politics of these countries between the late 1960’s, when the conflict between unionists/loyalists (primarily Protestants) and nationalists/republicans ([primarily Catholics) escalated into civil war and 1998, when the Good Friday Agreement caused the violence to wind down, it is easy to assume that everybody “lived happily ever after.”.  This not only is not true, but the peace is particularly fragile with the Brexit deadline looming.

My driver/guide took me through the area at the epicenter of “the Troubles,” as both sides call the violent civil war between the 1960’s and 1998.  Another visitor shared many striking photos from a similar tour, most of which images I saw as well.


Walls with Cage in Ireland

Northern Ireland is highly segregated in its residential areas, its schools, its neighborhood shops, its recreation sites and, obviously, its places of worship.  In fact, the saddest comment the driver-guide made to me is that a much higher percentage of the residents want to send their children to integrated schools, but are afraid to do so, because extremists will terrorize their children if that happens.

The loyalists and republicans have visibly differing foreign policy sympathies.  The loyalist/Protestants are strong supporters of Israel and the republican/Catholics support the Palestinians.

Five points stood out from my tour:

  • The most striking element of this segregation, as the above-linked article points out, is the presence of large, ugly walls that divide the Protestant and Catholic residential neighborhoods. In Belfast, the Peace Wall, as it is called, is higher than the Berlin Wall was at its peak. As you can see from the photo shown to the right, residents living close to the wall have diagonal cages on the sides of their homes closest to the wall to protect themselves from debris or even gas-fired bombs that could be thrown over the wall.  There are over 100 walls like this in Northern Ireland communities.
  • The neighborhoods have sizable volunteer populations with weapons ready for use at any time in a conflict, if one should arise. There are murals on either side of the wall that honor those who have died during “the Troubles,” and, on the Catholic side, there are memorials honoring people who have been killed by the British before the Irish won their independence in the Republic of Ireland.  The photo to the right and below this paragraph honors a leader of the Ulster Defense Force named Stevie “Top Gun” McKeag, who died in 2000 at age 30.

Because of these murals and memorials, residents relive the horrors of this civil war every day, and their anger at the other side never goes away.

  • The Northern Irish history which appears in monuments and on murals hearkens backs further in time than it does here in America. One mural painted on a wall (below right) in the Shankill neighborhood (the Protestant/loyalist area) is of William of Orange, who defeated the deposed Catholic King James II in 1690. This  seemingly ancient honoring of a Protestant king in a battle against a deposed Catholic king gets highlighted every year with the Twelfth of July parade by Protestants that celebrates this victory and often provokes violent responses from Catholics because it is deliberately staged to have Protestant members of the Orange Order march through heavily Catholic neighborhoods and communities.
  • “Litmus tests” not only attach to where people worship and live, how they dress, and what foreign policy views they hold, but even how they describe locations. The Catholics call the mountain that overlooks Belfast “Cave Hill.”  Protestants refer to it as “Black Mountain.”  Catholics refer to Northern Ireland’s second-largest city as “Derry.”  Protestants use its official name “Londonderry.”
  • The government of Northern Ireland has attempted to address civil rights issues in workplaces by an elaborate affirmative action system not dissimilar to what we do in America. It issued a Fair Employment and Treatment Order in 1998, which requires elaborate reporting and monitoring by employers and the government to head off major discrimination claims.
William of Orange

Why is this history worth studying?  Although there was always some level of violence and tension between Protestants and Catholics from 1922 onwards (when the Republic of Ireland won its independence from the British), it escalated in the 1960’s when Catholics staged peaceful civil rights marches to gain more equality.  The escalation to the horrible violence that took place for over 30 years was not inevitable.

A heavy-handed response by both the British and the Protestant loyalists caused the conflict to escalate to more violence.  Each side’s violent acts were met with violent responses by the other side.  Both sides had an “end justifies the means” moral code, and violence begat violence.  The most extreme members of each group dragged their fellow countrymen into a civil war most people did not want.

This is similar to what happened in the former Yugoslavia, with Serbia and Croatia escalating violence that led to the Balkan Wars in the 1990’s.  Yugoslavians who had lived side by side peacefully for generations were turned against one another by demagogic Serbian and Croatian leaders.  People focused on their differences, not their common values, and they were induced to hate one another.

