Tuesday, 26 January 2021

Northern Ireland: Drifting in circles, but not drifting backwards

Forensic specialists have now linked the four parcel bombs posted to London and Glasgow in March, to those sent to army recruitment centres in 2014. These incidents, plus the murder of journalist Lyra McKee during rioting on the Creggan Estate in Londonderry on 18 April 2019, are the responsibility of the New IRA. The horror of Ms McKee’s murder, a young journalist at the cusp of her career, should concentrate minds as to both the political failures in Northern Ireland in recent years, and the futility of physical force republicanism in 2019. It should, but that does not mean it will.

The New IRA is an amalgam of several republican currents opposed to the peace process – the Real IRA, Republican Action Against Drugs, plus independent dissidents looking to continue the armed struggle. Its membership and periphery could be seen on the streets in the Easter rioting immediately prior to Ms McKee’s death and during the backlash that occurred following it, a combination of older men who opposed the laying down of the Provisionals’ guns, plus teenagers and twentysomethings brought up on tales of struggle betrayed. It is likely the gunman came from the younger sections, shooting wildly in the direction of police officers near to where Ms McKee was observing the violence. For a period whatever authority the New IRA had in their host community teetered, as protestors daubed the walls of Junior McDaid House, a political centre run by Saoradh, their political front.

Astutely, Sinn Fein, immersed in their ‘#Time4Unity’ campaign, sought to position dissident groups as part of Ireland’s past, not its future. Thus far, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has not brought charges over the murder, and as night falls, dissident groups have been out warning against any support for their investigation, threatening ‘informers’. To allow such methods, and the groups concerned, uncontested space is not an option for the Northern Ireland authorities. The killing of Lyra McKee is one of the most important investigations the PSNI has faced.

What of the political backdrop in Northern Ireland? Three core factors exist. The chasm in political administration, where there is currently no power sharing government, and seemingly little inclination to establish one. This is a vacuum Sinn Fein addresses by seeking to establish a united Ireland. Secondly, there are volleys of rhetoric about Brexit and the border, which occasionally returns Northern Ireland to the international stage. Finally, and most importantly, there is the normality the country has begun to experience this century, compared to the three decades before, where annual death tolls from terrorism of one hundred or more were not uncommon.

There are few more impressive sights than Northern Ireland’s parliament buildings at Stormont. Unlike Westminster, it is certainly not suffering from wear and tear brought on by overuse. In its short history, the Northern Ireland Assembly has been suspended on five occasions, and its key positions have been vacant since January 2017. Political suspicions between the main parties – the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein – and the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal centring on the competence of Arlene Foster, have led to an interregnum that deserves wider opprobrium than it has received. As the future relationship between the United Kingdom (UK) and European Union (EU) is decided, and as the New IRA attempt to kick start their own version of the troubles, Northern Ireland’s politicians are missing in action.

In and of itself, Brexit does not undermine the peace process. No one wants to re-create a border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The EU is not a signatory to the Good Friday Agreement.

Historically, Irish Republicans adopted a conventional nationalist approach to the EU. Before 2016, in European referendums in the Irish Republic or Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein had either opposed membership, or campaigned against further integration. What would be the point of kicking the British out, only to share sovereignty with half of Europe? Its pivot away from opposition to the European project, towards ‘constructive criticism’ has two bases. EU largesse towards the island of Ireland, combined with an education system that stresses the benefits of Europe and European integration, has created a young generation and political class in the twenty-six counties, and to an extent in the north, that is one of the most pro-EU in Europe.

They are willing to overlook disputes over the Treaty of Lisbon or the interference in Ireland’s affairs caused by the troika’s 2010 economic adjustment programme. To achieve a united Ireland, Sinn Fein needs these young voters, and as memories of the 1969-1998 conflict fade, it craves legitimacy in Dublin and Brussels. Secondly, republicans see an issue where British elites are divided, both at Westminster and closer to home within the Unionist majority. Why would they not seek to take advantage of that?

In and of itself, Brexit does not undermine the peace process. No one wants to re-create a border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The EU is not a signatory to the Good Friday Agreement, which is a bilateral agreement between the peoples and governments of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the UK. Nor did the EU play any role in its development. It would be a struggle to name a politician or diplomat outside of Ireland, Britain or the United States who did.

If EU negotiators have sought to make the Northern Irish border an issue on which Brexit could flounder, it is more of an opportunistic approach than a legal one. Whilst social media experts sought to connect the car bomb outside Londonderry’s court house in January 2019 to the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, to do so overlooks a decade of spurts of dissident violence in Northern Ireland, more numerous than the jihadist attacks we have experienced on the mainland.

Despite these outbreaks, whilst Northern Ireland is still a divided society, it would be in error to say it is an openly conflicted one. It is usually possible to tell, certainly in working class communities, whether you are in a loyalist or republican area. The party people vote for is characteristically determined by their sectarian background, even though religious observance has collapsed as dramatically in Northern Ireland as it has in the republic to the south. Prospects for some, particularly in working class areas, remain limited.

In 2010, a Queen’s University Belfast academic told me that whilst Sinn Fein had some presence on campus ‘the communities where the Loyalist paramilitaries are from, they don’t come to Queens.’  But to visit Northern Ireland today, is to visit a country demonstrably different from 1989, or 1979. It is more prosperous and it is, generally, happier. There are far more people interested in the work and ideas of Lyra McKee, than the ideas of the New IRA.

The problem is less that Northern Ireland is going backwards. But it is only inching forwards, and doing so in a political vacuum.

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