Featured, The 650 | 29th April 2015

East Belfast: Can the DUP win a critical ninth seat in a city where sectarianism still rules?

Cameron’s survival next week could be dependent on the DUP, and whether they can win back a once safe seat where paramilitaries are still strong.

Photo: Harry Lambert

By and

“The first threat was in December 2012, when the decision was taken. I was in bed. Police arrived at my door in the middle of the night. They told me if I returned to the office or remained in the house, I would be shot. And that this came from a credible loyalist source.

“And then they left. They said they’d return the next morning.”

In East Belfast, death threats are recounted with familiarity. For the past two years, Naomi Long – the constituency’s MP, who ended the 31-year reign of DUP leader Peter Robinson in 2010 – has faced abuse, arson attacks and hoax bombs. The DUP, whose support for the Tories could be crucial in a hung parliament, are now trying relentlessly to win the seat back.

Two years ago, members of Long’s party, Alliance, sided with Catholic nationalists to restrict how often the Union Jack could fly over City Hall. The decision was made in City Hall, where Long no longer served, but she argues that the DUP – the country’s largest Protestant party – seized on the chance to criticise her.

In East Belfast, death threats are recounted with familiarity.

Long argues that their rhetoric sparked attacks by paramilitary loyalists – the gangs who once fought the IRA and are now said to control many pockets of Belfast. “They [the DUP] were reckless in the language they used, and misleading. They whipped up tension and created a degree of hysteria that made it almost inevitable.”

Two hoax bombs were planted in her office. A caller told her a third existed. A fourth – a real bomb – was defused. A colleague’s office was burnt down. Alliance canvassers were told to leave certain areas or be shot.

Long seems undeterred. She’s sitting in the comfort of Belfast’s answer to Starbucks on a becalmed Saturday afternoon, but is just back from a morning on one of Europe’s largest housing estates. “I have a duty,” she declares. Paramilitaries terrorise their own communities as much as they’ve terrorised her. “I owe those communities my ear, and I owe them my support.”

Peter Robinson congratulates Naomi Long on her shock victory in 2010.
Peter Robinson congratulates Naomi Long on her shock victory in 2010.

But Long’s colleague, Anna Lo – one of Alliance’s eight representatives in Stormont (out of 129) and one of the first ethnically Chinese politicians in Western Europe – is finally departing after years of abuse.

“We still have a problem of racism in Northern Ireland”, she explains later that evening, with quiet understatement. One night she was called by police in Bangor – a twenty minute drive away – and told not to open the door to anybody. “That really freaked me, immediately thinking maybe someone’s out there watching me or going to do something.”

Long’s colleague, Anna Lo, is finally departing after years of abuse.

A picture of her being shot was sent to a paper. Similar images littered Facebook. Police occasionally patrolled her street but she thinks they’ve now stopped.

Long recruited Lo to the party in 2006 after Lo exhaustively lobbied the council to house the city’s Chinese immigrations – then its largest migrant population – as head of the Chinese Welfare Association. Now, after eight years steering committees and focusing on the environment, she has been pushed into early retirement.

Lo’s story is depressing but unsurprising in a city where Long suggests “90 per cent of people live in areas that are 90 per cent one community or the other”. ‘The level of segregation is hidden because we all look the same”.

A journalist films in the lobby of Stormont - Northern Ireland's marble floored assembly.
A journalist films in the lobby of Stormont – Northern Ireland’s marble floored assembly.

More than 90 per cent of the education budget is spent on segregated schools. The country has four teacher training colleagues – the biggest two are traditional, religious and opposed. And the threats thrown at Lo and Long can be traced back to segregation.

“Often the desire of both communities is the same: a quiet life, a good job, a roof over their heads, food on the table – it’s all very basic – but they have no common reference points.”

Long offers this conclusion in a coffee-shop where both Catholics and Protestants drink. Her seat is predominantly Protestant, but in this part of Upper Newtownards Road – the miles-long road which runs through East Belfast – a Catholic school and church are welcomed. A mile back towards the city centre, in Ballymacarrett, they aren’t.

