GFA at 20: “The climate doesn’t care if you’re Catholic or Protestant”

John Barry is a difficult man to describe. “As you can see,” he explains, “I am half-academic, half-hobbit. I’m wearing shorts and flip-flops in my office!”

The Queen’s University Belfast Politics Professor and recently retired Green Party Councillor likes to keep people on their toes, and to defy many assumptions people make about his identity.

“I’m like the coyote in the American-Indian tradition. The trickster,” John tells me. “I’m from Dublin originally. When someone with an accent like mine says Londonderry, there’s a double take. Or Belfast Agreement, as opposed to the Good Friday agreement, Northern Ireland not the North. I have mischievously said the Occupied Six Counties, Ulster, all that kind of wonderful material for gently poking fun at the open-faced dogmatism of people. I call it ‘troubling the Troubles.”

John grew up in Dublin, in a working class community. He left to work in London in the 1980s, received his PhD from Glasgow in the 1990s, and came to QUB in 2000. “I am that typical Irish immigrant in a small way, traveling about these islands,” John says.

But John remains resolutely opposed to the “two communities” model of representing Northern Ireland, as evidenced by his Green Party politics. “There are cross-cutting issues that regardless of one’s perceived community background one should get behind,” John explains. “Take climate change. The climate doesn’t care if you’re Catholic or Protestant.”

John doesn’t see himself as part of either community. To him, both communities have elements of similarities and differences to his own identity and background.

“People from the ‘Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist community’ are often pleasantly surprised that I have sympathy for what they argue,” John tells me. “I’ve worked quite a lot in the loyalism community. It’s a much misunderstood community. For me, class has always been one of the guiding stars of my academic and political work… loyalist working class needs more attention from our society. There’s a progressive element in loyalism. For me, I’m always puzzled why unionists are mostly conservative right-wingers. There is no reason for that.”

John also feels comfortable among Republican or Nationalist communities. “I see myself as a republican, but with a little ‘r’. Not in an Irish nationalist sense,” John says. “I remind Irish republicans that the very first republican to set foot in Ireland was Oliver Cromwell. Anti-monarchial, egalitarian, focus on the common good — that’s the type of republicanism I’m interested in.”

Although he can understand both sides, John still has critiques of the two communities.

“I think how to frame the sense of Britishness in Ireland needs a lot more work, and that has to come from within the PUL community,” John says. “What does a twenty-first century Britishness in Ireland look like? It can’t be this romanticized post-war sense of a non-multicultural British, and it can’t be simply empire . . . what I call post-imperial stress disorder or PISD. They need to start re-thinking that sense of identity, because it’s no longer fit for purpose.”

The problem of articulating a vision of identity in a shared society, John believes, applies to both communities. “I’m wary and critical of the way republicanism in Ireland, not just in Northern Ireland, has been co-opted into a nationalist agenda,” John says. “That’s nationalism, not republicanism. Sinn Féin’s focus on a united Ireland and the promotion of Irish identity often has little room for a sense of Britishness in Ireland.”

What vision does John have for the future? “My vision for Northern Ireland would include links to Scotland and the Republic,” John says, “I don’t think there’s any real organic link between Northern Ireland and England or Wales. I want to set resources in seeing a potential future evolution of Northern Ireland as party of the UK, or Ireland, or other federalized arrangement of Scotland, Northern Ireland the Republic.

“It’s not because I’m a bleeding heart romantic,” John explains. “Well, I am, but it is true that Northern Ireland is the place where these islands overlap. And that should be seen as a source of strength and interest, and of something positive — while not underestimating that it has been a source of enmity, violence, trauma and so on. But how can a sense of Britishness in Ireland be re-imagined in unionism and reciprocated in a sense of Irishness that isn’t anti-English or anti-British.”

For John, the problem of stereotyping in the two communities is one of the biggest problems Northern Ireland is facing. “Stereotyping prevents talking,” John says. “People say, I know what you think, you’re a Republican or a Loyalist. I know your values and views, and so I don’t engage with you . . . I mean, take Queen’s University. I refused for months to answer the question about my political beliefs, and finally they called my office and as soon as they heard my Dublin accent they said, thank you, we have what we need.”

John thinks that all sectors in Northern Ireland have become entrenched in the two communities model, whether it’s government, media, university or voters. “Once you register as ‘other’, you don’t count. Take my Green Party MLAs. Stephen Agnew put down ‘European’ and Clare Bailey ‘feminist’ and Gerry Carroll of PBB registered as a ‘socialist’. That means they don’t count. Are you a nationalist or a unionist? We have to reform institutions to prevent the reinforcing of sectarian identities.”

But while John thinks that there has been a failure of political leadership in Stormont, he doesn’t let the citizens of Northern Ireland off the hook. “There’s no demonstration calling for the restoration of the Assembly. Are people really bothered by the fact that there is no elected administration?” John asks. “We need to focus on sorting it our ourselves, not running to our savior ‘patron states’. The two communities run to mammy or daddy — loyalists and unionists run to London, and nationalists run to Dublin. And that means there’s a lack of political maturity, like children running to parents to sort out their problems. Focus on an internal settlement.”

For John, the issues beyond the sectarian divides are much more important for the people in Northern Ireland. “In East Belfast, there has been devastating impacts of austerity on citizens, with welfare reforms causing undue distress. In West Belfast, there were the highest deprived wards, largely Catholic wards, in Northern Ireland in 1998. They’re still the most highly deprived 20 years later. What has the peace done?

“There is a failure of our local politicians to deliver the bread and butter issues of housing, education and mental health. We have some of the highest rates of male suicide in these islands, if not in Europe, and it’s acute among young Protestant working class kids. It is the shame of this society as a whole. We are each other’s keepers, and we should be looking out for each other.”

In thirty years, John wonders, will Northern Ireland still be talking about the same sectarian issues. “The year is 2050. What’s the front page news? Are we still going to be talking about the same thing, DUP or Sinn Féin? We’re more concerned about 1798 or 1916 than we are about the future,” John says.

“We’re small. We could do so many innovative things if there was just a vision. . . . but the young people are leaving. The very generation that is there to build post conflict society — and what incentive are we giving them to stay? . . . Part of the nature of Good Friday Agreement is that there are provisions for reform for institutions, and that time is now.”

Despite the challenges John tackles on a daily basis, he’s not unhopeful. “I have fun swimming against the flow,” John says. “Like I say, only dead fish go with the flow.”

Originally published at Northern Slant.

PhD’ing in Politics and International Studies at Cambridge via Queen's University Belfast via Stanford. www.alinautrata.com

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