Northern Ireland

On the Campaign Trail with the Young People Battling Over Northern Ireland's Future

Ahead of today's Assembly election, we spent the day with youth members of Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party.

Mar 5 2017, 10:40pm

A sign in Bogside, Derry. 

(Top photo: a sign in Bogside, Derry. All photos by Chris Bethell)

This article first appeared on VICE UK

On the 30th of January, 1972, the streets of Derry, Northern Ireland bore witness to "Bloody Sunday", one of the most violent days of the Troubles. It was in the Bogside area of the country's second largest city that British soldiers opened fire on 26 civilians during a peaceful march against internment – when the British army were making mass arrests of republicans they suspected to be involved with the IRA, and imprisoning them without trial.

Fourteen unarmed protesters were killed, and many more injured. Those shot at were fleeing the scene, others helping the already wounded.

The signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 saw a deal struck between those on each side of the conflict, and since then the situation in Northern Ireland has remained relatively peaceful. Still, division remains. When the country's electorate go to the polls today, to vote in the Assembly election, the unionist/loyalist and nationalist/republican split will be at the forefront of many voters' minds.

A poster in Bogside

The streets of Bogside are plastered with memorials, posters and murals that depict and celebrate important moments in Irish nationalist history. It's here that the violence of Bloody Sunday played out – where barricades were built to keep the British army out – and the area is still deeply republican.

"Right now we're in Ireland," says 21-year-old Caolán McGinley matter of factly, when we meet in the shadow of Bogside's Free Derry Museum. It's Sunday afternoon and he's been knocking on doors across the city in a last minute canvassing drive. Caolán, 21, is Chair of the Derry youth branch of Sinn Féin, an Irish republican party that operates on both sides of the border. It's this message of republicanism that he and his party have been sharing with voters as they've fought this campaign.

Up in this northwestern corner of the island, much of the border between Ireland and the North runs along the River Foyle, a strip of water separating the two countries. But here in Derry the border was pushed back beyond the river, into Ireland, when the partition line was drawn up in 1920. The result is a city that, while united within the border of Northern Ireland, remains deeply divided.

"I've been in Sinn Fein since I was 14," says Caolán. "Growing up in Derry, everything was peaceful. I was born into a post-conflict society after the Good Friday agreement; it was a changed society. The conflict was gone, children could grow up in peace. There were no armed soldiers in the street; no checkpoints; no border to prevent people living their lives."

Caolán McGinley

Caolán elected to have an Irish passport, not a British one – as was his right under the deal struck in the Good Friday Agreement – despite living within the current border of the North. As far as he and his party see it, Derry today is still an occupied land: "Northern Ireland and Ireland are the same, just one part of it right now is under occupation."

Caolán was raised five minutes up the road from Bogside, in another staunchly republican area of the city, Creggan. "It's a predominantly nationalist area, as is the whole city," he explains. According to Caolán, during the 1960s and 70s the British government drew up constituency boundaries with the intention of keeping nationalist parties out of power. "Since 1998 it's been a predominately nationalist city. It was beforehand, too, but today our elected representatives finally reflect that."

Sitting to the left of Northern Ireland's broad political spectrum, Sinn Fein is fighting this election with a few core messages, visible on the signs that have been plastered across every town and city in the country: respect for the Irish language (the party was promised legislation to protect their native tongue, but it's yet to materialise); the passing of a same-sex marriage bill; and opposition to Tory austerity.

Caolán in a cafe in Bogside

The guns and guards might (mostly) be history, but last year's Brexit vote has put the border question firmly back on the map. Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, but as it stands they're set to be dragged out of Europe against the majority of voters' wishes. It's not just an issue of democracy: with Theresa May refusing to outline what a change to freedom of movement will look like, Caolán worries about a return to border controls and potential violence.

"I definitely fear the return of a hard border," Caolán tells me, as we take a seat in a local cafe. "It would be disastrous for Ireland, both politically and economically. Some 30,000 people cross the border every day for work. We have worked so hard to get the border taken away – it divides Ireland even further. A hard border through Ireland would benefit nobody; it makes no sense."

I'd somewhat naively thought that, for a generation born after the height of the conflict, the question of Irish nationalism might have somewhat been put to bed; social issues are generally much more significant to young people than those considered more constitutional. But as Caolán stops to sip his tea I look around at the walls of the cafe, which are still lined with pictures of the struggle. Caolán makes it clear to me that Irish nationalism is as important to his contemporaries as it was 20 years ago, and Brexit has only notched up their passion.