**

In Ballymacarrett, house walls are canvasses and street posts are flag poles. Murals celebrating Protestant paramilitaries – from the UFF, UDA, USC and UDR to the ‘East Protestant Boys’ and ‘Red Hand Commando’ – run across the length of block after block. Small gated war memorials welcome visitors down side streets. House-high paintings glorify men in balaclavas clutching oversized machine guns.

Outside Iceland supermarket – the only part of the high street not deserted on a grey Sunday afternoon – shoppers are greeted by the armed men. They stare up at a trio of them when they pay for their parking tickets. A pair of even larger figures look down on them from across the road when they leave.

House walls are painted canvasses in Ballymacarrett.
House walls are painted canvasses in Ballymacarrett.

Few people will stop to talk. When a pair of older men finally do, they move on in mid-sentence. One is short but stands tall, his shaved head covered by a cabbie cap. The other is tall but slouched, with long white hair and a gold earring.

They’ve lived near the street all their lives. “It’s quieter,” the shaggy-haired one thinks aloud when asked what’s changed. He’s referring to the street not the Troubles. The supermarket crippled local shops. Abandoned buildings have been plastered with cut-outs of shop fronts. Goods fill mythical windows, cardboard shop-owners peer out from their doors, sun lights up their imaginary facades.

Unionist flags cover one house.
Unionist flags cover one house.

But if violence has been quieted here, drug dealing has replaced it. The men half-smile dejectedly when the police are mentioned. Who controls the area? The taller man flicks his head back to the trio of painted paramilitaries guarding the parking lot and quickly moves on.

On the other side of the street, set-back from the road in one of the area’s many empty spaces, two boys – one a young teenager, the other scarcely ten – are throwing strewn beer bottles against a wall. They won’t talk but soon search for some other way to entertain themselves.

Two hundred metres away, a gaggle of slightly older girls are less reticent but, like most here, won’t give their names. A thirteen year old tells of how her father demands she always keep her phone on and run if any unknown man starts talking to her. Another, 11, feels unsafe all the time. “I’m afraid of riots or petrol bombs, or being kidnapped,” a third chimes in. A fourth had a brick thrown past her head a few weeks ago “just up Templemore Avenue”.

Armed men stare down at shoppers en route to Iceland.
Armed men stare down at shoppers en route to Iceland.

None of them know anyone who’s been kidnapped, but rumours are enough. “They grab your coat from behind and put you in the back of the car.”

In this part of East Belfast, nationalists and loyalists don’t co-exist as easily as they do in the coffee shops up the road, where Long recounted the past four years.

Ballymacarrett neighbours the Short Strand, a nationalist enclave and centre of rioting here two years ago during the flag dispute. “At certain times, I wouldn’t be able to pass Short Strand up there, say when it gets dark,” George, a pensioner pushing his basket of shopping home, explains. “They [Catholic nationalists] jumped out on me when we were young. That’s sixty years ago. When I was 17, they’d jump out on us.”

Painted men stand guard over the store from across the road.
Painted men stand guard over the store from across the road.

More recently, when a local police chief took down Union Jacks after loyalists encircled a Catholic Church with them, he precipitated two days of riots. After winning little support from unionist politicians, the policeman’s superior officer apologised for his subordinate’s actions.

The incident explains why paramilitary murals still stand. They aren’t whitewashed because the police fear a reaction. When a pair of non-militaristic murals were put up in 2011 – celebrating George Best and the Titanic – they were soon painted back over by paramilitaries. Residents are powerless.

**

The paramilitaries are veterans of the Troubles. But recent riots have been dominated by the young not the old.

“The problem is,” suggests Mike Philpott, a BBC journalist throughout the Troubles, “Loyalists generally, and the DUP in particular, sold the Good Friday Agreement as a surrender, whereas the Catholics sold it as a victory. Working class Protestant boys have been left with the belief that they have lost something.”

