Unresolved violence in Northern Ireland

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Almost 23 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to the 30 years of violence witnessed by the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the current violent clashes between loyalist and nationalist groups across the country provides a disturbing reminder of the fragility of this agreement. The fighting over the so-called ‘peace wall’ in Belfast is an ironic emblem of the delicacy of peace in these areas and provides a symbol that peace is performative and easy to dismantle.

Politicians and political commentators are attributing the violence to numerous different factors, with the tensions caused by the implementation of the Irish Sea Border as a result of Brexit negotiations top of the list for most. However, in the words of the former top advisor to the government on Northern Ireland Lord Caine, this predisposition to blame Brexit for such issues displays an ‘ignorance of Northern Irish politics’; whilst it is certainly important not to disconnect politics from violence in many cases, it is equally as important not to downplay the threat of these violent clashes by labelling them as amongst the numerous political problems caused by Brexit and thus use politics as a veil for deeper rooted causes of violence.

Indeed, with a 12-year-old child identified as a member of one of the criminal groups involved in the rioting, the root cause of the violence appears to have been precipitated less as a result of the negotiations between the UK and EU and much more as a result of entrenched tensions and disaffection within Northern Irish communities: the violent clashes are not an international but intensely local issue.

The violent clashes are not an international but intensely local issue

The predominance of young people, who were either not alive or old enough to be involved in the violence during the Troubles, in the criminal groups partaking in the current clashes in Northern Ireland highlights that the re-emergence of violence is not solely confined to the realm of loyalist-nationalist political tensions but instead part of a wider and more deeply rooted culture of violence within Northern Ireland which the Good Friday Agreement evidently failed to resolve in the long-term. Surely what this violence demonstrates is that such political agreements are ephemeral if they are not fully reconciled and resonant the communities they concern the most.

The prevalence of a culture of violence within Northern Ireland is evident when we consider what happened to the paramilitary groups in the aftermath of the Troubles. The Ulster Defence Association (UDA) was one of the most prolific paramilitary groups during the Trouble and, rather than disappear, dispersed into discreet criminal gangs after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The South East Antrim branch is a particularly rogue faction of the UDA and at the end of March actually withdrew its support from the Good Friday Agreement.

Whilst this branch is certainly an extreme example of the violence from the 1970s and 1980s that reverberates through Northern Irish communities today (with their murder of Glenn Quinn in January 2020 after he made a throwaway criticism of the group evident of this), the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) believes that the sporadic rioting in recent days in some areas of the country, such as Newtownabbey and Carrickfergus, has been motivated by the South East Antrim UDA.   

True, swift action must be taken to end the violence that has erupted across Northern Ireland. However the authorities cannot stop there. The exponential deterioration of the violence has demonstrated that despite the overt peace within the country as a result of the Good Friday Agreement, the 23 years that have passed since it was signed has in fact nurtured the culture of violence that was demonstrated during the Troubles, with young people inheritors of this violence.

Authorities must reach out to communities to understand the deeper causes of violence and subsequently work with them

The outbreak of violence across different areas of Northern Ireland demonstrates that the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach has not and will not resolve the complexities of the individual issues across the country. Rather than relying on the conventions of a central political agreement (which transports issues to central government and thus distances them from the communities from which they are derived), the authorities must reach out to communities to understand the deeper causes of violence and subsequently work with them to educate all age groups and change the attitudes that contribute to the tensions within and between communities.

The measures that are implemented in the next few weeks will be decisive for the future of Northern Ireland

The stance that local and national governments take and the measures that are implemented in the next few weeks will be decisive for the future of Northern Ireland. What is clear is that this has provided both a disturbing reminder of the past and a premonition for a potential future, both of which need to be avoided.

Image by a11sus via Creative Commons

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