Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Troubles could resume in North of Ireland without peace dividend

The situation in the north of Ireland has crept back into the national media agenda in Britain over recent months.

The reason for this reappearance has been increasing levels of violence. There was the murder of prison officer David Black, rioting around the marching season and bombs being found in various places.

The symbiotic link between violence in the north and coverage in the British media has always been there. Indeed, many believe that it was when the bullets and bombs stopped going off that the north slipped from being a national to regional news story at best.

Issues like the failure of the peace dividend to materialise and the growing tensions below the surface that could result in the Troubles reigniting again have been of little interest. But there is an important story about the north that really does need telling before those bombs and bullets do start to fly again.

The story is that really very little has changed. There are now more than double the number of peace walls keeping the communities apart than there were in 1998. The two communities are more divided than ever.

Sectariansim, racism and homophobia remain prevalent, much more so than in other parts of Britain. The recent furore over wearing the poppy around Remembrance Sunday, underlined just how stark these divisions remain.

Children continue to go to the schools of their faith denomination and are taught the version of history that their particular tradition believes is correct.

As the project co-ordinator of the anti-sectarian unit of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Trademark, Mel Corry said: there is “a benign apartheid” operating in the north of Ireland. The main political parties seem happy with this situation.

Corry believes that the peace process created the space whereby people could be brought together. “Few though are taking advantage of that space,”said Corry, who is worried that as the economic recession deepens and Westminster politicians continue to fail to deliver the promised peace dividend that violence could erupt once again.

If this thesis is accepted, that really very little has changed, then what is there to stop it all erupting again, as austerity bites deeper. The north of Ireland is the most dependent on the public sector for providing employment of any part of Britain, yet the Coalition Government is in the process of dismantling that sector.
The economic indices that existed at the time when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 have changed. Then there was a belief that the GFA would stop the violence, deal with some of the problems and in time Ireland would unite.

The economic drivers of a united Ireland would see to that. Business interests from both sides of the divide would see the advantage of a united Ireland in a European context, rather than remaining as a regional outpost of Britain. Now though with the Republic looking an even bigger economic basket case than Britain, the terrain has somewhat changed.
Many of the youngsters today have grown up in a period of relative peace, so have not seen the devastation caused by violent conflict. If things continue to get worse, disillusioned youth could drift toward the paramilitary organisations that remain ready to restart the violence.

Some efforts have been made to deal wth the legacy of the past but not enough. The new Irish revisionists, who like to peddle the line that the past doesn’t matter, let’s deal with the present and future get too much of a hearing.
Failure to deal with the legacy of the past and genuinely build for a new future will result in the past being repeated. If the economic situation continues to deteriorate to that point then all the ingredients are there for the Troubles to restart in earnest. The warnings from history are there, only delivery of the peace dividend and some serious work by politicians and community group representatives to bridge the ever growing divides between the communities will stop a return to the Troubles.

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