The Northern Ireland Peace Process is in danger of quietly unraveling
It’s a quiet evening in Belfast, Northern Ireland. As dusk descends and the last few people slowly drip out of the town’s city centre, an explosion rips through, creating panic and fear throughout the entire city. Police suspect dissident Republicans, or to you and me, the Irish Republican Army.
But no, this isn’t a report from the 1980s, this is from November 2013. Sadly, it has not been limited to lone cases; both Republicans and Loyalist paramilitary groups have been flexing their once dormant muscle.
Police have been shot at several times, a bus driver was held at gunpoint and ordered to drive a package to a local police station, letter bombs targeting political leaders, near miss mortar attacks, random murders, stashes of weapons found, firebomb attacks on houses, Northern Irish Police Officers, along with British army soldiers being targeted, it’s a nearly never ending list of offences.
This is Britain, 2013. Not some far flung land that most of us couldn’t place on a map, this is not Africa, this is not the Middle East, this is a developed Western European country that has the potential to win back its infamous title of terrorism capital of Europe.
Although much less of the population supports violence as a way to solving the many issues surrounding Northern Ireland, there is clearly still enough support left on both sides for this violence to be building up again. Enough people clearly still think violence is an acceptable form of protest and the best way of creating a better Northern Ireland.
The peace process is slowly unravelling as Northern Ireland is threatened with a new era of The Troubles and one of the worse things is that this article will likely be one of the first times you’ve heard of this new surge of terrorism on British soil. Much was made of the murder of Lee Rigby, not to mention certain elements of both media and politics would like to paint Islam as a breeding ground for terrorism and extremism. Yet how often have you heard MPs speak in the House of Commons about what is happening just over the Irish Sea? Much in line with the early formation of provisional IRA and their early bombing campaigns, mainland Britain seems to care little until the bombs reached London, which is what will happen should the Northern Ireland question be continued to be ignored and the deep rooted social-political issues remain skirted around.
Much more dangerously, the dissent groups from both sides are splintered and small while during the 80s and 90s the British security forces managed to effectively infiltrate the Provo’s structure of command, which allowed them to hamstring the organisation’s combat effectiveness, this is a lot more difficult to do in a myriad of small groups, in fact, this was the main reason as to why the British Army did not arrest large amounts of the IRA, the fear that smaller groups were less prone to arrest and infiltration proved to great for the high command.
Historically, it’s difficult to say that the mostly Protestant Unionist government and the British Army’s actions did not plant the seeds for the formation and major growth of the PIRA, I won’t address all the issues here, but the Unionist government did treat the mostly Catholic Irish as second class citizens, not to mention actions such as interments and the many many other wrongs the government were legally allowed to perform due to the special powers act, laws that made South Africa look like a melting pop of friendly cultures. It is also worth mention the greatest injustice of all: Bloody Sunday. This is all on a back drop of Loyalist murders and injustices being ignored.
To highlight how, even though the military campaigns have been done away with, badly fractured the communities of Northern Ireland are bring me to the nearly unbelievable case of Holy Cross primary school. Which finds its self located, unluckily, on the border of two Unionist and Nationalist communities. Elements of the Unionist community were enraged that Holy Cross, a Catholic school, was near their community. The first protests were in 2001, where Unionists lined the street while verbally and physically attack mothers bringing their children into school. The PSNI had to deploy riot police, supported by the British Army in a scene that could have easily been taken from the Little Rock Nine. Bricks and bottles were lobbed at mothers and their small children as they attempted to dash through the school gates, not to mention several pipe bombs were planted or thrown at the police, who suffered dozens of injuries.
I want nothing more than peace, although I naturally find myself agreeing with Nationalist community (at odds with my Unionist family history) the answer to this conflict although obviously not abundantly clear. Even though there has been improvement since the 80s, the solution has to start with breaking down the segregated areas. I remember once seeing a charity called Football Beyond Borders that traveled to Palestine (among other areas) and encouraged people from both sides of the conflict to bond through playing football. No one is born naturally hating someone, no one is born to hate colour or nationality or religion but locking people away into their own areas will only fuel the hate of the unknown. I remember studying the civil right movement in the USA and reading interviews and the like with Whites, they would often be stating that they were shocked the Blacks were normal human beings. Of course that was a vastly different situation to Northern Ireland, but the principal is the same. No child should have to be forced to walk the long way around because from birth they’ve been told to stay well away from certain areas. People shouldn’t need to live in fear of being attacked because they live on the wrong side of town, nor should people live in terror of bombings from either side.
I don’t have the answers and I won’t pretend to, but there is a growing threat from dissident paramilitaries in Northern Ireland and whatever course we decide to take, the future of the peace process in Northern Ireland lays in the hands of the people who don’t want us to return to the horrors of The Troubles.
EDIT: At time of writing, a device detonated in Central Belfast.
Gareth Shanks can be followed on Twitter. Find him @GarethShanks