The news reports provide a steady drip-feed of hatred – arson attacks, intimidation, riots, flag-flying, flag-stealing, poster-burning, spitting, shouting, and on, and on, and on …
One side claims it is 'celebrating its culture', even though its 'culture' is simply dressed-up sectarian bigotry; the other side vents its anger through squalid attacks on orange halls and the police. And, as ever, the real victims are the silent minority/majority who do nothing. The world looks on, perplexed to see that the 'war' that they were told was over, is still raging on the streets.
Despite the half-generation that has passed since the cease-fires, despite the 11 years that have passed since the Good Friday Agreement, the level of visible hatred seems to be as high as ever – in some respects even higher. Men who were boys in 1994 still hate Catholics enough to spit at them, and boys barely born in 1994 still hate the police and the marching Orangemen enough to try to hurt them.
Within 15 years of the end of the Second World War France and Germany had pooled their iron and steel industries and had already set up the European Economic Community. It took barely 20 years from the end of the Vietnam War for Vietnam to re-establish diplomatic relations with the USA. Most countries coming out of conflict heal their wounds and find a modus vivendi within a decade or so.
So why has Northern Ireland so clearly failed to make real peace? And what is the significance of its failure?
The answer to the first question is superficially easy. There is no peace because there is no wish for peace. The hatred both sides feel for the other is still as strong as ever. But why is this? Why do people who share a small space, who speak a common language, and who have all had the benefit of a reasonable education persist in seeing the 'others' as objects? The mystery of the Northern Irish conflict lies in its complete pointlessness – even a comprehensive victory for one side of the other would change almost nothing for either victors or vanquished. And yet the hatred is such that men can come together to deliberately beat a man to death simply because he is nominally a member of a different religion! The very act of doing so proves that the attackers are men of no religion, and that therefore any justifications based upon 'religious freedoms' (or whatever) are false. The conflict is not about land ownership, or even (any more) housing or jobs. It is a conflict about hatred, pure and simple. Anyone who doubts that should spend a few minutes on Bebo, or look at the pictures of the Eleventh Night bonfires.
If half a generation of mostly-peace has not dulled the hatreds, it is likely that a full generation may not either. And after that generation, perhaps another one.
But in a generation Northern Ireland will be a demographically different place. There will be a Catholic majority in the population as a whole, and the electorate will be very evenly divided. Amongst younger people, and in the west of Northern Ireland, the Catholic majority will be unmissable.
The continuation of the hatreds of yesterday and today into the next generation will ensure that political conflict continues. Politics will continue to be dominated by the divisions between 'us' and 'them' – perhaps becoming even more tense as the nationalist share continues to rise, and as some borderline areas tip into the nationalist camp.
As long as the primitive hatreds continue, the attempts by some unionists to attract Catholics to their cause will fail. There is a basic contradiction in the strategy of trying to recruit Catholics, and retaining membership and support for viscerally anti-Catholic organisations like the Orange Order. The only logical strategy for unionism is to ditch all of its sectarian baggage and to become a liberal economic and political movement – but there is no evidence that it has started to do that.
Every year that passes represents another small shift in the demographic balance. Every inflamed marching season represents another wasted year for unionism, and another year closer to its defeat. There is no equivalent pressure on nationalism, simply because the demographic shift is bringing it a windfall victory.
No intelligent unionist could be other than appalled at the damage that Orangism is doing to their cause. No intelligent unionist could actively participate in contentious marches, or approve of the primeval bonfires, or the lamp-post flags. And yet, this year again, not one single unionist voice has been raised in opposition to the tribal antics of the Orangemen and their supporters. Silence in this context denotes either consent or fear – but neither will do the unionist cause any good. Perhaps future generations will look back in wonderment at the self-destructive stupidity of unionism. Having created the monster of Orangism to provide the bulwark of its strength, unionism is now incapable of separating itself from its creation, and will be dragged down to certain death by it.