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Left behind by Northern Ireland’s neoliberal peace

Recent events have exposed how Northern Ireland hasn’t experienced peace as much as a cold war. The structural violence, legacy of conflict and democratic deficit can’t be left to dangerously smoulder any longer.

Niamh Ni Bhriain
3 May 2019
Belfast mural protesting lack of action from Stormont politicians on homelessness and poverty, December 2018
Belfast mural protesting lack of action from Stormont politicians on homelessness and poverty, December 2018
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Liam McBurney/PA Images

The murder of journalist Lyra McKee by the New IRA in the Derry on April 18 was a tragic reminder that Northern Ireland’s fragile peace has delivered neither reconciliation nor prosperity to segregated and marginalised communities.

The journalist’s murder has sent shock waves through the island of Ireland and beyond. It did not however occur in a vacuum. Northern Ireland has been caught in a murky grey area where war and peace ebb and flow. In 1998, following over 30 years of political and sectarian violence, the Good Friday Agreement was signed between political leaders from the Irish and British governments and both sides of Northern Ireland’s divide. The Agreement cautiously ushered in a new era. Local communities dared to believe in the words of the late poet Seamus Heaney that “hope and history [would] rhyme”.

Although it paved the way for significant structural reforms, glaring gaps remain, most notably in respect of accountability for gross human rights violations committed during the armed conflict. Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson added insult to injury when he acknowledged the “soldiers who served with courage and distinction to bring peace to Northern Ireland”. In reality though, those same soldiers were responsible for shooting and killing unarmed civilians, and only one of those responsible, Soldier F, will face criminal prosecution for murder. People are growing old and dying without learning the truth or seeing justice for crimes perpetrated against them or their loved ones. The consequences of this failure cannot be overstated.

Tensions and violence in recent months and a failure to prosecute the perpetrators of state crimes, raise a thorny question: what does “peace” look like in a society where the underlying structural causes and consequences of the 30-year war have not been properly addressed?

A twofold democratic deficit

Northern Ireland’s devolved power-sharing assembly at Stormont was suspended in January 2017, plunging the region in to political darkness. In the absence of a functioning elected government, the region is currently being run ad hoc by civil servants with no political mandate or capacity to approve legislative or funding proposals. Political leaders’ attempts to restore the Assembly have been lacklustre, leaving only confusion and a jaded frustration. And the democratic deficit is twofold – there is no sitting government in Stormont, and Northern Ireland’s only political party in the House of Commons in London is the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is by no means representative of the region’s population. The DUP won just 36% of the popular vote in the 2017 general elections. Following Lyra McKee’s murder, political leaders committed to holding fresh talks to break the political deadlock and return to Stormont. However, with the DUP’s politics firmly rooted in hatred towards the perceived “other” in society, there is a deepening sense of frustration with this outdated identity politics.

In Northern Ireland everything is political – from your name to where you live, to the pub you drink in and the drink you choose, to your accent and the language you speak, to the football jersey you wear and the sport you play, or the passport you hold. These politics are rigid and archaic, deeply rooted in the past, yet they continue to dominate the present.

Since 2016, the region has had yet another shadow hanging over it: the massive uncertainty created by Brexit. Northern Ireland voted decisively to remain in the EU. Now, coupled to the rest of the UK, it is being dragged out against its will. The folly of Brexit is nowhere more visible than on the island of Ireland. Mostly English Brexiteers, in their haste to take back control of borders they had never lost control of, somehow overlooked their only land border. In their flailing attempts to dismiss the issue, the British border in Ireland either was not a problem at all or was wholly an Irish problem, missing the point that creating any sort of border structure between the north and south directly violates the Good Friday Agreement. Little wonder that the border has become the most contentious point of the negotiations on how the UK will eventually leave the EU. The House of Commons has come to look like a circus with no shortage of clowns, leaving in limbo the livelihoods and security concerns of communities on both sides of the border, those who will suffer most should any sort of border structure (hard, soft or otherwise) be put in place.

Peace is not just the absence of armed conflict

Ultimately though, Brexit uncertainty is only superficially responsible for the recent acts of violence. The underlying drivers run much deeper. Structural violence, rooted in political, social and class divisions prevalent before the signing of the Peace Agreement in 1998, largely remains. The dynamics across the region are far from peaceful. Although the armed actors involved in Northern Ireland’s violent past may no longer be at war, peace cannot be solely defined by the absence of armed conflict. Laying down arms is an important part of any peace process, but a great deal more is needed for peace to take hold.

Despite the decommissioning of arms and apparent dismantling of paramilitary structures, whole neighbourhoods are still patrolled by loyalist and republican paramilitary groups. “Peace” in this context appears merely to be managed through a hawkish paramilitary style territorial “peacekeeping”, a cold war of sorts. According to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, eight families a week became homeless and were forced to relocate between April 2015 and October 2018 – over three-quarters of these cases cited paramilitary intimidation and sectarianism as the reason for relocating.

