Northern Ireland: Back with a future? Reply

This Fall, US Ambassador Richard Haass is back working in Belfast.  It’s a familiar desk for one of the US’s most experienced mediators to get his feet under.  Yet, he recently admitted many in the United States were puzzled as to why he was returning to Northern Ireland.  Aren’t those problems over they asked?Jane McClenahan looks at why he’s there.

Ambassador Richard Haass. Courtesy of CFR

By Jane McClenahan

Aren’t those problems over they asked?

Northern Ireland’s Peace Process culminated in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and led to a power sharing government of the country’s previously implacable political opponents. It was hoped it would end the violence which had been tearing the country apart for decades. In his September 2013 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama name checked Northern Ireland as an example of a “grinding conflict …. where Catholics and Protestants finally recognized that an endless cycle of conflict was causing both communities to fall behind a fast-moving world.”

However, inside the country many are concerned that, fifteen years on, the conflict is not finished and that the country may be falling behind again.  So what has gone wrong? The roots, like in most conflicts, lie in the past.

Northern Ireland politicians invited Haass to chair talks on ‘Flags, Parading and the Past’. That history just won’t go quietly.

While polls show most people have no enthusiasm for a return to conflict, they also have little enthusiasm for their politicians.  There is a widespread dissatisfaction with the power-sharing government led by Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson of the Democratic Unionist Party.   It’s been an open secret for months the two are unable to work together.

Unfortunately, this dysfunctional relationship hangs over the power sharing Assembly and is stifling the decision making process.  The Assembly was designed to include a wide spectrum of Northern Ireland politicians. Noble in theory, perhaps, but it has resulted in logjam and stalemate as parties act out old historical grievances.

These parties are single issue tribal entities formed to be either for or against continued union with Britain. The transition to peace and addressing more normal issues of economics, tax and education has proven difficult for them. Last year, only five acts were passed.

They can’t even agree how to remember ‘The Troubles’.  Discussions still flounder on defining contentious terms like ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator of violence’.  In 2009, two senior Northern Ireland clergymen gave 31 proposals on dealing with the Past.  Politicians couldn’t agree on what to do.

Into this vacuum discord and discontent can roll on unchecked.

Many working class Protestants, cynical about the Agreement from the outset, argue they have not benefited from it.  They see former Republicans, committed to the reunification of Ireland by, if necessary, military means, in positions of authority and lament a perceived undermining of their own culture. Their hackles were raised this summer by Republican parades and an upcoming commemoration for Shankill bomber Thomas Begley.  More parades for Ambassador Haass to address.

Republicans feel there has been a woeful failure by the Pro-British politicians to encourage them to buy into the post Good Friday Agreement world. Yet Sinn Fein too, the IRA’s longtime political wing, struggles to maintain its position as the rightful gatekeeper of political Irish Republicanism against more radical elements who believe the armed struggle must go on.

Whilst the Provisional IRA has laid down its arms, other dissident groups have not. Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris, head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Crime Operations told the BBC in May that “It’s serious… It’s very difficult to see an end of this.”  Violent groups in Ireland have a long history of splitting and realigning. Most recently, in 2012, three Republican groups amalgamated into the ‘New IRA’ – standing against the Peace Process.  Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, himself a former IRA commander turned senior politician, described them as ‘traitors to Ireland’.  Loyalist paramilitaries stand accused of orchestrating much of the violence in Belfast this past summer.

Yet, there is much to be optimistic about. Northern Ireland is a more tolerant and peaceful society than it was a decade ago. The 2011 Census showed residential segregation has declined over that time from 50% to 37.5%.  Both crime and race crime have fallen. The Census revealed the changing demographics of the country.  A fifth of people regard themselves as Northern Irish – a move move away from the traditional British or Irish. Interestingly this includes a small but increasing number of middle class Catholics.

But in parts of the country there is still pretty much no connection between the Catholics and Protestants.  According to the 2013 Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report, about 90% of social housing is still for single identity communities. Not surprisingly this results in a failure to have any understanding about the other on even the most basic level.  The big knock-on effect is that despite 15 years having passed since the Good Friday Agreement 90% of children go to schools attended by only Catholics or Protestants.

Helped by national and international actors, much progress has been made in the country to encourage much needed investment to develop the economy.  Recently, hosting the G8 in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh had enormous symbolism.   Enniskillen was the scene of one of the worst terrorist attacks of the Troubles. The IRA detonated a bomb at a Remembrance Day Service, killing eleven people.  The G8 passed without incident and showcased the best of the country.

However, there is an urgent need to address the substantive issues. These need political leadership.

In October two architects of the Peace Process, David, now Lord, Trimble and Seamus Mallon, received honorary awards awards recognizing their personal contribution to the Good Friday Agreement. At the event Lord Trimble noted that the current Northern Ireland Assembly is “not delivering much to the people of Northern Ireland but its existence.”

Presumably that is part of the message Ambassador Haass has been sent to convey.

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