It’s unclear whether that loss is really sectarian, or whether, as Jim Wilson, a local community worker, put it during the riots in 2013, “Some of these young lads have now [just] got a flavour of going on the streets.” Disaffection and depression is reigniting the Troubles, not religion.

“The DUP in particular, sold the Good Friday Agreement as a surrender.”

Protestant boys, political parties and paramilitaries all hold strong identities, but it’s unclear how religious they are. The bottle-throwing boys of Belfast are as lost as white teenagers in Britain turning to Ukip, or working-class Glaswegians finding identity in Scottish nationalism. They’re throwing bottles – and their elder brothers are rioting – out of despondency, not because of nationalism.

Paramilitaries can’t always be easily attached to Protestantism either. “The paramilitaries are used for cover sometimes,” suggests Ian Paisley Jnr – MP for North Antrim, a rurual seat north of Belfast, and son of the man who led unionism for four decades.

Ian Paisley Jr, son of Ian Paisley and DUP MP for North Antrim.
Ian Paisley Jr, son of Ian Paisley and DUP MP for North Antrim.

Unlike his father, and many unionist politicians, Paisley Jnr talks in the language of conciliation. He doesn’t contest Long’s account of paramilitary terror, but sees its instigators as criminals, not over-zealous Protestants. “There’s a huge community issue that needs to be addressed about the power of certain barons in those communities with muscle. They rule with fear.

“They have an incredibly strong influence. And that affects how they’re policed, and how they’re governed, and how money comes into certain areas.”

It’s hard to funnel taxpayer money into areas where the police scarcely operate. Yet while Paisley wants to challenge paramilitary power, he criticises Long for provoking riots. He condemns the reaction, but suggests Long knew culling flag flying was “bound to cause harm. It would have far better letting sleeping dogs rest.” But it’s unclear how places like Ballymacarrett can be helped if the rule of law stops at its borders.

Paisley Jr on paramilitaries: “They have an incredibly strong influence.”

Paisley answer is simple and similar to many others’. Reclaiming the lawless pockets of Belfast demands “long-term generational change”.

It’s a fight his generation can’t win, but the next generation might. “I think my generation has probably lost. We came through a troubled era. It’s the next generation coming up which I think actually has the real chance to be less sectarian.”

Philpott, the BBC journalist, put it more bluntly. For Northern Ireland to move on from the Troubles, and reclaim areas like Ballymacarrett: “You’ve got to wait until some of those older generations die out.”

**

Northern Ireland can feel like a place waiting for people to die. But Peter Edgar and Neil Hutcheson, a pair of twenty-somethings part of Belfast’s ‘Young Influencers’ network, paint a very different picture.

They are sitting in the wood-panelled, tile-floored interior of the city’s Crown Bar. With its cordoned off compartments, stained glass and gas lamps, its a welcome contrast to the open-air shopping malls trying to make Belfast as bland as every other British city centre.

Built when Ireland was still united and twice refurbished by the National Trust, it’s the kind of icon that Edgar and Hutcheson want to recreate.

They are sitting in the wood-panelled, tile-floored interior of the city’s Crown Bar.

Edgar talks in the language of the tech-utopian. He wants to find “the latest, greatest inventions coming out of here”, bring together “design thinking skills”, and create “prototyping space”.

“How do we just get lots of smart people hanging out here, creating new products and innovations?” He has his eyes on the defunct Bank of Ireland building nearby. “Take away ‘Ireland’, and put in ‘Invention’.”

His optimism can be overwhelming, but he and Hutcheson are part of Belfast’s new generation. Religion doesn’t enter their heads. They’re Protestants but both praise Sinn Fein’s Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, Belfast’s recent Lord Mayor.

The iconic Crown Bar in Belfast's city centre.
The iconic Crown Bar in Belfast’s city centre.

“There’s generally a lot of people in NI who could not give a you-know-what about it,” Hutcheson suggests, when the conversation turns to sectarianism. The pair are trying to change “the aspirations of people in the city”, regardless of denomination.

