The people of Northern Ireland would be happier if they could put aside their remembrances of past grievances, much like a wizard in the Harry Potter books could store unneeded thoughts in a bowl of magic ooze called the “Pensieve.” But lately, despite the relative success of the 1998 Good Friday accords, too much unneeded history has been oozing out.
In December, led by the nationalists who favor unification with Ireland, the Belfast City Council voted to limit the flying of the British flag over City Hall to a few days a year. This enraged unionists, who want to remain part of the United Kingdom, and have been protesting, and sometimes rioting, ever since. Members of the unionist Orange Order keep marching every summer to rub in an important English military victory in 1690. They wear old-fashioned black suits, carry placards, and bang on large drums to remind nationalists of the time that unionists unquestionably controlled all of Ireland. In July, rioting broke out when the Orangemen tried to pass a nationalist area.
In mid-August, nationalist extremists marched close to a unionist neighborhood in Belfast to commemorate the 32d anniversary of Internment, in which British forces imprisoned Irish Republican Army suspects without trial. That led to rioting in which 56 police officers were injured, among the 350 police officers hurt this year in sectarian violence.
The discord obscures the fact that unionists and nationalists have plenty of woes in common — principally, a local economy with real potential but also the highest long-term unemployment rate of any region of the UK and a disproportionately large downturn in housing prices. Subsidies from the British government, a lifeline for much of the region, are also slated to be reduced.
The long-term solution is for both factions to work together to speed the transition from an older industrial economy to a modern one based on knowledge and innovation. But ongoing discord is undermining even such quicker fixes as tourism, which has risen substantially in the relatively peaceful years since 1998. Unfortunately, 10,000 visitors were in town for the World Police and Fire Games in mid-August, just in time for the Internment riot.
The Good Friday agreement, brokered by former US senator George Mitchell, relies on local political institutions to resolve sectarian differences. Yet US diplomats have had to intervene several times to achieve the compromises necessary for unionists and nationalists to coexist. Richard Haass, former US special envoy to Northern Ireland, will be visiting this fall in an attempt to mediate the latest flare-ups.
The political leadership of Northern Ireland should greet him with solutions. It shouldn’t take an American wizard to resolve an internal problem involving flags and memories and drumbeats and suits.