"People are sitting around saying Brexit is coming at us, that the north is getting dragged out of the EU against its will. People are rightly thinking about the future," he says. "There's no doubt it's an exciting time to be a republican. Brexit allows an opportunity for us to talk about a border poll, on whether the North of Ireland should break away from the shackles of Westminster and unite with the South to govern ourselves."

James Gailey

If Caolán's views are representative of Northern Ireland's progressive, republican politics, 20-year-old history student James Gailey could be a poster boy for the country's conservative, unionist wing. Just 70 miles separate Derry from Northern Ireland's capital, Belfast, but James' and Caolán's views couldn't be further apart.

Born in the small village of Portglenone, in the heart of Northern Ireland's very own Bible belt, James is now in his second year at Queen's University Belfast, and an active member of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Founded by the deeply conservative Protestant loyalist Ian Paisley in 1971, the DUP is currently the largest party in Northern Ireland, holding eight seats at Westminster and, as of today, 38 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Just like his Sinn Fein counterpart, James Gailey has also been busy knocking on doors.

"My grandfather was a good friend of Ian Paisley," James explains when we meet on the steps of Queens' student union building. "He'd go out and canvas during the Troubles. Our family has always been DUP-orientated, so it went from there."

We walk together along the street and into the building, passing election posters and placards strapped to every lamppost. "You see signs that say 'prevent the dinosaurs from getting into government'," James sighs, taking a seat opposite me in an empty canteen. "Sinn Fein are hitting home with the equality thing in this election – I definitely feel in the minority here." By that equality "thing", James means issues like same-sex marriage, where the DUP have used powers to block progressive legislation time and time again.

Access to abortions in Northern Ireland is also heavily restricted: Sinn Fein's party policy is to allow abortion for women in heavily restricted circumstances, while Jim Wells, the current DUP health minister at Stormont, went as far as saying abortion should remain illegal even in cases of rape. James' views align with those of his party, he tells me, in keeping with his beliefs as a born again evangelical Christian.

Campaign placards in Belfast

It's not just the DUP's socially conservative policies that distinguish them from Sinn Fein; their members are adamant that Northern Ireland is as much part of Great Britain as England, Scotland and Wales. "I'm not a big economics guy," says James when I ask why he's a unionist, "but culturally I feel British, I am British. It's not just a viewpoint I've inherited, it's how I feel, it's constitutionally true. We are within the union and I want to keep the status quo."

When conversation turns to Brexit, James says it's his belief in national sovereignty for Britain that explains why he and his party backed voting leave. "I believe that we should have the right to make our own laws in terms of trade agreements," he says firmly. "I would disagree with a lot of what's being said in the media, the scaremongering about Brexit. I'm optimistic about the future of the UK." I ask why he doesn't feel national sovereignty should stretch to a united Ireland. Once again, he tells me it's because he's British.

We talk about my afternoon in Derry, about Caolán's fears of a return to border crossings and the potential for tensions to flare once again. James takes a moment before responding, but when he does he's measured and calm.

"I can't see a return to violence myself, no. I'd like to hope we don't, to hope we've gone past that. I'd like to think there's been radical change since 1998." When pushed on what he thinks should happen at the border, he simply assures me that the British government will work out a solution. "I can't see it being a major issue," he says.

As we head outside into the evening, campus life is in full swing: posters for the union's gay night line the walls of the building, and outside the Christian union are handing out coffee in return for a Jesus-based chat.

Whatever the outcome of today's election, Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom will continue to be at the heart of political debate. With young people like James and Caolán so committed to their positions it's a situation that remains far from being resolved, and Brexit is only fanning the flames of division further. James' views might be out of step with much of Northern Ireland's younger generation, but other unionist parties like the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) take a slightly more liberal position. Unionism and conservatism won't always go hand in hand.

"Ultimately I can't see the republican and unionist debate going anywhere, even in 20 or 30 years time," says James as we say goodbye. "It's so strongly embedded in the culture of Northern Ireland, and it won't be sorted out until one side caves. It doesn't look like the republicans are changing their mind any time soon, and I'm not going to either."

@MikeSegalov / @CBethell_Photo

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