Northern Ireland: between peace and reconciliation

Tom Lodge
3 June 2009

Two years since the establishment of its power-sharing executive following the March 2007 elections to the Northern Ireland assembly, the peace process in the territory appears firmly entrenched. The condemnation by deputy first minister Martin McGuinness of dissident Republicans' murder of a Catholic police-officer in March 2009 as the action of "traitors to Ireland" represents the crossing of a new threshold in the journey of Sinn Féin - once the political wing of the Provisional IRA (PIRA) - into constitutional politics.

Tom Lodge is professor  of peace and conflict studies at the University of Limerick, Ireland. He was formerly professor of political studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. He is the author of Mandela: A Critical Life (Oxford University Press, 2006). His previous books include Politics in South Africa: From Mandela to Mbeki (Indiana University Press, 2003)

Also by Tom Lodge in openDemocracy:

"Nelson Mandela: assessing the icon" (18 July 2008)

The absence of any retaliatory violence from loyalist paramilitaries for the killing of two soldiers at the Massereene barracks (7 March) and of a policeman in Craigavon (9 March) - by, respectively, the small groups known as the "Real IRA" (RIRA) and the "Continuity IRA" (CIRA) - might also be interpreted as proof of the resilience of Northern Ireland's peace.

The presence of Sinn Féin at Constable Stephen Carroll's funeral, and the presence of thousands of Catholics alongside other citizens at well attended demonstrations in Belfast and other towns protesting against the double-killings, suggest widespread support for the settlement produced by the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998.

An unfinished project

If the ending of violence is a prerequisite for political reconciliation in Northern Ireland, the project remains unfinished. The Northern Irish settlement is essentially a consociational scheme; it is not designed to facilitate the fostering of a common perception of citizenship among Northern Ireland's inhabitants. The Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin have agreed to shelve their differences about nationhood for the foreseeable future, but this means that their day-to-day cooperation will always be qualified by the absence of a shared patriotism (see Robin Wilson, "Northern Ireland: guns, words and publics", 16 March 2009).

In party politics since 2000, electoral trends suggest a diminishment of cross-sectarian voting for moderate parties, indicated for example by the contraction of the Alliance Party's support from its initial dispersal across the province to its present concentration in Belfast's middle-class suburban outreaches. In the assembly elections in 2007, the operation of the single transferable vote (STV) in very small six-member constituencies supplies no incentives at all for candidates to appeal across communal boundaries. Constitutional critics of the Belfast agreement of 1998 argue that fewer representatives elected through an alternative-voting (AV) system would be preferable because to obtain a majority successful candidates might have to appeal outside their core constituencies.     

Unifying symbols or common enthusiasms that have cross-sectional appeal play no role in Northern Irish peacemaking. Only a tenth or so of the Catholic community feel they are "British" and an even smaller proportion of Protestants would define their nationality as "Irish". Protestants and Catholics even disagree on what they should call Northern Ireland. None of the major local sporting codes have cross-communal participation and even the Northern Irish fans of Scottish and English premier-league football teams are split along sectarian affinities. Different flags fly in different neighbourhoods and children in different neighbourhoods mainly attend different denominational schools. 

An interface reality

Among openDemocracy's articles on Ireland, north and south:

Robin Wilson, "The end of the IRA" (16 March 2005)

Robin Wilson, "Northern Ireland's peace by peace" (11 October 2005)

Richard English, "Sinn Féin's hundredth birthday" (28 November 2005)

Conn Corrigan, "A long march: Ireland's peace process" (23 February 2006)

Robin Wilson, "Ireland's blocked path to reconciliation" (4 April 2006)

Eóin Murray, "Ireland's new shade of green" (2 July 2007)

John Horgan, "Northern Ireland: a view from the south" (7 March 2007)

John Horgan, "Conor Cruise O'Brien: a protean figure" (22 December 2008)

Neal Ascherson, "Conor Cruise O'Brien, the irascible angel" (22 December 2008)

Robin Wilson, "Northern Ireland: guns, words and publics" (16 March 2009)

Plus: regular comment and insightful analysis on OurKingdomA comparison with South Africa is instructive. The South Africans administered their amnesty through a truth-and-reconciliation commission (TRC) : legal immunity was conditional on a confessional procedure that the commission's leadership turned into an important and effective civic ritual. Even today in Northern Ireland, insurgents-turned politicians remain coy about their own histories: Gerry Adams for example has yet to admit to ever belonging to the IRA.

Northern Irish efforts at "transitional justice" have been so far abortive. In January 2009, a suggestion from the independent Consultative Group on the Past that the families of all the approximately 3,600 people who had died in the conflict between 1966 and 2006 should receive a £12,000 "recognition payment" irrespective of their role or background provoked outrage. There was obviously little support for the commission's argument that there should be no "hierarchy" of victims: for its critics: the commission seemed to be suggesting a "moral equivalence" between, for example, civilian victims of a bomb-attack and guerrillas killed while exploding their own devices.

