I had forgotten the size of the wall in the middle of Belfast until we stepped out of the cab just beneath it and my partner looked up wide-eyed. I hadn’t seen the five-meter-high wall since 2001, the last time I was in Northern Ireland, a college student studying for the summer in Dublin on a weekend trip to learn about what is usually called “The Troubles.” But the wall looks different now, coming from Trumplandia in the fall of 2017.
Building walls is big business these days. Trump’s “impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall” is quietly at least sort of under way. Eight prototypes have been built in California for around $3 million. In Europe, there’s Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and his border wall and any number of anti-immigrant politicians who have joined him.
The walls in Northern Ireland aren’t designed to keep out immigrants; instead they’re “peace walls” built between nationalist and unionist neighborhoods to stem violence between the communities. Near two decades after the peace agreement that ended the armed conflict in the streets, they still stand. The gate we walked through in the wall, our cabbie warned us, closes at 7 p.m.
We were there to talk to Seán Byers and Mel Corry of Trademark, a trade union-affiliated organization that does labor education and works to reconcile sectarianism within the labor movement. Their office is strategically positioned right by the wall, straddling the two communities as much as is possible. Across from their office is a vacant lot where bonfires burn in July during “marching season,” when the Protestant Orange Order marches to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne, the victory of Protestant King William of Orange over Catholic King James in 1690. Peace may be official on paper, but the bonfires still burn and the marches still go on.
Peace on paper hasn’t made governing easier, either. In January, the Northern Ireland Assembly—the government for all things not decided by the UK Parliament—collapsed. The terms of the power-sharing agreement require the representatives of both the unionist and nationalist communities to be in the government, but the implication of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster in the so-called “Cash for Ash” scandal—a would-be renewable energy program that offered subsidies that outstripped the cost of the energy, meaning scammers could literally profit from burning fuel—began a series of battles that don’t seem to be ending. Our trip coincided with a visit by Bill Clinton, who attempted to use residual goodwill from his role in the peace process to nudge Sinn Féin and the DUP to make a deal and re-form a government.
Since the breakdown, the DUP has become the junior partner to Theresa May’s embattled Conservative government in Westminster. This means that the party is now an enabler of the austerity government administering cuts that will hurt its constituency—Northern Ireland relies more heavily than other parts of the UK on government benefits, in part because of the history of political violence in the area—a decision that could bring it trouble in the future. And all of this doesn’t even get into the questions raised by the Brexit vote. Will a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland be reinstated? Will Sinn Féin achieve its goal of a border poll and a reunited Ireland, or will the country be further severed? There are more questions than answers in Northern Ireland right now.
We saw plenty of walls on the next leg of our trip, in Derry, as well. Derry was built as a walled city back in the early 1600s to defend the English and Scottish settlers from the Irish, who were less than pleased with their presence. There is an echo of this in Trump’s wall—the manufacturing of borders where there were none before and punishing those who cross them, the building of walls to keep out those who, after all, were there first.
The walls of old Derry are now a tourist attraction, and no longer keep anyone out. Buildings press right up against them, and street vendors use their gates as shelter for football merchandise. But there are still “peace walls” in Derry, as well as a different kind of wall: the famous “You Are Now Entering Free Derry” wall in the Bogside, the old Catholic neighborhood, is a defiant reminder of unfinished struggle.
Derry is near the western border of Northern Ireland, the border drawn during the 1921 partition in order to ensure a Protestant, therefore unionist, majority. It was nonviolent civil rights activism that began in Derry that kicked off the modern conflict known as the Troubles. Heavily gerrymandered Derry had squeezed the city’s Catholics into political underrepresentation and subpar housing. In the 1960s, inspired by the American civil rights movement, Catholics began to march. Like the black activists they were influenced by, the protesters were met with repression by the police and eventually the military. “Free Derry” was declared by the residents in the Bogside and barricades went up to keep out the forces of the state.
The history of the Irish means that solidarity with national liberation struggles and other uprisings of the oppressed is common; the Free Derry wall is often garnished with declarations of support for such struggles. It bore, for a while, a “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” painting; more recently, it proclaimed support for the Catalonian independence movement.
Hearing the story of Free Derry, I could not help but think of Ferguson, and Baltimore, and Baton Rouge, and the people of Northern Ireland feel that connection too. Young activists there, we were told, are interested in learning more about the history of white supremacy. The street battles, barricades, the unlawful arrests and police shootings, the rolling in of the soldiers all feel too familiar. The too-late apology, issued in 2010 by then-British Prime Minister David Cameron (he who initiated the Brexit vote and stepped down when it succeeded), for 1972’s Bloody Sunday massacre of unarmed Bogside protesters by British soldiers was similar to the “bad apples” defense often rolled out by officials after police shootings in the United States. Many people still feel that the apology pinned the blame on individual soldiers rather than on British policy in Northern Ireland. The gerrymandering of Derry was eventually undone, but the murals on the walls of the Bogside commemorate the long struggle. Will it take forty years to get an apology—let alone some kind of justice—for Michael Brown, for Freddie Gray, for Delrawn Small?
