Reflections on Northern Ireland, Catalonia, Division, Institutions, and Post-Conflict Reconciliation

“You need to watch this,” the cab driver told me.

I stood outside the cab after I had to retrieve money from the ATM to pay for the ride, half of my body inside the car bent over the rolled down window. In the video, an open casket, a man wearing a black hood that only showed his eyes, and a row of children witnessing how the hooded man shot several bullets to the sky. In the background, I could hear kids screaming. “These things still happen, you know.”

Two days later, an Uber driver provided context for the video. During “the Troubles,” the period of conflict between the late 1960s and 1998 in Northern Ireland, members of the IRA, the Irish Republican Army which supported a united Ireland, were killed in Gibraltar by members of the British Special Air Services. Their bodies were brought back to Northern Ireland and the funeral was attacked by a Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist (supporter of union with Great Britain), leaving three mourners dead. In retaliation, at their funeral, the IRA killed two undercover police officers who had driven into the procession. The man in the casket was one of the IRA members who had been convicted for that murder and recently died.


Nothing, ever, should be decontextualized and in a place like Northern Ireland, where everything seems to be seen through the prism of sectarianism, everything can be misinterpreted. I have spent the past five days here as part of a research and outreach trip for our UK project. I have been in more than 30 countries, but I had never witnessed such palpable and physical manifestations of division and polarization. This, as most, is not a simple story. Division and sectarianism are very much heightened by the institutions and trickle down from above. The leading politicians from the DUP (unionist and [very] right-wing party) and Sinn Féin (nationalist party at the other extreme of the spectrum) dominate politics and have vested interests in maintaining a divided society as that guarantees their survival and power.

As I started to write this, I was sitting at a coffee shop near Queen’s University in Belfast (if you are ever here, I highly recommend you visit the Pocket). Looking around me and visiting the neighbourhood, it felt exactly like any other university city in the United Kingdom. Yet when we visited other neighbourhoods with Paul Nolan, who kindly showed us Republican and Unionist neighbourhoods, it felt completely different. While the area where the university is located is integrated, a big part of the city is segregated.


Belfast is dotted with “Peace” walls (there are now more walls than during the armed conflict) that keep communities separated/ “protected” from each other. The system perpetuates, entrenches, and even promotes apartheid. Division is a continuation of the past as much as it is reinforced and perpetuated by the institutional set up and the market reactions to the situation. If you are looking for housing, you have to choose whether you want to live in a Catholic or a Protestant area. Applying for social housing, you have to tick one of the two boxes. A woman I met with was telling me that if you want to live in an integrated neighbourhood, you pay at least double in rent. If you are not well-off, you are condemned to living amongst “your tribe,” separated by walls, sending your kids to segregated schools (only 7 per cent of children are in integrated schools). This has horrible effects for working class people who are doubly locked into poverty and segregation. The neighbourhoods are clearly identifiable by the flags and murals that decorate the streets.

The forced choice between one or another tribe is present everywhere. Because of “equality legislation,” everything and everyone needs to be tallied. If one community receives something, the other must as well, so everyone must be included in either one of the two official categories. Sometimes, you can opt for the option “other”, lumped into an all-encompassing group that can mean many things and nothing at all. The system does not facilitate multi-layered or complex identities, nuance or empathy.

The Good Friday Agreement that “formally” (if perhaps, not really) put an end to years of armed struggle, included a power-sharing agreement (consociationalism). It is cross-community power sharing at the executive level. Only two communities matter. The First and Deputy First Minister, one unionist and one nationalist, have equal powers. The multi-party executive is made up of both unionist and nationalist parties and the d’Hont system determines how many of each.

The Good Friday Agreement was a laudable effort. Power-sharing was perhaps the best way of getting all parties to sign the agreement and give up arms. But in a time when dominating parties seem to be out of touch with the reality of the people they need to serve, it is mandatory to revisit the question: are those provisions still fit for purpose?

