Although I definitely feel settled in Belfast as my home and most days are spent just enjoying the company of good friends, enjoying this semester’s classes especially one module on international security in which the professor brings a refreshing historian’s perspective, and trying to delve into my dissertation, I felt that in light of all that’s been going on politically, it’s hard to not indulge in an open writing space to throw in some of the ideas that have been occupying my thoughts for the past few weeks.
While reading for my dissertation, I recently came across some interesting insights in the introduction to Mary Kaldor’s book New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in the Global Era. In that passage, she discusses the tensions that are forming on a global scale in modern-day societies that find themselves in the midst of clashing values between an increasingly globalized environment and the identity politics of their local communities. Kaldor describes what we’re witnessing as an “emerging political cleavage between cosmopolitanism, based on inclusive, universalist, multicultural values, and the politics of particularist identities.” Reading this, I began to think about it naturally in the context of living here in Northern Ireland. I think that with the recent political scandals and pressure under which the IRA and Sinn Fein have come under, it is becoming increasingly more apparent that people really want to just move forward and are no longer willing to condone the type of criminality that will get in the way of progress. According to the A.T. Kearney/Foreign Policy Magazine Globalization Index of 2003, the Republic of Ireland is first as the most globalized country in the world. People in the South especially are just not as willing to be bogged down in the identity politics of Northern Ireland when they’re too busy reaping in the economic benefits of the Celtic Tiger, particularly in Dublin, the most obvious manifestation of this new globalized cosmopolitan outlook. There’s a definite sense of difference going down to Dublin and feeling like everything that seems politically tinged in the North has just disappeared the moment you cross the border. Although I have to say, I had the best St. Patrick’s Day of my life in Belfast where the bars were full of people just having a good time without any sense of restraint or political tension.
A few weeks ago I helped out a friend in my department with her election campaign for student government and definitely came out of it knowing a lot more about the political environment on campus as I realized how oblivious I’d been for the past months to such issues. Unfortunately the politics on campus is entrenched in the same sectarian divisions and debates that occur at the governmental level. As I heard the perspectives of some of my classmates who have spent both their undergraduate and graduate years at Queens explain their frustration at the identity politics that seeps into campus politics, I couldn’t help but feel disillusioned. Isn’t college supposed to be a time of rebellion where you leave the comforts of home and everything you knew growing up in order to challenge your old conventions and preconceived notions of the world? Isn’t it a time to become an atheist, a communist, a postmodernist, a feminist, anything as long as it’s as unfamiliar and radical as possible? They say that education leads to a broader perspective of the world and with that your conception of your own identity becomes more complex, more nuanced, less clearly defined by labels. Unfortunately, although that may be the case for some and maybe even most students, the politics of identity, and the political baggage of the outside world, seeps into campus politics, leaving students no choice but to engage in the same debates on campus as that of politics outside the university gates. As a student representative of my department, I was invited to a dinner in Stormont a few weeks ago and had the incredible honor of hearing Nobel laureate John Hume deliver a speech in which he stressed the importance of education as a way of moving beyond sectarianism in Northern Ireland. Yet, I can’t help but feel that the university level might be too late a stage so as to be the first time that students in Northern Ireland are exposed to integrated schooling.
At the same time though there is definitely a more optimistic perspective in Northern Irish society. In fact the overwhelming majority of perspectives I’ve encountered offer a more positive outlook for the future. The look on the face of my friend’s mother who despite a fairly strong unionist perspective cringes as she remembers the years of the troubles and somberly states that most people in Northern Ireland will agree to just anything before going back to those times. Hearing the opinions of a friend as he writes a “Northern Irish” identity and says that despite setbacks he is determined to stay in Northern Ireland working for years to come on cross-community NGO work. Hearing the perspectives of many classmates and friends as they harshly criticize the criminality of the paramilitaries of both communities but usually coming down harder on those paramilitaries from their own community. It seems more and more that as in the case of the McCartney murder, people from all communities and political opinions in Northern Ireland have become increasingly critical of those who endanger the safety and rule of law of the members of their own community. For the most part the young and the hopeful in Northern Ireland are eager to move forward and put the past behind them. There’s no time like right now to be witnessing what seems to be a fundamental shift in Northern Irish society and hopefully the beginnings of a break in the stalemate towards a more optimistic political future.