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THE TABLET

THE INTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY FOUNDED IN 1840

NORTHERN IRELAND

ON THE BRINK

NEW THINKING

NEEDED

The omens are not good for a peaceful summer in Northern Ireland. Community tensions are rising. Very few of the Loyalist rioters who have been causing mayhem on the streets in Belfast were even born when the Good Friday Agreement was signed 23 years ago. But they have inherited long tribal memories, and community grievances, which the agreement failed to resolve.

Loyalists feel betrayed by almost everybody – the Northern Ireland Police Service, the British government, the Northern Ireland Executive, the Democratic Unionist Party, and the European Union, which bears some blame for its insensitive implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol governing the traffic of goods across the Irish Sea. Boris Johnson is as much to blame as anyone, for agreeing to an arrangement that he must have known would lead to more problems than solutions. Once the UK left the EU, there had to be a border somewhere between them, and if it was not to be a land border on the island of Ireland, it would have to be across the sea route between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. He engaged in a great pretence that that was not the case, in order to force his withdrawal agreement through parliament.

The inevitable problems with customs arrangements under the protocol are only part of the reasons for the increasing alienation of the Loyalist community. They also see their tribal enemies, the Republicans, behaving as if they were above the law. With utter irresponsibility, Sinn Féin’s leaders turned out in force to attend the funeral of a senior IRA figure in flagrant defiance of the Covid regulations. Yet no prosecutions resulted. These factors, and the increase in the Catholic population in the North, which now equals and may even exceed its Protestant population, generate a sense that the slow drift towards a united Ireland is inexorable – and that the Republicans will “win”.

So where does besieged and beleaguered Loyalism go from here? Its legitimate grievances in employment opportunities, education, housing and social services must be addressed. These are some of the most deprived communities in the United Kingdom. But Loyalists must also be released from the spell of a zero-sum mindset – that any gains among Nationalist and Republican communities have to be at their expense. The opportunity for an even-handed political intervention has been grasped this week by Northern Ireland church leaders of virtually every persuasion. In a strong public statement and by making their presence felt on the streets in opposition to rioting, they have come closer than any politician to the reality of life among Northern Ireland’s working- class communities on both sides of the divide.

Religious divisions have been a source of conflict in Northern Ireland for centuries. For Catholic, Anglican and Protestant religious leaders to stand visibly united at this moment, speaking truth to power in the name of the common good, is an imaginative and courageous development. The politicians have failed Northern Ireland. A different kind of leadership is needed, one that has not mislaid its moral compass – and one that insists that poverty, social injustice and disdain for the law are unacceptable wherever they occur.

THE DUKE OF EDINBURGH

THE ROYAL FAMILY ENDURES

Week by week, the three great British soap operas which enthral the public are Coronation Street, EastEnders – and the royal family. The affairs of each are reported by the tabloids with roughly equal gravitas. If one of the characters is purported to have quarrelled with another, the details will be obsessively picked to pieces. So it has been with Prince Harry and Prince William, whose remarks on the death of their grandfather, the Duke of Edinburgh, were forensically analysed to find evidence of difficulties between them. As they said almost exactly the same thing – that the Duke was a one-off, a huge support to his wife the Queen, a great man and a remarkable fellow – media attention turned to minute differences of timing and tone.

This underlines the way that the key relationship between the public and the Crown, fundamental to the stability of a constitutional monarchy, is largely mediated through the print, broadcast and social media, and strictly on their terms. With the end of the reign of 94-year-old Elizabeth II closer, and the less popular Prince of Wales next in line to succeed her, this is not a comforting thought. But things do happen beneath the radar, as it were, such as the overwhelming sense of grief at the death of “Princess Di”, as the tabloids called her. No one, least of all Buckingham Palace, was expecting such an intense and volatile reaction. Fearing that nothing less than a North Korean level of deference would pass muster, the major television channels broadcast wall-to-wall coverage of the death of the Duke. The result was that the BBC received a record number of complaints. The broadcasters’ ability to anticipate the public mood seems to have let them down. It is indeed a guessing game.

Yet the monarchy endures. Though they are unlikely ever to meet one of them in the flesh, millions of people feel a sense of emotional engagement with the lives of the royal family. With all the stress on mental-health issues nowadays, the significance of this element in the collective psychology of the nation should not be dismissed. People talk of their “love” of Queen and country, and it is real. And when a royal personage dies, so is their grief.

The Duke of Edinburgh’s nearly 100 years of life spanned a huge era of British history: the World War, in which he fought bravely, the creation of the NHS and the welfare state, the end of empire, the growth of mass media, the changing face of Britain into a multiracial society, and the declining influence of Christianity. It is not obvious that those things would have been better managed under a republican regime, and the continuity provided by the royal family as a symbolic incarnation of the national spirit has undoubtedly been a source of stability for the people of the United Kingdom. But the royal family rules by consent. It has to earn its privileges. As an adjunct of the entertainment industry as well as a constitutional pillar, it has to stick to the script and preserve its dignity as best it can. The Duke of Edinburgh did both, with aplomb.

2 | THE TABLET | 17 APRIL 2021

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