The American situation

Little by little, our American leaders in both political parties are turning the US into another version of Northern Ireland.  It is easy to blame President Donald Trump, who has frequently flamed the fires of hatred by intemperate remarks when, as President, he should have been a unifier, not a divider. However, this hyper-partisanship and its escalation into violence preceded him and will outlast him.

Political commentators disagree as to when the seeds of this mutually destructive behavior were sown.  Different experts blame unresolved divisions over the Vietnam War, the systematic Democratic effort to defeat Judge Robert Bork’s Supreme Court appointment in 1987, Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Clintons, and the media.

It is pointless to look back and try to make the case that one side or another started this increasingly violent conflict.  What matters now is how we wind it down, especially now with the escalation of violence over the last two years, with the shooting of Congressman Steven Scalise at the Congressional Baseball Game practice, the attacks on Republican politicians at family restaurants, and the recent pipe bombs sent through the mail to Democratic politicians.

I strongly endorse the guidance of former First Lady Michelle Obama, who said “When they go low, we go high.”  Former Attorney General Holder’s statement “When they go low, we kick them” is an irresponsible and destructive statement from our country’s former chief law enforcement officer.

The title of this essay is taken from the great Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol.  In it, he has the ghost of Ebenezer Scrooge’s business partner appear to him and show him the inevitable consequence of continuing his bad, miserly behavior.  The 100 Northern Ireland walls, dividing people of different political and religious persuasions, did not exist before 1970, and were believed to be only temporary.  They have survived far longer and grown in numbers over the years.  Belfast in 2018 is the “ghost of Christmas future.”  Belfast of 1970, a more violent place than the Belfast of today, could be an even more frightening and later “ghost of Christmas future.”

Although the Protestant/loyalists and the Catholic/republicans, as the two sides are called, live in relative peace, the truce is fragile and violence could break out again.  The question of which way Northern Ireland goes after Brexit could be the triggering event for a renewal of the civil war.  On Tuesday night, October 23, the BBC1 channel broadcast a panel discussion which had two representatives from each side of the political divide.

Progressive Democrats and conservative Republicans could sort themselves into different parts of communities or different towns and build walls to keep members of the other party out.  They could segregate themselves in multiple ways, such as which schools their children attend, which recreational facilities they routinely use, where they shop, and, even over time, where they live.   This segregation and sortation could easily occur in colleges and universities because of our rampant identity politics.  We even hear that parents are more likely to object to having a child marry someone of the opposite political party than marrying someone of a different race or religion.

Although on-air reporters and media executives claim that they are simply reporting what is going on in the public domain, this is a gross misstatement of the role they play in escalating the divisions within our country:

  • Stations like CNN, MSNBC and Fox News decide about the allocation of their programming and airtime, and, within a show, who gets the longest opportunity to speak. For example, Fox News gives its prime time 9pm slot to Sean Hannity, who is clearly a far divisive personality than Martha McCallum, who has the 7pm slot, and is a far more balanced reporter.
  • The stories these networks choose to highlight are very different. The remarks from a speech given by a prominent personality, whether it is President Trump, Senator Schumer, or Representative Maxine Waters, are their most inflammatory statements, and these remarks are deliberately removed from their context.
  • Yahoo’s landing page will have headlines like “XYZ Slammed for Comments on ABC.” This headline gives the impression that hundreds of thousands or even millions of people reacted a certain way.  When we read the story, it consists of reporting on 5-7 tweets from people who collectively have less than 5,000 followers.  The editor and reporter have chosen to make a small sample of the Tweets a “representative” sampling, when there is no evidence that they are.

We may not have a single continuous violent civil war, but a series of ugly confrontations and battles, that escalate a little at a time, as it did in Northern Ireland over a several-decade period.  We should never believe that “it can’t happen here.”

What I saw on October 22 in Belfast was progress from a more violent period preceding it.  What it is happening in America could replicate the 2018 Belfast on our way downward toward an eventual civil war.

I support those leaders who are urging everyone to tamp down their rhetoric and actions.  I strongly oppose those who fan the flames by blaming the other party, including President Trump, and continue our country’s downward spiral.