Northern Irish people won’t let violence go back to where it was
A recent bomb threat at a peace event in Belfast that caused panic and saw Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney evacuated felt ‘pretty calm’ for one attendee, award-winning peace activist Eileen Weir .
But then Ms Weir grew up through bloody conflict, collecting bottles of milk as a child to make petrol bombs in her close-knit Protestant community in Belfast.
As a teenager, instead of going to nightclubs or sneaking into pubs, she picked up sugar and washing powder for these bombs so the burning fuel would stick more ruthlessly to the targets.
But Ms Weir also remembers a sense of community, amid all the violence.
“Growing up was really fun. There was a strong sense of community that we lost,” she says.
“During an electricity strike, my family pulled out our camping gear and cooked big pots of soups and stews for the whole street. People helped each other. »
At 16, she joined the Ulster Defense Association (UDA), the largest loyalist paramilitary group in the North.
At the time, she thought it was a “benevolent” role, standing up for her community and helping to defend the most vulnerable people sheltering behind the barricades.
But once she joined a union more than 30 years ago, she found injustice rife across religious and social divides, and not just in her own community.
Since then, Ms. Weir has worked tirelessly for the rights of women and communities, bridging religious and social divides.
“Joining the union was a turning point. Until then, I had only heard about what was happening in my own community.
“It wasn’t until I started listening to people from other communities that I realized none of this was fair. It was about rights for me, not where someone was coming from. ‘a or what was his religion.’
On women’s issues, Ms Weir says there was inequality, lots of domestic violence, benefits paid in the man’s name and then spent in the pub, leaving the family with nothing.
“A lot of old school stuff. Everything in our society was male-oriented. Women had no say.
Through her work, she has seen deep friendships formed across once rabid religious divisions.
As a trade unionist, she convinced her employer at the time, Gallagher’s Tobacco Factory, to open better-paying positions to women for the first time, changing job titles from “men” to “people” and encouraging women to apply.
Under the Flags and Emblems Act, she had pictures of nude women on page three removed from the walls of her workplace, embarrassing and intimidating female employees.
Since the 1990s she has worked at the Shankill Women’s Center in Belfast and has dedicated her career to community relations in North and West Belfast.
Covid recently revealed how profoundly communities have changed since the Troubles, with women from opposing communities missing each other due to closures and rushing to help at food banks or centers in neighborhoods dominated by people they qualified once enemies.
At a recent talk at UCC, Ms Weir explained how Brexit had stoked old fears around identity.
In a Northern Ireland that voted to stay, concerns are growing. EU membership was not a Northern Irish problem, she explains, it was a British problem.
“We struggled to assert our rights. Being in the EU gave us a bit more security. How will women be treated if there is no Court of Justice?
“With Brexit, I saw no hope. There is no doubt that Europe needs to be fixed. But the only way to fix it is to stay indoors.
A meeting with Maroš Šefčovič, Vice-President of the European Commission, was positive.
“He was very impressive. Anything we asked of this man, he listened. I think they [the EU] want to help and they understand the situation [in Northern Ireland] better than the UK. Because Europe has been working in Northern Ireland for over 30 years, it has paid millions and millions to improve the country.
“Brexit was about Britain leaving. It’s in the name itself. But we’re not in Britain, we’re in the UK.”
In addition to social problems, Northern Ireland faced political strife and paralysis. Ms. Weir hopes that the next election can be an opportunity for change.
But parties still cling to “green and orange” issues for votes, while the biggest issues affect all communities – poverty, inflation, suicide, underemployment, the working poor, a underfunded health service.
“We need political representation that is truly representative of all communities in Northern Ireland, not just Catholic and Protestant minorities, but also Indian, Jewish and ethnic.
“And women from all levels of public life must be present in decision-making forums.”
Ms Weir believes the power-sharing arrangement of the Good Friday Agreement was no longer working.
“If one party withdraws, the other parties in government should be able to continue working,” she said. “It’s too crucial for people living on the edge, they don’t need disconnected politicians who come out when things can and should be over.
“These politicians don’t understand what it’s like to have to count your money hoping to have enough to buy bread.”
But another element of the Good Friday Agreement would help if properly implemented, she says.
Civic forums were to be created as part of this agreement, but they were quickly shut down.
However, Ms Weir thinks they could still be the key to good government and good relations in the North, if they truly reflect society with members appointed directly from groups like the women’s movement, groups people with disabilities and victims – not just political appointees.
However, concern is growing about the underfunding of community organizations. They are all short of funding and volunteers, many of them working month to month.
She recently lost funding for the Shankhill Women’s Center and the fear is that those community ties will be eroded at a crucial time for peace in the North.
She predicts more violence in the months and years to come but does not see it returning to the carnage the country suffered in the last century.
“People won’t let him come back to this level,” she said. “But social media is a problem. People say “there will be a riot at X” and people show up. But that’s really just antisocial behavior.
“Looking back at all the positive changes that have been made gives me hope. But there’s an undercurrent now, especially in Protestant communities, that wasn’t there before. People have fear now that their British identity is under threat. I do not agree with this fear but I understand it.
“But I don’t see a united Ireland happening in my lifetime. I don’t think enough people on either side of the border really want that.