I would say that most people we talked to agreed that many DUP voters do not vote for the DUP because they agree with their policies, but because of identity. They fear that if they do not vote for the DUP, Sinn Féin will win and immediately they will lose. As long as the ultra-nationalist and the ultra-unionist parties play into the politics of fear, they will retain power (high levels of poverty, illiteracy, and PTSD, the presence of paramilitaries, and high addiction to prescription drugs also help). What are the consequences of such a system for society?

The Uber driver that took me to the airport told me he used to vote for the DUP because he was brought up to do so, but he believes in same-sex marriage and abortion, two policies that the DUP fights against. The reverse is also true for many Sinn Féin voters. It creates a vicious circle where the leaders of those parties have a vested interest in maintaining division and tribalism and get a free pass for incompetence and extremism. It does not matter that they are inept (as the failure to have a government – let alone a functioning government – since 2017 demonstrates); they will be elected because of the identity they represent, not because of their policies or their abilities.

Likewise, the Spanish transition was perhaps the best it could be at the time. Yet it included a “a pact of forgetting” which ensured no accountability and allowed for a transition devised by the very same people who for four decades maintained the dictatorship (with others that were eager to find peace and establish a democracy, even if it would be a flawed one that required them to find agreement with former supporters of the dictator). Institutions were not purged. There was no Truth and Reconciliation.

A society that does not deal with the past has a doomed present. The consequences of that past are more ever-present in Spanish society today. A country that over the past four decades has seen tremendous change in a positive direction has stalled. A country of great culture and geostrategic significance is now one in which issues of identity are once again brought to the fore and on the driving seat of politics. People’s fears and anxieties can be exploited by the far-right. Institutions are once again less trusted, and to be honest, in some instances rightly so (preventative prison for political prisoners for such an extended period of time should not be an occurrence in a modern European democracy). We need institutional reform, just as Northern Ireland does.

This morning I spoke at a panel about the rise of the “Neithers”. According to the last Life and Times survey in Northern Ireland, about half per cent of the population does not identify as unionist or nationalist but as “Neither.” I suspect that if they did a survey in Catalonia where they asked people to self-identify as either independentist or unionist, there would also be a non-trivial percentage of the population who would fall in that category. I probably would. And yet, there is no space for nuanced discourse in an age of fake news, tribalism, and strident politics. The incentives are simply not there.

These reflections come at a time when the Peace Agreement in Colombia is also being jeopardized by some (not all) leaders of the FARC, who have decided to take back arms. Colombia, another country that for decades has suffered a conflict as complex as the Northern Irish, worries me. Gabriel García Marquez’ magical realism simply seems realism if you know about the Colombian conflict.

And I worry.

I believe in politics and as someone who leans towards idealism with a strong dose of pragmatism, I have perhaps become more moderate over the years. A few years ago, when I read that a woman I truly admire, Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, said that change is better when gradual, I got upset. Now I understand that perhaps, sometimes, we need change to be gradual to prevent backlash (I also understand how there are things, like racial justice, that simply cannot wait).

I do not have answers to our problems and what I usually say, that we need empathy, understanding, kindness, nuance, seems fluff in the face of a rogue American president, increasing hate crime, recurring armed violence, and the surge of authoritarian populism. What I do know  is that we need to have those uncomfortable conversations and we need to have them not only with “our side.” That change is sometimes necessary, and we need to revisit past agreements. If there is another peace process, another democratic transition, as much as there are agreements, revision of them should also be part of the final pacts. And we need to learn from the past to not relive traumatic experiences.

I am incredibly fortunate that I am leading our UK project with a dear friend and committed member of the conservative party. As a progressive, very socially liberal woman, I need to hear that side.


Binita and I crossed the border from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland. Calling it the border is almost a misnomer as there was simply a blurred line on the floor and no controls. It is simply a continuation of the road. This is one of the many spots that is likely to become problematic if there is a no-deal Brexit without agreement on the Northern Irish situation.

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