Residents targeted by paramilitary groups sleep with one eye open, carefully carving out mental escape routes, should masked men show up on their doorsteps. This pernicious control goes beyond intimidation and threats, as residents are summoned and paramilitary style “justice” is doled out in the form of punishment shootings or beatings for behaviour considered unacceptable. Failure to attend a “punishment” appointment would be tantamount to suicide, so victims present themselves, often accompanied by their families, to be shot in the knees or ankles, knowing that they will likely be left permanently paralysed and in need of life-long care, if not dead. These areas exist in a state of lawlessness, where “justice” is meted out through a parallel paramilitary controlled underworld, where nothing goes unnoticed within the community and outsiders are kept out.

Peace propaganda paints a wonderful picture of peace being enjoyed equally by all sectors of society. But the structural drivers of the conflict are steeped in poverty and class struggles in an ever more globalised, neoliberal world. It’s hardly surprising that the communities that suffered most during the protracted war in Northern Ireland were the last to receive a share of the peace dividend, if they benefited at all. Periodic Multiple Deprivation Research Reports compiled by the Northern Ireland Assembly found that the parliamentary constituencies considered the most deprived in 2001 – namely North and West Belfast and Foyle constituencies – were still the most deprived in 2018.

A generation has been failed by the neoliberal state

Teenagers and young adults from these areas are too young to remember the so-called “Troubles”. But they have been raised in deeply impoverished, marginalised, and all but forgotten neighbourhoods. The rays of hope of the new era of peace that dawned across Northern Ireland cast no light on the dilapidated housing estates and damp blocks of flats that comprise these extensive urban centres. Against a backdrop of low incomes, high unemployment, and limited education opportunities, the dreams and aspirations of an entire generation in these areas have evaporated. A generation of opportunity has been lost, failed by the state.

Globally, since the 1970s, neoliberalism has coerced the democratic majority to the cliff edge, forcing a shift in the balance of power to the elite economic minority. In many ways Northern Ireland’s peace is a neoliberal peace, where the elite classes enjoy their share of the wealth and benefit from the regeneration projects rolled out since 1998, but very little, if any of this wealth trickles down to where it is needed most.

Two decades have passed since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Northern Ireland continues to experience a “brain drain”. Young people still leave in large numbers and few return, particularly among the unionist population. It’s hardly surprising, considering that three of the UK’s worst “jobless black spots” are in Northern Ireland.

Derry has the highest rate of unemployment and dependence on social services in the UK. It’s a situation that can no longer be blamed solely on historical neglect, but on the continued fiscal reliance on Westminster and the grinding to a halt of legislative and institutional initiatives as the political impasse continues. The city is struggling with high unemployment, limited educational opportunities, substance abuse and suicide. Its youth have become increasingly disengaged from politics and the state in any of its facets Stormont, Westminster or otherwise. What does “ the state” even mean for communities who have been abandoned by it, who suffer post-generational conflict related trauma, and are yet to see justice done for the atrocities perpetrated against them?

Neoliberalism is wreaking havoc across communities globally, isolating individuals and eroding the social fabric. In this void, sectarian politics flourish and paramilitary groups and gang violence thrive, giving young people a much desired sense of belonging, community, purpose, and at the very least, something to do. Outside the neoliberal peace bubbles dotted around Northern Ireland, there’s been an increasing sense of foreboding that the smouldering wreckage brought about by a political system that has disenfranchised and failed its people, could be reignited.

Every summer loyalists drape the Union Jack, and in some cases Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) flags, in a show of strength, territorial control, and loyalty to the Crown. They enthusiastically light bonfires across Belfast, decked out in Irish flags and other nationalist symbols, fanning the flames of sectarian tensions across the region. Similarly, members of republican splinter groups, clad in military style uniforms, sunglasses and berets, march in commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising. Although those involved are not masked or carrying arms, the message is unmistakably clear – the war is far from over.

The murder of journalist Lyra KcKee was strongly condemned across all sectors of society in Northern Ireland. Communities came together in an outpouring of grief and in solidarity with her family and friends. During the funeral service, Fr. Magill said that he dared to hope that “Lyra’s murder… can be the doorway to a new beginning”. As William Butler Yeats proclaimed in The Second Coming, “Surely some revelation is at hand” where a new kind of politics is born – one that is built from the grassroots up, that flies in the face of the current top-down, neoliberal political system that has overwhelmingly ignored, sidelined, and crushed the very people it claims to represent—an alternative politics and positive peace. that dares to imagine a new story for Northern Ireland, with its people at its centre.

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