In the summer of 2016, about a month before I started university, I received a letter from Northern Ireland’s Oxford alumni association. A gathering was to be held for all Northern Irish students who’d been accepted to the school, presumably so we could strike up an acquaintance with one another before we alighted in England. About 30 of us showed up to the event, which was hosted in the impressive, red-brick Victorian surroundings of Campbell College in Belfast, a WASPish all-boys grammar school once attended for a brief and miserable period (if his memoirs are to be believed) by the young C. S. Lewis. I was one of just two students in attendance from a Protestant, Unionist background who had attended a historically Protestant school. The rest of the kids were Catholics.
Conversations about Northern Ireland rarely pay attention to the well-documented educational disparity that explains this ratio because it’s easier to filter every development that takes place in the country through the familiar lens of warring nationalisms. But the violence of recent weeks, during which young Protestant men in Belfast have been rioting and attacking law enforcement, has at least as much to do with global economic trends as with the familiar constitutional question. For that reason, it behooves the rest of the developed world to sit up and pay attention. Many observers are asking whether or not this resurgence of civil unrest heralds a return to Northern Ireland’s past. A better question is whether or not it’s a forerunner of coming political conflicts that will beset the rest of the Western world.
Commentators regularly divide the population of Northern Ireland into Protestants on one hand and Catholics on the other; but in reality, the division is fourfold. It’s true that there are Protestants who want Northern Ireland to stay in the U.K. and Catholics who want the Irish parliament in Dublin to have jurisdiction over the whole island. But the other division has to do with economic factors: Among both Protestants and Catholics, there are middle-class and working-class contingents. The economic conditions of the 21st century complicate our usual methods of explaining how and why political violence erupts in Northern Ireland.
After Ireland was partitioned a hundred years ago, Protestants found themselves in total economic and political control of Northern Ireland. Knowing that Protestants were a minority on the island of Ireland more broadly, and fearful of Catholic attempts to sabotage the new Northern Irish government, they systematically excluded Catholics from political and economic life. Belfast in particular was an industrial behemoth, and virtually all of the industrialists themselves were Protestants. As a result, Catholics were refused jobs in Northern Ireland’s factories and shipyards in favor of Protestants. The economic bounty of the Industrial Age redounded mainly to the benefit of the Unionist majority, the young men of which could always rely on the production line or the docks for employment.
Seeing the writing on the factory wall, Catholics turned to education as the only remaining thoroughfare of economic advancement. The world of labor, trades, and craft was the purview of the Protestant, so opportunity for Catholics would have to be sought in the classroom. This artificially enforced division benefited Protestants a hundred years ago, but the roles have now been fatefully reversed by the trajectory of economic development.
Thanks to the circumstances foisted upon them by their relative exclusion from industrial life, Northern Irish Catholics have, during the intervening century, built and run the best schools in the country. The Belfast Telegraph’s 2019 list of the best-performing Northern Irish schools includes only one Protestant school in the top ten. The rest are confessional Catholic schools. The two most historic and famous 19th-century Protestant schools, one of which I attended and both of which once bestrode the country’s governing institutions, now rank 45th and 48th respectively on the same list, below 24 Catholic schools.
The reason for this is that the discriminatory practices of the Protestant elite a century ago have spectacularly backfired. The reliance of young Protestant men on an industrial economy for employment is serving them very poorly as Northern Ireland’s economy becomes more globalized and more automated. Meanwhile, the increased number of Catholics who now have a facility for handling language, numbers, and ideas in a sophisticated way because of their traditional reliance on academic achievement is being rewarded handsomely by the information economy. More and more government and civil-service jobs are being staffed by Catholics, and more and more young working-class Protestant men are without a good education, gainful employment, or any sense of direction in life. To a worrisome degree, they are, if I might borrow from the subtitle of the recent book by my colleague Kevin Williamson, “dead broke, stone-cold stupid, and high on rage.”
The stage was therefore set for a return to violence. Working-class Protestants are watching the new global economy select their old tribal enemies for preferment while they themselves are left behind. Certain political decisions might have been the sparks that lit the fire — for one, the decision by the Police Service of Northern Ireland not to prosecute leaders of the militant republican party Sinn Fein for attending the 2,000-strong funeral of an IRA terrorist at a time when lockdown rules permitted attendance by no more than ten people. Certainly, the Brexit deal between Boris Johnson’s government and the EU, which loosened the economic ties between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, also added kindling to the fire. But the ongoing violence in Northern Ireland today has a different root cause than the violence of the ’70s and the ’80s. It’s fundamentally an economic conflict, though disguised by the lingering presence of the old tribal ties.
These ties still play an important role, to be sure. Working-class Catholics still feel a sufficient sense of solidarity with middle-class Catholics — a solidarity forged in the struggle against decades-long legal discrimination — to view the success of their economically ascendant coreligionists as in some sense their own. As a result, they’re not interested in joining in the violent delights of the lost boys of the rising Protestant generation. But that solidarity between classes doesn’t exist to nearly the same degree among Protestants. Middle-class Protestants look for the most part with uncomprehending disgust at the rioting and the violence of their poorer fellow Unionists. After all, they too have an economic skill set that suits the new economy. They voted Remain by a considerable margin in the EU referendum, whereas working-class Protestants voted overwhelmingly to leave. They like the idea of permeable borders, internationalism, and multiculturalism.
Anecdotally, I can tell you that, after Brexit, a considerable portion of them seriously considered forsaking their Unionism because a united Ireland would mean reentry into the EU. (Most of them have recanted this view in light of recent events concerning the coronavirus vaccine.) The strong fellow feeling that still binds together Catholic nationalists of all economic stripes is really the only fig leaf left disguising the nakedly economic nature of the ongoing violence. What’s more, many of the boys who’ve been arrested for perpetrating the violence are teenagers who have no memory of the dark days. They’re simply bored man-children who have no constructive outlet for their time or their energy.
Homo postindustrialus is not, however, a creature to be found exclusively in the public-housing estates of Belfast. All across the developed world, the numbers of these disaffected young men are increasing. In Northern Ireland, the preexisting tribal conflict, which aligns fortuitously with the dividing line between the winners and the losers of the new economy, has acted as an accelerant to violence. But it’s just that — an accelerant, not a first-order cause. The first-order cause is the displacement of young working-class men by the new economy, as recent books by David Goodhart (Head, Hand, Heart) and Alec MacGillis (Fulfillment), among others, have made plain. If Americans do not find creative ways to address this displacement, similar violence will likely break out in the States and across the world in years to come. The risk is particularly pronounced in America, where the bonds of national affection, like those that have held together rich and poor Northern Irish Catholics, are loosening at an alarming rate.
Growing up in Northern Ireland, I thought I lived in a country that was arriving late to the end of history. But as the 21st century progresses, I’m increasingly convinced that the strife consuming this battered little statelet is an augury of the future rather than an echo of the past. I hope I’m proven wrong.