The unionists in Northern Ireland experienced equality for Catholics as a loss for themselves. Gains for Catholics have come alongside deindustrialization, increased poverty, and now the austerity of the post-2008 years, which means that a lot of the Protestant working class has indeed lost out, but not to the Catholics—to the wealthy. “Beating the Orange drum” is what political observers call it when the unionist parties point the blame at Catholics, at Sinn Féin, at anything but the government-administered austerity. (Yes, I want to make an orange joke here about Trump.) It is a familiar story: when you’re used to supremacy—political, economic, or social—a shift towards equality can feel like oppression, like a loss. We saw this in the backlash to Barack Obama’s presidency, in the paranoid fears that Obama was going to do to white people what had been done to black people. We saw it in the election of Donald Trump. His promise to “Make America Great Again” was a pledge to some people, at the expense of others, to return to a time when they felt secure in their own power.
“Economic anxiety” has become a punchline, appended on Twitter to racist tweets or comments by those who insist only racism can be responsible for Trump and often coupled with statistics about the relative wealth of Trump voters. Yet there is a particular kind of anxiety bound up in having something to lose—as Corey Robin has written, conservatism is bound up in “the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” It is not whiteness at stake in Northern Ireland, yet understanding what has happened there can help you understand how white supremacy works in the United States.
In Northern Ireland, where literal walls prevent neighbors from knowing one another, it’s hard to get past the idea that politics is a zero-sum game. But the activists who founded People Before Profit Alliance, a small but growing left-wing political party holding offices in Ireland north and south, are trying to organize across these differences, to challenge on a right–left or perhaps a 99 percent–1 percent axis rather than a nationalist–unionist one. It’s an uphill struggle, though—the party has had most of its success thus far in Catholic-dominated areas like West Belfast, where Gerry Carroll was elected to the Assembly in a former Sinn Féin stronghold, or Derry, where civil rights legend Eamonn McCann held an Assembly seat until the collapse of the Assembly last winter, as well as in the Republic of Ireland.
There is a history of socialism entangled with the history of republicanism in Ireland dating back to Easter Rising rebel James Connolly, who wrote, in 1897,
If you remove the English army to-morrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organisation of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs.
The political lines haven’t always been as neatly drawn as they sometimes seem. There is even a long (but small) tradition of republicanism among Protestants, defying the tendency to define the sides in the conflict as religious rather than political in nature. We drank in the Belfast pub where the United Irishmen, the first organization to fight for an Irish republic, hatched their plot to overthrow British rule. Our host pointed out to us the tower in Derry where Wolfe Tone, rebel and Protestant who called for Catholic equality, was held after their 1798 rebellion.
More recent conflicts too brought people together across sectarian divides, as People Before Profit co-founder Seán Mitchell writes in his recent book Struggle or Starve: Working-Class Unity in Belfast’s 1932 Outdoor Relief Riots. In the face of the Depression and an incredibly punitive relief system, Communist and other left organizers managed to rally together the poor and struggling from Protestant and Catholic communities. A strike and a riot improved the relief system for a time before things foundered, again, along sectarian lines. “The lesson for the labor movement in the midst of the Great Depression, therefore, is as profound as it is simple: you can ignore sectarianism, but sectarianism won’t ignore you,” Mitchell writes. “Even if workers do unite, which they invariably will, if sectarian ideas are left unchallenged, then reactionary forces will reorganize and eventually divide the class once more.”
It’s a lesson that sounds familiar.
The continued existence of the walls in Northern Ireland, still a temporary solution to the problems even as they have become a tourist attraction (Google even lists them as such), as well as the political impasse at the moment, lead many to assume that sectarian conflict is inevitable and permanent. Yet the history on offer reminds us that it was a violent state that created the conflicts in the North and the solution to them must be political as well. Organizers remind us that change is often slow and grinding until, sometimes, it is not.
Just like in Ireland, the work of building security in the United States will not come about through the construction of walls. Instead, we must think about the way that difference is used to maintain power. As Ibram X. Kendi has written, racist ideas are produced to justify racist policies and not the other way around. We must begin to think about how to reach across differences, not to hug Nazis but to challenge those vulnerable to demagoguery and to begin to turn them toward something better. Pretending that a simple focus on “bread and butter” will erase centuries of history is foolhardy. But it’s just as foolish to assume that people, and circumstances, never change.
Sarah Jaffe is on the editorial board of Dissent, co-host of its Belabored podcast, and the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt (Nation Books, 2016).