Meanwhile Lord Saville's inquiry into the events of "Bloody Sunday" in January 1972 still has to deliver its report after more than ten years of hearings: anything less than a forthright condemnation of the Parachute Regiment whose soldiers were responsible for the deaths on that day will be seen as a whitewash by even conciliatory Republicans.   

Yet in contrast to South Africa, the Northern Irish experience offers encouraging evidence of police reform. Certainly, perceptions of the police have improved across the political divide. Catholic recruitment into the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) stands at an all-time high at 26% and surveys suggest Catholic confidence in the police has risen to around 80%. Police stations still need to be fortified with steel-mesh and armour-plating, though.  Sinn Féin only agreed to endorse the PSNI in January 2009 (despite opposition from its youth wing). The police have established an Historical Enquiries Team with the objective of reviewing all their conflict-related records so as to provide families of people killed in the troubles with explanations of the deaths of their loved ones. 

In Northern Ireland's second city of Derry, the Pat Finucane Centre, an influential human-rights group, helps families, mainly from within the nationalist community, to engage with the team, supporting them with their own research findings. The centre's workers feel it is a worthwhile undertaking. The team is staffed by officials from Britain who often produce findings at odds with the original accounts of evidence recorded from officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) - the PSNI's predecessor body - and British soldiers. Such an exercise may go some way in rebuilding public confidence in judicial authority. 

Less encouragingly, the "peace walls" that stand between loyalist and nationalist housing-estates have proliferated over the last decade. They have to be constructed very high to protect residents on either side from teenage stone-throwers. Statistics suggest that low-key sectarian violence of the stone-throwing type or attacks on buildings such as chapels or Orange halls has risen.  Much of this violence is located in so called "interface" localities - streets or open spaces that separate loyalist and nationalist neighbourhoods. Such attacks tend to peak in the marching season, the summer months when the Orange Order and the Apprentice Boys take to the streets in their annual commemorations of the "glorious revolution" of 1688-89. 

In mid-May 2009, residents in the Protestant enclave area of Fountains in Derry (Londonderry) were attacked by a group of mostly teenagers, allegedly from the Catholic Bogside. The stone-throwing - which lasted two hours - followed the erection of flags near the interface area, in preparation for the "marching season". On 24 May, thirty miles away in Coleraine, a Catholic community-worker called Kevin McDaid died after being beaten by a group of Protestants, while he was walking outside his house looking for his children.

The initial reaction was that the killing was the result of a spontaneous expression of sectarian hatred prompted by the brawling between rival groups of Northern Irish fans of Celtic and Rangers, respectively "Catholic" and "Protestant", following Rangers' victory in the Scottish premier league. Sinn Féin leaders believe the attack was planned; McDaid's widow, herself injured when she tried to defend her husband, accused Ulster Defence Association (UDA) paramilitaries of being responsible. The legal outcome may clarify the exact circumstances, but the incident exemplifies the realities and dangers of life at the "interface".

A precarious peace

A range of groups attempts to play a mediating role at the interfaces, several of them drawing upon old paramilitary networks to supply volunteers who have the street credibility and local knowledge needed to rein in the sectarian gangs. The Ex-Prisoners Interpretive Centre is an organisation of ex-loyalist combatants, mainly from the Ulster Volunteer Force, linked to the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) which since its formation in 1995 has committed itself to "resolution of ex-republican violence by lines of communication with Republican activists" as well as running various "youth intervention programmes". 

The labour-oriented PUP enjoys only pockets of support, sufficient to win it one seat at Stormont in the assembly elections in March 2007; but amongst the organised groups attempting to restrain cross-communal tension it plays a significant role. In Derry the group interacts with members of the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP), in certain ways its corresponding formation within the nationalist community.  The IRSP has a relatively well organised presence in Derry's nationalist localities though it remains a fringe movement politically, failing to win a local council seat in the most recent local poll.  

In Derry, EPIC's office deals with hundreds of calls a week; its workers claim they come from across the political and social spectrum. EPIC also argues that its efforts were influential in curbing "retaliatory action" from loyalists after the RIRA and CIRA attacks in March 2009. Such claims deserve to be taken seriously. Republican Socialists and Progressive Unionists may have only very limited public support but they probably enjoy more standing amongst those sections of the loyalist and nationalist communities who remain ready to use violence and who dislike the compromises that arise from the Good Friday settlement. In other words, amongst the social networks that could disrupt the peace, these ex-paramilitary interface mediators probably exercise more influence than the mainstream Unionist and Republican politicians.

At the beginning of the troubles in 1968, the IRA did not enjoy much support even within strong republican communities. Heavy-handed militarised repression of street-protest and escalating sectarian hostilities turned a civil insurgency into a broadly endorsed armed rebellion (in the course of this process the IRA itself split and the "Provisional" movement was born in 1969-70). Today the soldiers are largely absent and policing styles are gentler but the danger of an escalating tit-for-tat style sectarian vendetta still exists.

In conditions of economic recession where there is already high-level unemployment in the "interface" localities, left-wing Republican and ultra-loyalist accusations that the Stormont politicians have "sold out" may engender wider agreement then they might have done even a year or so ago. The peace may still be precariously balanced in this still unreconciled society.      

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