In this thoughtful and engaging article, Feargal Cochrane looks at Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ from the late 1960s to the present day. He explains why, a decade and a half after the peace process ended in political agreement in 1998, sectarian attitudes and violence continue to plague Northern Ireland. Former members of the IRA now sit alongside their unionist adversaries in the Northern Ireland Assembly, but the region’s attitudes have been slow to change and recent years have even seen an upsurge in violence on both sides. Northern Ireland is still subjected to many interpretations; is it a ‘a blot on the landscape of recent British and Irish political history’ or a beacon of hope for those seeking peace?
What do you think of when Northern Ireland is mentioned on the news? It might be the stunning scenery, the fabulous beaches and golf courses, the warm and hospitable people, or the increasingly vibrant nightlife in the region. However, if you are not from there, it is more likely that if you were doing the classic Rorschach inkblot test, images of Northern Ireland would evoke darker thoughts –murder, bombings, military deadlock, religious hatred, sectarian bigotry and people with an unhealthy obsession with the past. Of course Northern Ireland encompasses all of these traits and tends to be seen either, as a blot on the landscape of recent British and Irish political history, or as an emblem of hope for other troubled regions of the world that are searching for a way of converting their violent political relationships into more peaceful ones.
The question that many people have asked about Northern Ireland since the late 1960s is –why have the people who live there (and who seem so similar) had such difficulty in settling their shared history, their political differences and their contested identities, without resorting to violence? The simple answer to this is because violence has worked in Northern Ireland. More precisely, it has worked for some people some of the time, in a way that democratic politics has not. The formal political structures that existed from the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921 were incapable of providing representative government for 50 years, with the mainly Protestant unionist community dominating the political system and the minority Catholic nationalist population. This incubated a grievance that eventually spilled over into street politics, a civil rights movement and sporadic sectarian violence. Power and leverage lay with paramilitaries in Northern Ireland and politicians in London rather than with locally elected politicians in Northern Ireland, all of which led to disinterest and disdain for the local political process.
For 30 years, all sides fought one another to a standstill in an undeclared war that killed over 3,500 people and maimed thousands more. Eventually the Provisional IRA came to realise that they could not achieve their political objective of Irish reunification by continuing their campaign of violence. The British government came to understand that it could not defeat Irish republicanism militarily and that its previous political initiatives had failed to end the violence partly because the radical voices on both nationalist and unionist sides had been excluded from negotiations. The result was the peace process of the 1990s which saw paramilitary ceasefires declared in 1994 followed eventually by multi-party negotiations and the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) on 10 April 1998.
This April marks the 15th Anniversary of the GFA (and 19th Anniversary of the paramilitary ceasefires) and many people today are asking; ‘what went wrong?’ why has so little changed almost a generation later? The political process remains defined by sectarian division. Unionists and nationalists are still living apart from one another, educating their children separately and burying their dead in separate graveyards. While the political parties have developed policies that detail their commitment to mutual respect between the unionist and nationalist communities, the number of barriers euphemistically referred to as ‘peace walls’ has doubled since 1998. Finally, while the main republican and loyalist paramilitary groups active during the 1970s and 1980s have now laid down their weapons, others have since emerged and have demonstrated their capacity to use violence in pursuit of their political objectives.
So while there is peace and stability in Northern Ireland, it is a reluctant peace. There are positive signs of change and there is evidence that the vast majority of people who live in Northern Ireland like the fact that the devolved government facilitated by the GFA provides a greater degree of local political control and accountability –even if they are unhappy about how that control is exercised by their politicians. However, the magnet of history remains powerful, and social and economic issues can easily get trumped by identity politics, as seen in the flags protests that have plagued Northern Ireland’s external reputation since Christmas 2012. Incensed by the decision of Belfast City Council to only fly the Union flag on a series of dedicated occasions (rather than every day) unionists protested that this was an attack on their British identity, their political allegiance and their cultural heritage. The demonstrations to have the decision reversed have led to numerous public order problems, damage to local businesses and to Northern Ireland’s image as a stable place for external investment. So, despite all of the infrastructure linked to the GFA and devolved government in Northern Ireland –identity remains a tinder box which is easily ignited by the recent and distant past.
The last fifteen years has seen some progress at the institutional level in that the periodic suspension of devolution that plagued Northern Ireland from 1999-2007 has now been replaced by greater stability. However, while the political structures in Northern Ireland have survived, urgent work is needed to make these relevant to the lives and problems facing people in their day to day lives. The sad truth is that for many people, little has changed. While the devolved government and the main parties in the Assembly are busy discussing and framing policies linked to economic rejuvenation and community cohesion, this has failed, so far, to be translated into action.
For the moment, the pull of history remains more powerful for many than does the opportunity of building a future based on mutual respect. When Queen Elizabeth II visited the Irish Republic in 2011, she spoke about the importance of ‘being able to bow to the past, but not to be bound by it’. This remains more of an aim than an achievement as people continue to look backwards as much as they look forwards. However, despite all of the problems that remain, the chances of building a peaceful future in Northern Ireland have been immeasurably improved by the GFA and the political institutions that flowed from it.
Former US Senator George Mitchell, who chaired the negotiations that led to the GFA had a son, Andrew, during the process, and he wrote shortly after they had concluded, that he hoped to be able to take Andrew to Northern Ireland on a future occasion and listen to a debate in the public gallery of the Assembly. There would be no talk of war, because the war would long be over and there would be no talk of peace, because peace would be taken for granted. Instead the political debate would be characterised by the detailed minutiae that dominates parliamentary exchanges in more stable societies. In 2012 Mitchell undertook this pilgrimage and sat with his now 15 year old son, listening to precisely that. While he sat enthralled, his son Andrew asked him after 40 minutes if they could leave because ‘this is really boring’. His father responded ‘yes it’s boring –but that’s the point. To me, it is like music in my ears’.
So, politics in Northern Ireland today has taken on a much more practical aspect linked to the delivery of services, health provision and the spending of public money. However, it has failed to deliver effective governance. The future of the peace process will be determined by the extent to which these institutions are able to connect directly with the lives and concerns of the people who live there, particularly with respect to community sectarianism and identity-based politics. If they can demonstrate a relevance to people’s day to day concerns and aspirations, then the political parties will be able to show that politics works in Northern Ireland. Much remains to be done to achieve this but a start, at least, has been made.
– Article by Feargal Cochrane, the author of Northern Ireland: The Reluctant Peace