The union flag waves in Belfast today, to celebrate the 31st birthday of the Duchess of Cambridge.

Republicans – who, for the better half of a century, have been fighting to sever their ties to the British crown – are not pleased.

But loyalists too claim to be under siege. Last month, Belfast’s city council voted to reduce the number of days that the union flag would fly at city hall: from everyday, to just 18 designated days. That move inspired a typically Northern Irish response: parades, petrol bombs, dozens of police officers injured, and over 100 arrests made.

Each side claims that the recent unrest is sign of bolstered support for its cause.

Belfast riots

In September, I traveled to Belfast for Maclean’s to report on an uptick in sectarian strife. Again: protests, brick-throwing, injured cops, middle-aged fathers in jail.


Arriving at grad school, I was tickled to find that Brits sum up Northern Ireland’s decades of tangled internecine battling in a simple title: ‘The Troubles.’

What do you study?

Ah, I do The Troubles.

But beyond my vague understanding that Protestants and Catholics had long fought – and that their fighting had ended in a  ceasefire – I didn’t know much about The Troubles. And I certainly new little about how Northern Ireland functions (and doesn’t) today.

My piece from September paints a portrait of today’s Belfast. And it might help explain this kerfuffle over the Duchess’s anniversaire.

That notion—that the country’s Troubles have not quite passed—is hard to get away from here. Though almost 15 years have passed since the last ceasefire agreements were signed, Northern Ireland’s peace remains an uneasy one. Geographically, Belfast is even more segregated than it was in the 1960s. Woven through the city’s patchwork of religious enclaves are almost 100 “peace walls”: hulking stone barriers that separate Protestant and Catholic neighbourhoods. Over 90 per cent of public housing is segregated, and the vast majority of Northern Irish children are educated in segregated schools, leading some academics to speak of a self-imposed national “apartheid.” As Northern Ireland sinks deep into recession, its government spends over $2 billion annually on duplicate social services—one system for Protestants, one for Catholics.