John, The Butcher. John, TheButcher. Any story about Northern Ireland that begins with that name and moniker promises to revive the memory of the worst moments of a region devoured by sectarian violence. It is not the case. John Morgan, 65, has blue eyes, scrupulously combed white hair, practically spotless striped apron, and with his kindness and jokes he has captivated the two friends who have come in to buy. “As soon as it closes, I will go to vote. From what clients tell me, people have perked up, but slowly. Please note that the polls do not close until 10pm [las 23 en la hora peninsular española]. There is time,” he explains.
John The Butcher is the name he gave his butcher shop a few years ago, at 59 Falls Road. It is the street that crosses, from the center, the west of Belfast. Main territory of the Catholic and Republican population. The one with the most colorful murals, with tributes to the prisoners and fallen of the IRA terrorist organization; to Nelson Mandela; to the Cuba of Fidel Castro; to the struggle of the Palestinian people or that of the PKK in Kurdistan. The one that ex-nationalist prisoners reconverted into tourist guides of a historical conflict travel every day. “If you want information, I recommend that you book a visit in advance,” one of them, followed by a group of about 10 people, replies to the journalist who tries to ask him about election day.
“This community has tried to thrive in recent years. You see more business. There is more life. I think our Unionist neighbors are grieving at the loss of their identity, after so many years in which they exercised absolute control in Northern Ireland”, John expands in his explanations. “That is the reason why they now cling to the excuse of the Protocol signed with Brussels and ask for its withdrawal. But they don’t want to realize that it is the direct consequence of the Brexit that they voted for.”
The story of Belfast, that of the whole of Northern Ireland, is the story of two cities. More specifically, two streets. Let’s move down Falls Road. It is awash with posters of Sinn Féin’s chief ministerial candidate, Michele O’Neill, and of the candidate for the West Belfast seat of the formation that was once considered the political arm of the IRA, Pat Sheehan. The polls anticipate with great certainty that this Friday, when the vote count begins first thing in the morning, that party will be the most voted for the first time, since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 established an autonomous Government and Parliament in the region .
The reunification of Ireland is not discussed in this campaign, although it is the doctrinal heart of Sinn Féin. The past of violence has been erased from the discourse. It is time to point out the high cost of living, skyrocketing inflation, housing problems or the need to build a future for all Northern Ireland. It is the speech repeated to EL PAÍS by candidate Sheehan. Former member of the Provisional IRA. A couple of decades in jail for planting explosive devices. 55 days without eating, when he joined the Maze Prison hunger strike in 1981. Released thanks to the magnanimous concessions of the peace agreements signed by unionists and republicans. Since 2010 he has held the seat vacated by legendary Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams.
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“Any reasonable unionist, with two fingers in front, knows that the Northern Ireland Protocol was the clear consequence of the Brexit that they themselves supported,” explains Sheehan outside a polling station. “I am confident that, after a thorough negotiation, they will be able to integrate into the new government. This land needs the same stability that the rest of the world needs, the one we managed to have for a few years”, says the candidate.
By the way of Shankill Road
The main unionist formations, especially the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), have conspired to achieve two objectives that, according to the polls, are far from being the priorities of a large part of the Northern Irish population. They want London to scrap the Protocol signed with Brussels, which they see as a betrayal that moves them further and further away from the United Kingdom, by establishing a customs “border” in the Irish Sea. And they want to stop the rise of Sinn Féin with a boycott of the formation of the autonomous Executive, like the one they have maintained since last February.
The British minister for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, has driven one last stake into the DUP. Twenty-four hours before the election campaign ended, he admitted on ITV that Downing Street has withdrawn from his Government program, the Queen’s Speech that will be released next week, the idea of unilaterally dismantling the most controversial parts of the protocol . The announcement gave wings to the most radical, those of the TUV (Traditional Unionist Voice), who asked citizens for support to send a clear message to London.
Paradoxically, the most reliable survey, that of the company LucidTalk, it reflects a support for unionism of 43%, if they are added to all the formations (DUP, 20%; UUP, 14%; TUV, 9%), and only 26% to Sinn Féin. But the Good Friday agreement requires two things. The post of chief minister must be filled by the party with the most votes. That of the deputy chief minister, the second. And it can only be governed jointly. The idea that, for the first time in history, the Republican candidate occupies the main seat (although in practice the power of the first and second is the same) terrifies the unionists. And the DUP has not wanted to clarify clearly if it would be willing to form a government in these circumstances.
“If you don’t vote, these people will govern,” announces a mural with photos of former IRA members on Shankill Road, the street that concentrates the largest number of Protestant and pro-British population. In a city where flashes of vitality and emerging economic prosperity coexist with stabbing poverty — passers-by gazed indifferently at a man lying on the sidewalk in front of a Whole Hundred, while two teenagers laughed, took photos and discussed whether he was alive or dead—Shankill Road definitely leans on the side of abandonment.
“The protocol has been the last nail. We were promised that the Brexit vote would put an end to everything and that has not been the case. It is to blame that everything is now more expensive”, protests Ian Shanks, the coordinator in the neighborhood of ACT Initiative. It was an organization that emerged in the heat of the benefits of peace, which intended to offer a future to the ex-combatants of the unionist paramilitary organizations. Now he has also bought the speech of the DUP. His candidate, Jeffrey Donaldson, tried to blame the Brussels deal for the current food or energy shortage. He provoked skepticism, if not revulsion, from the rest of the candidates, who pointed out that the problem affects all of Europe.
The polls will tell whether the Unionist community has decided to make one last attempt to make its voice heard in Northern Ireland. On Election Day, as Sinn Féin cars sped through Catholic areas with their megaphones, not a single speaker or politician was to be seen on Shankill Road. And the election posters of the DUP or the UUP were very high, on the lampposts, to avoid any embarrassing graffiti.