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Violence is at the core of the Northern Irish state

This article is over 11 years, 8 months old
Simon Basketter looks at the poverty and discrimination against Catholics that Northern Ireland is built on
Issue 2321

Sectarian rioting broke out earlier this month in Northern Ireland. It followed a series of provocative Orange Order marches going past the St Patrick’s Catholic Church, just on the outskirts of Belfast city centre.

Earlier in the summer, on 12 July, a Loyalist band broke a state ban to march past the church while playing the sectarian “Famine song”. Another march did the same on 25 August.

This isn’t an occasional event. There are over 120 marches in the area every year. This is not a question of diversity, or a tourist-friendly “Orangefest”. It is about consolidating bigotry.

So the lyrics of the song the band played outside the church included “Now they raped and fondled their kids, that’s what those perverts from the darkside did …Well the famine is over, Why don’t you go home?”

Occasionally people talk about “ancient traditions”. But this song was written in 2008. What is traditional is that the purpose of the Orange marches is to instil fear and intimidation into Catholics. It is also against those Protestants who reject the idea that Catholics are inferior.

Northern Ireland was set up by the British government in 1921 as a society based on discrimination against Catholics. Bigotry has been at its core ever since.

The whole paraphernalia of Orangeism—the marches through Catholic neighbourhoods, the anti-Catholic songs and rituals—aim to cement Protestant workers behind the Unionist establishment and British rule.


The violence of the British-backed Northern Ireland state provoked a quarter of a century of open conflict. The peace process and power sharing government that followed in the last two decades didn’t eradicate sectarianism. They entrenched it.

They are over 1,500 reported sectarian incidents a year. Last week that included the fire bombing of a Catholic home in North Belfast.

Throughout Northern Ireland’s history Catholics have faced systematic discrimination. But division in the working class has meant that Protestant workers are also held back.

Managers in Northern Ireland earn 20 percent more than their counterparts in Britain—but average wages for all private sector workers are 10 percent lower.

The peace process has brought Protestant and Catholic workers closer together in poverty while dividing them politically on sectarian lines. Some 90 percent of social housing estates in Northern Ireland are segregated. The poorer you are the more likely your estate is to be segregated.

Education is still segregated on religious lines. Schools are also segregated on class lines with church-run grammar schools excluding working class children.

The divisions fostered from the top produce violence on the streets. The most recent violence was concentrated in the areas of Belfast with the highest fatality rate during the Troubles.

These areas that suffered most from the war (see map) also gained the least from the peace. And far from coincidentally, they are areas of severe poverty.

Segregation barriers on the rise

Northern Ireland has 42 segregation walls, according to the Justice Ministry. Three quarters of them are in Belfast.

The first 15 feet of the walls are mostly made from concrete. This is then topped by at least 15 feet of corrugated iron or wire mesh. That’s 30 feet in total—higher than Israel’s 26-foot high barrier around the West Bank. The Berlin Wall was about 13 feet high.

And far from bringing the barriers down, the years since the peace process have seen even more of them go up.

According to a report this year from the Belfast Interface Project, there are 99 segregation barriers in Belfast. That’s 11 more barriers across the city than there were in 2008, when it last produced a report.

More that half of the 44 barriers in North Belfast have either been constructed or significantly expanded since paramilitary ceasefires were declared in 1994.

A province of rising poverty

The number of working households in poverty in Northern Ireland has doubled to 30,000 since 2005, says the Joseph Rowntree Trust.

In the same period the number of retired households living in poverty has risen from 55,000 to 70,000. That’s 21 percent of all pensioners in Northern Ireland. In Britain 16 percent of pensioners are in poverty.

Average income in Northern Ireland is decreasing relative to the average income in Great Britain. It was 96 percent of Britain’s average in 2005. It is now 94 percent. Average life expectancy is a year lower than Britain.

Since 2008, unemployment in Northern Ireland has more than doubled. Unemployment in 1989 was 9 percent higher in Northern Ireland than it was in Britain. Now officially it is only 1 percent higher—but some 27 percent of the population live on state benefits.

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