Their attitude echoed the Samba players and pill-poppers huddled outside a hidden-away shack of a bar.

Their attitude echoed the Samba players and pill-poppers huddled outside Belfast’s Menagerie – a hidden-away shack of a bar – the previous evening. One – the dreadlocked Joseph, 23 – was succinct: “Our generation do not give a fuck about religion”. He and Lauren, 20, are not blind to the pockets of Belfast still mired in the Troubles, but progress has been “absolutely phenomenal”.

This feeling isn’t confined to the city’s youth. Jenny, a single mother back in the city after two decades away, is convinced that “There’s a sense of positive energy here that didn’t exist before.”

That energy exists in places like the Ulster Museum, tucked away in the city’s Botanic Gardens, where she took her son that morning. It exists among the middle-class. Things are “entirely different” in places like Ballybean, a stretch of road similar to Ballymacarrett further out of the city along Upper Newtonards Road.

Belfast built the Titanic, an achievement commemorated by these men.
Belfast built the Titanic, an achievement commemorated by these men.

“In Belfast it’s always been more a matter of class than religion,” she argues. She recounts a recent talk by a reformed loyalist hard man. He spoke of how much “animosity and bigotry” has been passed onto the next generation.

“His children and grandchildren don’t know any Catholics, don’t want to know any Catholics, and they live in this tiny, tiny world. And they’re fucked, basically.”

**

Jenny, Joseph and Peter are the voices of a new Northern Ireland. They’re part of a middle class that will continue to leave the Troubles behind while the city’s underclass are left behind.

Northern Ireland’s moderates – from Jenny and Mike Philpott to John Bew, the historian who left Belfast at 18 with no plans to return – hold little hope that those underserved by the system will soon be rescued by it.

Philpott is blunt when asked whether Stormont works well enough to help. “Frankly, no.” Bew is no kinder. “The only thing that unites Northern Ireland’s parties is the way they hold out their hands for money. It’s the SNP on crack.”

“The only thing that unites Northern Ireland’s parties is the way they hold out their hands for money.”

Politically, the country is locked in sectarian politics. The DUP and Sinn Fein hold most of the country’s parliamentary seats, and in local elections each take a quarter of the vote. Their more moderate cousins, the UUP and SDLP, take another 15 per cent, leaving few votes for Alliance, Northern Ireland’s only non-denominational party.

Despite Long becoming their first MP in 2010, Alliance haven’t won more than 10 per cent in a local election since 1977. For the past nine election cycles they have only ever won between 5 and 9 per cent.

A cartoonist depicts Long, left, and her DUP challenger, Gavin Robinson.
A cartoonist depicts Long, left, and her DUP challenger, Gavin Robinson.

Their rise has been capped by a mentality which keeps religious parties in office. As in the rest of the UK, the young – so often critical of sectarianism – are not doing the voting. The old are. And they, in Philpott’s words, always retreat into “their sectarian trenches”.

That tendency could depose Long in three months. Last week a poll of East Belfast showed that she trails her new DUP opponent by five points: 34 to 29 per cent. Discouragingly for her, it’s hard to see where more votes will come from. The only other significant parties are also Protestant, and her support among Protestants is half that of her opponent’s.

Long is trying to offer a new identity in a country still defined by two conflicting camps.

The poll highlighted the problem non-denominational candidates like her face. Nearly 60 per cent of those surveyed argued that Catholics have done better from the peace process than Protestants. Only 6 per cent said Protestants have.

Long is trying to offer a new identity in a country still defined by two conflicting camps. Yet her election was a landmark for a country where twenty years ago you could have been killed for driving into East Belfast with Irish registration plates.

That time has finally passed. But Northern Ireland’s politicians are still living through its aftermath. As Paisley put it, “I don’t live, and didn’t grow up, in a place called Utopia. I grew up in a place called Ulster.

“It’s torn itself apart for too many years, and now it’s trying to rebuild itself.”

An abridged version of this piece appears in this week’s New Statesman.