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The Northern Ireland of Old Hasn't Gone Away, You Know

06/03/2013 13:11 | Updated 05 May 2013

Belfast is a changed city. No longer is it the viscerally divided place that it was decades ago. In many ways it's the archetypal western capital: a bustling metropolitan centre possessed of a growing body of outward looking people, coffee shops on every street corner, a splash of fancy eateries, a growing art scene, an abundance of progressive retail outlets and a flowering Northern Irish culture.

Unfortunately there's another, and lesser heard, narrative. Behind the peaceful cosmopolitan façade lies a simmering pot of malcontent. The old Northern Ireland narrative hasn't gone away, you know.

Ever since the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998, parties on both side of the divide have, albeit slowly, attempted to move things forward. And forward things have moved, as I explained at the start. However, a critical demographic have been left behind: the working class and the radicals within.

And my very real worry is that these radicals could turn Northern Ireland back in on itself.

These are persons and communities who refute and reject the peace settlement: dissident republicans on the one side and bull-headed loyalists on the other.

Hard line republicans utterly repudiate the current constitutional arrangement and are wedded to violence. But why wouldn't they? The forbears of their cause now sit in government - former law breakers made law makers.

On the other side of the camp, loyalists see themselves as a community left behind, a people unheard and unrepresented. An unfortunate state of affairs worsened by the fact that loyalism doesn't have the same impetus or goal to work towards.

Where republicans have a united Ireland to gain, loyalists feel like they have everything to lose; and so we see random, incoherent, aimless and utterly chaotic knee jerks and arms swings that do nothing but land self-defeating blows on the broader protestant, unionist, loyalist cause.

The truth though is that loyalist violence is merely an expression of their insecurity and of how uninformed they really are.

What we then end up with is two polarized forces who, physically and ideologically are perfectly opposed. This reality gives very real cause for concern; concern for the peace, stability, prosperity and long term progress of Northern Ireland.

The simmering pot that is Northern Ireland could very well spill over.

Since the removal of the Union flag from Belfast City Hall on December 3 2012, loyalism and people beyond the loyalist franchise have been up in arms. And there exists little evidence to suggest that these malcontents will retreat any time soon.

In fact, there's much reason to suggest that tensions could rise further: prominent loyalist leaders, Willie Frazer, 53 and Jamie Bryson, 23 have been arrested and refused bail on charges of public order offences. The bail refusal falls against news that leading republican Sean Hughes, 51 was released on bail after being charged with offences relating to murder of Robert McCartney in 2005.

These events have now pushed on tensions as loyalists complain that the police have shown bias towards them.

And as violence and tensions have risen within loyalism, so it has risen in the ranks of dissident republicanism. Only a few days ago the Police Service of Northern Ireland thwarted a dissident attempt to blow up a police station with mortar bombs.

Against this backdrop it feels like we in Northern Ireland now stand at a tipping point. As angry hand reaches over angry hand, tensions rise on each side to the point where I have to ask: when will the spilling of blood come? This, of course, would be disastrous. Any sort of sectarian motivated casualty or murder could be the downfall of this all.

I'm not being a gloom merchant; I'm just expressing a feeling that I have deep in my bones.

As a way to conclude I could go into the warm, fluffy language that we in Northern Ireland need to embrace peace and reconciliation and the coming together of the communities. I'm not going to do that. What we do need though is more elemental: we need to fix our education system, give people jobs, give people opportunity and so give people a purpose in life other that fanaticism.

By actually educating and informing people you give them the opportunity to shape their own future. You give them a platform and a vantage point to see the world beyond the infantile and fatalistic introspection that has for so long defined the working classes in Northern Ireland.

I'll leave it at that, but gazing forward I say to you: brace yourself.